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What is Mental Toughness?

Updated: Jan 6, 2019



With so much emphasis and development on the physical aspects of the game of baseball today (and really sports in general), it begs the question: How far can physical training alone take an athlete? High-tech tools like Rapsodo Baseball (that track pitch flight metrics such as spin rate, spin axis, and horizontal/vertical movement), Zepp Baseball (which can track bat speed, time to contact, and attack angle), along with Driveline Baseball (a comprehensive weighted ball throwing development program), and Ax Bat (designed a new handle to increase biomechanical efficiency of your swing) all certainly contribute wonders to physical athletic development in the game of baseball. We even have specialized coaches in abundance these days teaching hitting, pitching, fielding, and sprinting to name a few. But there seems to be a disparity of work done on the mental and emotional development of baseball athletes as compared to the physical developments. Yet, an athlete still needs to somehow take their training and translate it to consistent execution in "high-pressure" situations on the field. Without this skill set, many athletes fall short of their goals and athletic potential.

Whether as coaches, scouts, or athletes, we all talk about mental toughness. Ask ten coaches or athletes about what makes up mental toughness and you will get ten different responses much like: Mental toughness is...

  • working hard to be prepared,

  • maintaining composure throughout games,

  • not getting upset with yourself,

  • learning and getting better from your mistakes,

  • being in the present moment,

  • having confidence that no one will beat you,

  • demonstrating a willingness to be coachable.

All of these answers sound great, yet you can go to any game or practice and see these same athletes and coaches, who gave the above answers, not implementing this at all. Whether it is as simple as a sigh or a drop of the head to a blatant behavior like throwing a helmet or cursing in anger, these destructive behaviors do not represent mental toughness. It would seem more that there is a big difference between identifying traits of mental toughness and the actual execution of being mentally tough. I am sure we can all agree that it is easy to recognize what mental toughness is, but it is far more difficult to implement this skill set without the proper training. So, how does one train mental toughness? Before we can fully answer this question, we need to take a look at our brain. Mental toughness comes from your brain and this organ can be trained like any other muscle in the body for performance.

Your brain houses the Reticular Activation System (RAS) which is essentially a toggle switch between the limbic system and cerebral cortex. The limbic system is reaction-based (think flight or fight) while the cerebral cortex operates using logic. The RAS activates the limbic system when we become emotionally charged, like when we make an error or strike out with runners in scoring position. In these scenarios, we fail our own personal or team expectations (which in all likelihood have been set up for us to fail, but that's a discussion for another day), triggering defense neurotransmitters and hormones, such as norepinephrine, as our self-worth and value are being challenged on either a conscious or subconscious level. This past learned behavior to react in such a way results in a continuous cycle of negative behavior and reactions, as seen in the following examples below:

  • You make an error. You become upset. You are not mentally prepared for the next play. The ball gets hit to you and you make another error.

  • You walk a batter on a debatable ball. You are upset with the umpire. You are not focused on the next batter in executing your location. You leave a ball over the middle of the plate that gets hit for a double off the wall.

  • You strike out in the first inning. You are frustrated with yourself. During your next at-bat all you can think about is how you struck out and how you want to get a hit. You lose focus on having plate discipline and you strike out again, swinging at a ball out of the zone.

There are countless other scenarios of negative, reaction-based behaviors that we have all seen at every level, fairly frequently. The goal is to limit such reactions as much as possible and if we do experience these negative emotions, to be able to shift our perspective and behavior quickly. This is accomplished by activating the cerebral cortex in which reward neurons are triggered, resulting in the strengthening of our rationality and emotional resilience.

In order to activate our cerebral cortex, there are several methods we can use, but one of the easiest and quickest is a psychological practice called Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT). Don't let the term "therapy" scare you as a long and complicated approach. CBT simply implements different strategies that targets solving current problems as we learn to change unhelpful negative patterns of thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, behaviors, and actions.

It all begins with awareness as we need to be able to immediately recognize the result and understand why that result has occurred. From there, we need to be conscious of our immediate reaction/behavior towards that result. Finally, we need to be aware of what our adjustment is to execute our task. The following example easily demonstrates this ability:

Recognized result: As a right-handed pitcher, my change-up was left high and was flat

Recognize why this happened: Before I threw this pitch, I was focused on making the ball travel slower than my fastball, so I slowed down my body and arm action.

Recognizing reaction: After throwing a poor and flat change-up:

  • I sighed briefly and snapped my fingers in slight frustration as I knew I could do better. (negative response)

  • I got back on the mound to try again. (neutral response)

  • I accepted the fact that I missed my spot and went on to addressing my correction to fix the problem immediately, knowing that I am capable of executing this. (positive response)

Recognizing correction: To execute correctly, I need to throw the change-up with just as much intensity with my arm and body as my fastball. I also need to have just as much confidence in this pitch as any other, and know that I can execute this pitch well.

This does not need to be a long, drawn out process. Instead, it usually takes under 15 seconds of contemplative thinking. As you continue to practice this method more and more, you will find that you will be able to go through CBT in all of 5 seconds. The more you practice this, the more you will find that a majority of you corrections stem from a quick mental adjustment as your mental well-being has a huge influence on your ability to physically perform.

