The mental game of baseball is one that every successful pitcher must fight, and hopefully win. Many pitchers focus all of their energy on the physical part of their game, but that is useless if they do not have a strong mental approach at pitching. What I've found in coaching young pitchers is that it's much easier to get their physical skills in shape than their mental skills. It is this extra dedication to a tough mental approach that sets the great pitches apart from the average ones.
Most pitchers have a tough time mastering the mental game of pitching at a younger age, such as high school. A lot of mistakes and poor outings are made from a weak mentality. When these pitchers are confronted about their mental game, they tend to deny it and say their mentality has nothing to do with it. The sooner they can get over this obstacle, the sooner they will master the mental side of pitching.
The mental game consists of not only knowing your surroundings, situations, and plays given, but staying inside of yourself and control what can be controlled. Don’t let small talk like, “Keep the ball down, this guy can hit” get inside of your head. Controlling the mental game means ignoring this kind of talk and pitching without any of this negative outside influence.
Playing with fear must always be avoided. Don’t let negative thoughts creep into your mind while you are pitching. Thoughts of failure, negative “what ifs”, etc should not be thought about. These will inevitably lead to you actually doing this negative thoughts, which will only make things worse.
Confidence is a key factor in pitching. We have to know that we will get the next guy out. We have to know that we are in control on the mound, and that nobody else can affect what you do out there. Pitching with confidence is a key component of pitching that all the great pitchers eventually learn how to do. Having the confidence to go out there and know you are the best can only help you, so the earlier you can learn this, the more effective you can be.
A good pitcher knows how to block out distractions. For a pitcher, a baseball game can become very noisy. You may have coaches yelling across the field, other players yelling to each other, and the background noise of the fans all coming at you at once. This can be a very daunting situation, but must be mastered to be an effective mental pitcher. When you are pitching, it is just you and your catcher. You should not care about what the other players are chirping about, or how obnoxious that guy in the third row is. Just focus on your task at hand, which is pitching the ball to your catcher.
Greg Maddux is a perfect example. Yes, he was fundamentally sound and had a good breaking ball. Yes, he had good control. But, how many pitchers have you seen who have good control in practice, but not in games?
The difference between Greg Maddux and a thousand other pitchers who never made it out of the minor leagues is his poise and ability to maintain his control and his game plan in any situation. The same with Mariano Rivera. Yes, he has a nasty cut fastball. But if you combed the minors, you could find many other plays who can throw a nasty cut fastball in the mid-nineties. But, how many of them can do it with a playoff game on the line, runners in scoring position, an all-star power hitter at the plate, and have the guts to throw it in on his hands, knowing a few inches of miss will leave it square over the plate? Those are physical skills that many can do in practice, but not when the pressure is on in a game.
Physical pitching skills are easily broken down, understood, and taught. Mental pitching skills are much harder to break down and, especially, to teach.
Learning the mental game of pitching will take time, effort, and concentration. You will have to consciously decide to become better at being a strong mental pitcher, and you may run into some difficulty. However, the rewards of being a mentally tough pitcher will far outweigh the effort it takes. Go out there and be a complete pitcher!
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