The Mental Game of Baseball, Control What You Can

the mental game of baseball

Whenever I watch local high school games and I work with younger pitchers it always takes me back to when I played at all these levels. One of the biggest things that I notice at the high school level, after watching nearly 1000 professional games over 7 years with the Indians, is a point my pitching coach made when I was in AA-ball. He said, “don’t try to control the un-controllables, just control what you can!”.  The mental game of baseball is about focusing on the controllables.   Let me explain…

A few minutes later during shagging balls in batting practice he knew I was frustrated.  He came over and talked to me down the left field line. It was honestly one of the best conversations I have ever had about the mental side of the game. He told me that what he meant was that as a pitcher there are very few things we can control.  However, they happen to be the most important, in order to be successful over the long run. He went on to explain that a pitcher can’t control the:

    • Umpire’s strike zone
    • Umpires in the field calling a baserunner out or safe
    • Fielding errors or bad hops
    • Weather
    • Broken-bat single

And most importantly, you can’t control the “Past”.  It is obviously completely uncontrollable, so you have to let it go.

So why get frustrated about things outside your control, or the “uncontrollables”. Then he went on to talk about the more important topics, what he referred to as the “controllables”, including things like the:

    • Pace of play
    • Mannerism on the mound
    • Running game
    • Mentality and attitude for that day
    • Body language
    • Pitch selection and sequence, among other topics.

I don’t think young players understand how big body language can be, and it’s not just in baseball it’s in all aspects of life. We always want to look big and in control, relaxed, and never frustrated. The real leaders on teams always look in control even when they may not be that way on the inside.

When you’re the pitcher, you’re the captain of the team on the field. Nothing starts without you and all eyes are on you. You want everyone on the field and in the batter’s box to look at you like you’re just waiting to completely attack the opponent. You’re the aggressor, don’t forget that.  The slumped-shoulders, palms-up guy who is screaming into his glove when two runs score, or when a broken bat single happens, is not the guy who the teams wants to be led by.

Being emotional is fine for sports. I was one of the most emotional athletes growing up.  You can ask anyone who played with me. But, controlling your emotions is one of the most important things an athlete has to be able to do.  This was definitely not easy for me. It’s a lot easier said than done when you have a lot passion burning in you.

Quick story, one time after giving up a grand slam I punched a wall after the game.  It wasn’t the smartest thing I ever did as a pitcher.  I’ll never forget it.  I had basically allowed an uncontrollable control me. There is a huge difference between being super competitive and being a “punk” on the field.  I learned a good lesson that day.

When I first think of a pitcher that exemplifies this, I think of Indians starter Corey Kluber. This guy literally LOOKS emotionless on the mound. If you are watching him pitch without a scoreboard, you wouldn’t be able to tell if he has a perfect game going, or if he’s losing 0-20.

And that’s how it should be! Now, I’m not saying don’t have any fun and look like a robot. I’m just trying to stress the point that what’s going on behind you and all those “uncontrollables” should not be dictating your attitude.

If I could preach one side of the mental game of baseball to young pitchers it would be to always look as confident as you can, as strong as you can, and as composed as you can. Don’t stare into the dugout looking for your coach after a missed call.  Don’t look for your parents in the stands hoping someone will yell at the umpire for you. Control the game and lead your team.

Your presence on the mound goes a lot further than you will ever think. Body language can not only put fear into the hitter, but it can also help your team playing behind you. I believe attitude is contagious in sports, and YOU as the pitcher are in control of a lot of it. Remember baseball is the only sport where the defense controls the ball.

The past is the past and has no relevance to the current moment.  The only thing that matters is the next pitch.  Control the mental game of baseball by focusing on the controllables.

By Robbie Aviles (RPP Pitching Coach, Aberdeen Ironbirds (Orioles) MiLB Pitching Coach )

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