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October 2007
Browsing Archive October, 2007

Choking Part Two

(click here for Part One)

Last week we examined some of the situations where baseball players “choke”, and found that “pressing” usually results in “choking”.

Now we’re going to learn how not to press and therefore not choke.

Prepare – Physically, and Visually

Preparation is the key to success in any sport (or business, for that matter). When you practice, you are prepared, and when you are prepared, you are confident. When you’re confident, the worries go away. Without worries, you won’t feel the need to “press”, or otherwise attempt to go above and beyond your capabilities.

Naturally you will practice your skills before a “big” game — you should be practicing all the time, regardless of the “importance” of a particular contest. As with a “regular” game, you should be thinking about what, specifically, you need to address. For example, your opponent may be adept at stealing bases and bunting; in preparation, you (as a coach) would want to provide extra drills in those areas. As a batter, you may know that the opposition’s starting pitcher has a blazing fastball; therefore, you’ll want to dial up the pitching machine to acquaint yourself with the velocity. As a pitcher, you may be going into a park with unusually short fences; as a result, your plan might be to spend extra time in bullpens pounding the bottom half of the plate.

In addition to your physical practice, mix in visualization. See yourself in various situations and moments in the “big” game. Close your eyes and picture the field, smell the grass, hear the crowd cheering. Always “feel” like it’s a 1-1 game, bottom of the ninth, two outs — so that when and if that situation does come up, you’ve already been there (sort of).

Stay Within Yourself

I think I heard this cliche about ten thousand times during my high school career (this and “Keep It Simple Stupid” were the catch-phrases in sports during the 1980s). But unlike many buzz words, this one has some validity.

If you’ve never heard it, or numbed yourself from its meaning, “stay within yourself” means to to understand your skills and limitations and perform within them. Some people confuse this idea with a lack of effort, but that would be misunderstanding the concept. For example, if you’ve never thrown a baseball more than 82 MPH, don’t go out and try to crack 90. Instead, do all that you can do with that 82 — thread a needle, make it dance, change locations, work something offspeed from it. Similarly, if you are a contact hitter with 3 career homers in 10 years of competition, and you find yourself at the plate with the bases-loaded, two outs, and your team down by three, don’t swing for the fence. Stay within your limitations — as you would in any other at-bat — and do your best to put the bat on the ball. Focus on the pitch, find the ball, get the barrel out to it — from there, whatever happens, happens.

We used Alex Rodriguez as an example of someone in the big leagues who presses in the postseason. He’s arguably the best hitter in all MLB, yet once the playoff start he (admittedly) has a tendency to get away from the best use of his talents by expanding the strike zone (swinging at pitches that are not strikes). That’s a prime example of not staying within one’s self — because part of A-Rod’s success is his ability to recognize and demolish pitches in certain areas of the strike zone, and the moment he changed the approach of waiting for those pitches, he was no longer the future Hall of Famer named Alex Rodriguez. After all, not even A-Rod can hit everything.


Put Things Into Proper Perspective

This can be the hardest part, and really is the root of pressing and choking: perspective. The reason athletes press is because they place undeserving importance on an event. Yes, a particular game may seem to mean everything to you, but stand back from the situation for a moment and look at game for what it is in grand scheme of life and the world — it’s a game.

I’ve used quotation marks in this article when talking about “big” games and “important” games because they’re only “big” if someone thinks they’re “big”. Realistically, how truly “important” can a baseball game be? This isn’t a bullfight or an encounter with a black bear — it’s a baseball game, and no one dies at the end. Even at the big league level, if A-Rod hits a homerun to help the Yankees win a playoff game, it’s not like cancer will be cured. At the end of the game, when the final score is burned into the scoreboard, it’s still a game — one relatively meaningless pin in the haystack of life.

One of my semipro coaches from a long time ago addressed it this way:

“You think there’s pressure in getting a squeeze down in the bottom of the ninth down one run? That’s not pressure, that’s fun. Pressure is when you have a wife, a kid, another on the way, a mortgage to pay, and you’ve just lost your job — THAT is pressure, son, not something that happens in a baseball game.”

Look, we all know that people wouldn’t play baseball if it wasn’t important to them. Of course there is importance, and there are “big” games in our lives. But the point is, if you can feel that apple swelling in your throat just from thinking about the “big” game, the easiest way to reduce the swelling is to reduce its importance — think about where it truly fits into the grand scheme of things, and you’ll likely begin to feel the tension subsiding.


Focus and Control

There may be some folks who don’t buy into the reduction of importance. For some, to quote Vince Lombardi, “winning isn’t everything — it’s the only thing”.

Problem is, few people know the rest of that famous quote. It goes like this:

Winning is not a sometime thing; it’s an all time thing. You don’t win once in a while, you don’t do things right once in a while, you do them right all the time. Winning is habit.

People mistake Lombardi’s “winning” as being defined by final scores and team records. In fact, what Lombardi meant was that “winning” was a way of life, the way you conducted yourself — and if you always conducted yourself as a winner, and fostered winning habits, then in the end you had the best chance of being on the winning side of a final score.

During the course of a baseball game, yes, you absolutely must know the score (and the outs). But it doesn’t help your cause to worry about the score, or to concern yourself with what the final score will be — because it’s out of your control. You may think that you can directly impact the final score with a solo homer — and you can — but you can’t control what the pitcher is going to throw, nor where he will throw it. You can think “if the pitcher throws me a first-pitch fastball, chest high, inside part of the plate, I’m going to hammer it”, but you can’t think, “I’m going to hit a homerun”. There are simply too many factors out of your control (the wind, a leaping outfielder, an intentional walk, etc.).

