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Pitching Through Adversity… Can You do it?

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June 22, 2013 – 4:56 pm
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“Giving in” is a term frequently heard in baseball dugouts.  Words can mean all things to all people, so it seems necessary to make a distinction between “giving in” and “giving up.”  I do not consider the terms to have the same meaning.

There is good reason to take the time to make the distinction.  Each of the behaviors associated with the terms stem from a loss of hope.  And people–ordinary people–who lose hope tend to lose motivation.  But hope should never be part of the competitor’s point of view.  Determination should.  Persistence should.  Nevertheless, in their humanness, pitchers have faltered, yielding to whatever sense of hopeless they may have felt.  “Giving in” is a less dramatic, if more frequent, behavior than “giving up.”  Neither is acceptable on a baseball field.

Though the topic of “giving up” will be treated in later pages, the definition must be established here, as a contrast to “giving in.”  The metaphor of traffic signs might serve.   “Giving in” would be a yield sign, “giving up” a stop sign.  As a driver would yield to another motorist, a pitcher, would, for example, yield to a hitter, or to his own emotion of the moment.  Deference in traffic and deference in competition are both defensive behaviors.  In one setting, the behavior assures favorable outcome, in the other setting the behavior generally assures the opposite.

In battle, “giving in” is fighting the opponent ineffectively, because of uncertainty, distraction and/or rear.  “Giving up” is surrender.

The most frequent use of the term “giving in,” as it relates to pitchers, can be heard when talking about the pitcher’s confrontation with the batter.  “Don’t give in to this guy,” seems to be the phrase of choice.  The speaker, usually a pitching coach, can mean any of a number of things, but in the broad sense, he does not want the pitcher to yield to the batter, philosophically and behaviorally.  What he does want is for the pitcher to be aggressive, but smart.  The pitcher, it is presumed, knows what that means in that context.

In May 1998, Orioles pitching coach, Mike Flanagan, spoke about the kind of “giving in” that most frequently has come to my attention.  Flanagan was explaining the travails of pitcher Doug Drabek.  “In the spring,” Flanagan said, “hitters reacted to Dougie.  Now it’s the exact opposite.  He gives up a bloop single, and then he starts thinking, ‘Uh oh, now they’re going to get a big inning off me.’

“You start fearing being hit,” Flanagan continued.  “Then you pitch defensively.  You try to pinpoint pitches.  You miss pitches.  You fall behind in the count.  Then you get hit.”  Flanagan was describing perfectly the cycle of behavior and outcome that has as first cause an attitude of “giving in” to hitters and circumstances.  Loss of trust, loss of hope, loss of aggressiveness.  Flanagan went on to say he saw no flaws in Drabek’s mechanics.  “It’s all mental.”  It usually is.

The mental state of “giving in” is like the fungus of athlete’s foot.  It may be dormant, but it can reappear at any time.  The first sign of its reappearance should provoke immediate attention to the issue.  All pitchers are susceptible.  They wear shower shoes and powder their feet.  Equal attention must be paid to behavior during competition.

A batter/runner does not hustle down the line to first base.  Why not?  Disappointment is one response I’ve heard to my question.  Frustration another.  Fatigue.  Sorry.  Guilty with an explanation, but all guilty nevertheless.

A batter is extremely unhappy with an umpire’s call.  Strike two.  The batter is blinded with rage and has no ideas what he is swinging at.  Strike three.  “Giving in.”

A pitcher doesn’t back up third base after the batter has hit a double in the gap with two men on.  “Brain cramp,” has been an explanation.  See above.  An emotion of the moment was triggered by the gapper.  The instinct for self-pity became stronger than the one for responsibility.  “Giving in.”

A close acquaintance, a major league pitcher, sheepishly admitted to me years ago that, when he became frustrated by errors behind him, he “tried to strike everybody out.”  Can over-aggressiveness be a form of “giving in?”  When a pitcher is forced out of the approach he knows works for him because of circumstances beyond his control, he has, indeed, given in to those circumstances and to the emotions they provoked.

