How Confidence Can Improve Your Game

By Bob Eliot

If you have ever played competitive sports, you understand the concepts of pressure and confidence. Have you ever gotten up to bat in baseball or softball and thought to yourself, 'wow, there looks like there are 20 fielders out there'? This is a situation where your confidence is at a low level. You are basically saying to yourself that there is no way you're going to get a hit. On the other hand, there have probably been situations when you've come up to bat and you feel like there is no one who can stop you from getting a hit. Your confidence is at a peak.

Why does this happen? What causes you to feel confident one day and tentative the next? You are not alone. Major League players go through periods like this too. How is it that Derek Jeter or Mike Piazza can go five games without a hit, and then suddenly 'break out' and bat .500 for the next eight games? This behavior is true for every sport. Players go 'hot' and 'cold' for no apparent reason. If this is true for professional ballplayers in any sport, what about a nine year old playing baseball or softball? Imagine the pressure this child feels when he or she gets up to bat in front of all their friends and family. Add to this that they may be in a pressure situation. Bottom of the sixth, their team down by a run, bases loaded and two out. What is this child thinking about? Are they scared? Nervous? This is the topic I will address in this article.

An excellent book came out a few years ago, 'The Mental Game of Baseball' by H.A. Dorfman (Published by Diamond Communications, Inc.-- call 800-462-6420 to order a copy). In the book, the author quotes professional athletes who have gone through slumps and hitting streaks, and they describe their feelings during these times.

Hall of Famer George Brett's hitting mentor, and the guru of many major league players was the late Charley Lau. The players Lau worked with claimed that he was as much a psychologist as he was a hitting coach. Lau recognized that fear prevents a hitter from keeping his mind free from distraction as he hits. (Willie Wilson, as a rookie with Kansas City, was a fearful hitter. According to Lau, Wilson was intimidated by the big league atmosphere, primarily the big crowds. Note: Wilson went on to play for 19 years and had a career .285 batting average with over 2000 hits.) Lau would first have his students admit to their fears, instead of denying and suppressing them. The fears ranged from being hit in the head by a pitched ball to the very one that troubled Wilson. 'Admit and conquer, Lau told the players.'

Sound familiar? The serious ballplayer feels as if he will let the whole team down if he makes out in a key situation. With this on his mind as he comes to bat, he is probably tense and nervous. Not a good feeling, and one which will make it more difficult to perform at the level he could. Consider that if the game was a 'practice' game and it was the third inning, with nothing at stake, this player would feel more relaxed, and more than likely do far better. So how do we translate this relaxed 'feeling' to the pressurized situation?

First, you as the parent or coach have to reassure the player that failure in a particular situation does not diminish their achievements as a player. In fact, as stated in the book, 'A strikeout, he should know, can't make his world collapse. If he labels himself a failure, his biggest failure is in having a distorted sense of reality.' The failure for this child, would have been not trying to compete at all. Baseball is a game of failure. Major League players make the Hall of Fame by batting .300. This means that they make out 70% of the time, many of which are in game deciding situations. But they always come back to try again. And if they can take a positive attitude to bat each time, they improve their state of mind, and improve their chances. As your player walks to the bench after a strikeout, with his head down, this is the time to speak sincerely to him about how there is always a 'next time' and to bring up the time they got a big hit to win a game, or drive in an important run, or made a nice fielding play, etc. They need to walk away from this situation still feeling confident in their abilities.

In the book, the author points out eight steps to address confidence and performance in stressful situations:

 1 - Examine the situation (batting or pitching in a key situation, for example).

 2 - Assess its true degree of difficulty (has your approach to batting or pitching changed, or is it just the situation?).

 3 - Identify the worst possible consequences of failure.

 4 - Recall the successes we had in similar situations.

 5 - Bring successful past strategies forward ('when you got a hit that last game, how did you feel up at bat? What were you thinking about?').

 6 - Recognize what else the current situation may require (Maybe more practice? Learn how to bunt?).

 7 - Focus positively on those required and desirable actions.

 8 - Face the challenge with confidence in our preparation.

There are obviously other aspects to succeeding in baseball. Certainly, being able to throw the ball at 90 MPH has certain advantages. But as most players will admit, it's not necessarily the most athletically talented people that become professional ballplayers. It's the ones who are confident in their abilities and who are not afraid to fail who most often succeed. This axiom can be applied to younger players as well. Being relaxed and confident will bring rewards in the long term.