Playing baseball is difficult enough when you have intense focus — the minute you allow other things to enter your mind (such as the final score), you’re taking away from that focus. For example, much is said about players’ batting averages with men in scoring position. When there are men on second and third, and it’s a tight ballgame, of course you want to get a hit. But if you think that broadly, and think about something out of your control (the hit itself), then you are not applying your best focus to the task at hand.

Instead of thinking about “getting a hit”, narrow your focus to what is in your control: seeing the ball, recognizing the pitch speed and location, deciphering whether you can get good wood on it, and then telling your hands to get the sweet spot of the barrel through the middle of the baseball. Remember you need to think about all this in a few tenths of a second — so that last thing you want to do is cloud your focus with useless thoughts (such as “getting a hit” or the final score). If you are intensely, narrowly focused on a specific task, you won’t have to worry about pressing or choking — your brain won’t have room for it.

Conclusion

Again, it’s easier said than done, but perhaps if you understand why players choke, and how to combat the “pressure” of a baseball game, you will have a head start on playing to your peak performance — regardless of the “importance” (or “unimportance”) of a specific game.

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Why Players Choke

(This is the first of a two-part article)

Unfortunately, I’m a Mets fan, and if you’ve followed their 2007 season, you may have heard about “the greatest collapse in baseball history” — their loss of the NL Eastern Division title despite being in first place by seven games with only 17 to play. There have been many excuses given for their demise, but to lose that many games in such a short span has more to do than what’s happening on the field — it’s something in their minds.

Interestingly, the “other” team in New York — the Yankees — also had a disappointing end to their season, albeit in the playoffs. One player in particular that everyone has focused on is Alex Rodriguez, who is perhaps the greatest baseball player of all-time, yet cannot duplicate his regular season production in the postseason. His playoff malaise has reached epic proportions: in his last 59 postseason at-bats as a Yankee, he accumulated only 8 hits (.136 average). Among those 59 ABs, 27 came with runners on base — and he was 0-for-27 with 11 strikeouts.

How could the most talented man in baseball be so horrific? Yes, players go through slumps but are we to believe that A-Rod coincidentally hits a slump in the first week of every October? Or could have have an issue that it theorized about the Mets — that it’s something in his head?

In short, did these players choke?

Regardless of what you want to believe about Alex Rodriguez and the New York Mets, the fact remains: athletes DO choke. Many players when the “pressure” is on, play at less than their ability. It’s a mental thing. But why does it happen, and how can it be avoided?

Rising to the Occasion – Myth?

Some players have no problem with “pressure”; in fact, they thrive on it. Reggie Jackson — particularly after his 5-HR World Series in 1977 — was nicknamed “Mr. October” for his ability to hit well in the postseason. Current Yankee Derek Jeter has been identified as a “clutch” player, and his teammates Bernie Williams, Mariano Rivera, and Paul O’Neill could “rise to the occasion”. Jack Morris was known as a “big game” pitcher, as was Curt Schilling and Bob Gibson. Why are some players seemingly able to “elevate” their game in “important” situations while others fail?

First, you have to take “clutch” performance for what it really is: a player achieving his potential in what is perceived as an “important” situation. The aforementioned players — Jeter, Jackson, Schilling, etc. — were all very good to outstanding players in the regular season. If you look at their career postseason numbers, they’re not significantly different from their career regular season numbers (generally speaking). So they didn’t necessarily “elevate” their game as much as they maintained it. An example: Reggie Jackson had a career .262 average and hit one homer every 17.5 ABs in regular season; in the postseason, he hit .278 with one homer every 15.6 ABs. Considering that he came to bat nearly 10,000 times in 21 MLB regular seasons, and his postseason numbers cover a comparatively measly 281 at-bats, I think it’s safe to say that “Mr. October” wasn’t significantly better than “Mr. April”, “Mr. May”, etc.

And yes, there are some cases of players who played remarkably better in the postseason, but their stats are based on a small sample of work — and could have been affected more by a hot streak than a mental elevation. The bottom line is, players who routinely “come through in the clutch” are the same players who regularly out-perform their peers.

Identifying and Defining Pressure

So if a Reggie Jackson was great in October because he was great from April to September as well, what is the problem with A-Rod? Why can’t he maintain his extremely high level of performance when “it counts”?

It’s simple, really: he, like nearly everyone else, identifies the games in October as being “more important”. As a result, he buys into the theory that he must “elevate his game”, when in fact all he needs to do is continue doing the same things he always does. The minute a person tries to go above and beyond what he or she is capable of doing — in any sport, and nearly any activity — that person is doomed to failure. For example, how would a featherweight boxer do against a heavyweight? Can you trust an auto mechanic to fix the space shuttle? Do you think a poet can ace a CPA exam?

This is also called “pressing” — putting more pressure on oneself than is necessary to complete a task. Many players look at a particular ballgame, and believe they have to “step it up”. Unless they’ve been dogging it, nothing could be further from the truth. You can’t do more than you’re capable of doing, and if you haven’t been performing at your peak level, that’s a problem with the past, not the future. For example, Alex Rodriguez had just completed one of the greatest offensive seasons in New York history — whatever he did to swat 54 HRs and drive in 156 RBI from April to September would have been more than acceptable in October. Just because it’s the ALDS doesn’t mean Paul Byrd will suddenly gain 10 MPH on his fastball. C.C. Sabathia won’t suddenly discover two new devastating pitches. The ball doesn’t change its size, and the fences aren’t moved back. It’s the same game, and requires the same approach, the same technique, and the same execution that had been repeated for the past six months.

Of course, it’s easy to say — much harder to overcome (for some).

In the second part of this article, we’ll dive straight into the anatomy of what causes players to choke, and how to avoid it (or, “maintain” your game).

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