Yogi Berra once said, “Baseball is 90 percent mental, the other half is physical.” Though his math might’ve been off, he was on the right track. The mind plays a crucial role in an athlete’s success. How else do you explain Steve Blass being a World Series hero, a 19-game winner, and then suddenly unable to find the plate? Or how Doc Brown wasn’t anything special in the regular season, and then suddenly hits over .400 in four trips to the World Series? Or even Joe Montana, as successful as he was, throwing 11 touchdown passes in the Super Bowl without a single interception?
It starts with getting down to what you’re thinking — or not thinking — in the moment, and whether it’s working. One of the major reasons we play sports is to get our minds off of our troubles, but for some, the trouble is the sport itself. You step to the free-throw line and all you can think about — or replay — is every miss you ever had. For others, they visualize every make they ever had. For some, they think of nothing. Like the Nike commercial, they just do it. For Montana, before his Super Bowl–winning drive, it was, of all things, pointing out comedian John Candy in the stands to his teammates. Though it’s fair to say that if you’re doing something right you should keep doing it, some mental strategies seem to work better than others.
Karlene Sugarman, a sports psychology consultant and author of “Winning the Mental Way,” believes it starts with calming your mind. “The thinking was always that players should ‘psych’ each other up,” she says. “They’re yelling at each other, trying to get everyone into a state of crazy energy. But that’s not the best way to do it, according to what results show. It’s about staying calm and trying to focus on what they’re doing in the moment.” But that’s not to say it should be a sullen activity. There has been a growing trend to approach sports with a businesslike mentality: that you have a job to do and need to get it done. Here is where Sugarman gets old school. “That idea of having fun still applies,” she says. “I’m sure there are athletes who succeed without caring, but it’s tapping into what first got them into sports — fun — that gives them a chance to do their best. When someone’s excited about something, it can be as if nothing else matters. Even the pressure.”
One thing many seem to agree on is visualization. Sugarman says it’s okay to think of moments when you didn’t succeed so you analyze and make corrections, but during game time you must remain positive. “The brain responds to habit,” she says. “Replay again and again a moment that turned out the way you wanted it to. What you were feeling, what you were thinking. When it’s recreated in the mind, it’s more likely to be recreated in the physical outcome.”
Dr. Andrew Jacobs, a sports psychologist who’s worked with the Kansas City Royals and the U.S. cycling team, says that success can often come down to overcoming something which can plague anyone: low self-confidence. He writes: “Many of these young men stated that often they were more concerned with what others said or thought about them, than what they needed to do to be more focused about themselves. Self-confidence, which I feel essentially means how you believe in yourself, is one of the easiest things an athlete can lose, and can be one of the hardest things an athlete can build.”
Former Chicago White Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski, known as a clutch performer, says thinking in terms of a bigger picture can increase confidence. “We play 162 games a year, so not all of them are going to go well,” he says. “But if you know your swing works, you know it’s only a matter of time until the hits come. You don’t want to take yesterday’s bad performance into your next game.”
Pierzynski also theorizes that confidence comes from allowing your instincts to take over. “If you think too long on a ball hit in front of the plate, that can be the difference between someone being safe or out,” he says. “You have to think you’re going to come up with the right play and go for it.” Pierzynski has a philosophical viewpoint on his strong postseason performances — close to 100 points over his career slugging percentage mark and near 50 points better than his career on-base percentage. “I think something that’s helped is that I just put everything else out of my mind. I don’t want to have to look back and think I didn’t do what I had to because I got too caught up in the celebrations. It’s easy to get distracted.”
Regardless of who you talk to, it seems to be clear that no mental strategy is a guarantee. The aforementioned Blass certainly studied the gamut of psychological technique, including visualization, even finding success from it for a time. As he told Roger Angell of The New Yorker: “You know, I can almost see that fastball to Perez, and I can see his bat going through it, swinging through the pitch and missing … That’s a good feeling. That’s one of the concepts of Dr. Harrison’s program, you know — visualization. When I was pitching well, I was doing that very thing.”
That was in 1975, not long after a failed attempt to resurrect his career. The article was entitled “Gone For Good,” and whether that should refer to his confidence or ability, no one could say for sure. Unfortunately, not even Blass.
This article is updated from its initial publication in Brain World Magazine’s Fall 2010 issue.