A major part of being aware of our reactions and behaviors is simply the recognition of the cause and effect of energy. Generally speaking, when we respond to any event with positive energy, good things happen, or we at least give ourselves the best chance to have a positive result. On the flip side, when our behavior, perspective, or energy is negative, just the opposite tends to happen. Let me be perfectly clear, we as human beings will never be positive all of the time. This is an unrealistic goal. In fact, negative reactions are usually moments that give us the opportunity to learn and grow. Without them, our growth as athletes and coaches, mentally and emotionally, would be drastically stunted. However, when you are aware that your reaction is negative, you can rationally address and adjust this behavior by asking yourself two easy questions: one, does reacting this way help execute my next task? and two, does reacting this way make me feel good? When we are negatively emotionally reacting to any result, the answer to these questions are normally both no. By understanding these simple concepts, we can decide whether or not we are willing to create a different result and feeling.

The important concept here is to know you are capable, to know you have the answer, to know that execution is simply a choice and not magic or luck. Unfortunately, the National Science Foundation published research in 2005 that has found that our brain functions in a negative space as much as 80% of the time, so we are subconsciously programmed to react this way most of the time without even realizing it. Even worse, 95% of these negative thoughts are the same ones as the day before, so we are constantly training our brain to operate in this negative field. Even when we succeed at something, we tend to leave room for doubt when we attempt that same feat again. But why? We know that if you are physically capable to doing something once, then you are capable of repeating the same thing time and time again. Herein, lie mental blocks; the time where it just seems easier to go back to what we are used to, operating in a space of fear, uncertainty, and wishful hope, instead of letting rational thoughts dictate your physical execution. When we are willing to implement positive change (or even a more neutral stance as opposed to a negative), we see immediate growth and improvement. Each time we do this, no matter how big or small, we are training our brain to be more emotionally resilient and rational, changing our subconscious behavior and allowing ourselves to reach our true potential.Although all of this information is valuable, it does us no help if we don't know how to implement it. Outlined below are a few tips for both athletes and coaches in how to readjust our mindset time and time again with consistency to achieve the result that we want and for which we work so hard.

Athletes:

  • Practice the CBT strategy during batting practice, bullpens, or while waiting in line for your next ground ball at practice. After each round of batting practice, each bullpen pitch, or after each ground ball, briefly recap:

  1. The result of your batting practice, pitch, or ground ball

  2. What was your immediate reaction to your performance? If negative, does it help fix the problem and does it make you feel good?

  3. What is your adjustment, either physically or mentally? Remember, this could be as simple as being more positive in your approach.

  4. Decide if you are willing to execute.

  • Studies have also shown that when we refer to ourselves in the third person through self-talk (i.e. "Brian's got this" as opposed to "I got this") results in an improvement of self-confidence and ability to perform under stressful situations. This is due to a psychological strategy called "self-distancing" which allows us to separate from anxiety-producing or stressful events, lessening the likelihood of falling victim to any preconceived fear or doubt. Through this distance, we can take a more analytical and objective perspective. Use self-talk in the third person whenever you are about to perform any athletic task.

  • Don't underestimate the power of visualization. High-level athletes across all sports use visualization as a tool to get focused on the task at hand. Visualization also helps boost confidence of successful execution. Spend a few moments right before whatever it is you are going to attempt to see yourself executing the skill perfectly in as much detail as possible. Then, simply copy your visualization to make your attempt become reality.

  • Ask yourself questions. If you know you are reacting negatively, ask yourself how it is helping solve the problem and if it is making you feel good. Ask yourself what the correction is. Ask yourself if you are capable of executing and if you have done it before. If the answer to the last question is yes, then you know you can do it. Now you just have to go out and be willing to perform.

Coaches:

  • When making corrections, for your athletes, highlight the positive first then move to the correction. Starting in reverse with the negative or the desired correction will most likely lead the athlete to go into a "defense mode" and will not process your correction fully, resulting in another mistake and more frustration.

  • Stay emotionally level and limit emotional-reactivity throughout games and practice. Understand that an athlete isn't trying to mess up and more times than not, they are perfectly aware of their mistakes. Perpetually highlighting mistakes without offering productive resolutions helps no one. For those athletes who continue to make mistakes due to a lack of effort or focus, implement player accountability. Whether that means extra conditioning work due to lack of effort or a decrease in playing time, communicate your standards of effort and explain how you plan to hold them accountable.

  • "I don't know" is not an acceptable answer when asking why or why not an athlete did or did not do something. By the time a child is five-years-old, the brain has been developed proficiently enough to have the skill set of self-awareness and cognition. Having said that, any time after this age, an athlete has the ability to consciously control actions and also reflect on any action or inaction. "I don't know" becomes an easy and lazy answer as opposed to using critical thinking skills to actively recognize behaviors and productively solve problems.

Each day, we are provided with countless opportunities to work on our mental resolve and emotional resilience. By simply being aware of how we react, we are already taking steps to improve. No matter how grand of seemingly minimal our reactions are to any given situation, it is an opportunity to be aware and to analyze the cause and effect of our mindset. Just remember, don't compound a negative situation by berating yourself for reacting negatively. Patience, understanding, and practice are key principles to self-improvement, whether physically, mentally, or emotionally.

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