Bad weather, bad mounds, bad luck.  These are but a few of the other forces to which a pitcher can “give in.”  Whatever the force, if it is stronger than his resistance to it, the pitcher has given in.  He may not always have the capacity to win the battle, but he always has the capacity to fight it effectively.  To do less is to expand the external forces he will always be called on to face.  At the same time, he shrinks the spirit within him, and diminishes his chances of being the victor, rather than the vanquished.

What the Pitcher Should Do….

  • Understand that “giving in” takes many forms, but essentially it is a yielding to external circumstance, internal distrust, and discouragement, which trigger unassertive, deferential behavior.
  • Recognize that self-discipline and intelligence are the countervailing forces to fight the tendency to yield to a formidable hitter, condition or emotion.
  • Reiterate the goal of going as long and as hard as he can during his performance , adding “as smart.”
  • During competition, be aware of any undesirable behavior (a “giving in”) and of the thoughts that preceded it.
  • Make immediate mental adjustments based on the awareness, using self-coaching techniques.
  • Be aware that a lowered arousal level accompanies the instinct to “give in,” therefore an aggressive tone of voice is required during self-coaching.
  • Seek courage within himself, rather than ease in “the world “outside.

The Mental ABC’s of Pitching:  A Handbook for Performance Enhancement, pp. 122-124.


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June 22, 2013 – 4:59 pm
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One man with a belief is worth 99 with an opinion.  Though everyone in the game of baseball has an opinion, the opinions of others should be of no concern to the pitcher.  What should matter to him is what he thinks of himself and what he knows about pitching:  his belief system.  If he doesn’t have one, he’d better develop it.

“Man is what he believes,” Chekhov wrote.  If every pitcher (player, person) believed what others have said about him, he would then be defined by those others, rather than by himself.  It is an all-too-common tendency–a “normal” human tendency.  People are often inclined to live from the outside in, rather than from the inside out.  They respond to others’ possible perceptions of them, rather than developing themselves into self-assertive, confident individuals.

It is impossible for a pitcher to be confident in competition if he is concerned with others’ evaluation of him.  He will act out of that concern (“worry” is the word I usually hear).  He will be terribly distracted by it.  As a result, aggressiveness suffers, focus suffers, objective self-evaluation suffers.  The pitcher suffers.

Dave Stewart did his share of suffering.  In l984, he had a 7-14 record with the Texas Rangers.  In 1985, he was 0-6 with Texas and Philadelphia.  He had a much-publicized off-field incident.  The Phillies released him in May 1986.  The Japanese team that had an interest in Stewart told him to stay home.  He was not coveted by Major League organizations. 

Dave Stewart’s belief in himself as a man and as a talent never wavered.  He won the Rangers’ ‘Good Guy Award’ for 1985.  Lesser men would have not shown up at the award ceremony to accept the honor, in light of the public knowledge of the off-field humiliation.  Stew showed up.  He addressed what surely was an uncomfortable audience, and put them at ease immediately.  “Sometimes,” he began, “good people do bad things…”

Dave Stewart could still believe in himself, while not believing in a singularly weak behavior of his.  He could also make the distinction between belief in his talent and recognition of conditions within himself and outside himself that resulted in his not winning a Major League game for almost two years.

Coming to an environment where his belief system was reinforced, rather than challenged, he became the outstanding pitcher and community exemplar he had always known he could be.   (Twenty or more victories in four consecutive seasons with the Oakland Athletics–1987-1990.)

I remember well a wager I made with one of Oakland’s minor league instructors.  This individual had been on the Texas coaching staff in ’84 and ’85.  He offered the wager against my spring training optimism regarding Dave Stewart’s performance for the upcoming season, 1987.  “A steak dinner on me at any restaurant you choose if he is anything better than a .500 pitcher,” he said.  “If not, you buy.”  I took the bet.

We ate Ruth’s Chris in Scottsdale, Arizona, in June.  My colleague had conceded.  Stew’s record was 9-1 at the time.

All environmental factors do not support our belief system.  The challenge is to rise above a poor performance or challenging environment.  It is another very difficult task on the road to self-fulfillment as an athlete and as a human.

During an Oakland Athletics’ seminar on leadership training, I had the opportunity to “set up” one of our staff members–to challenge his belief system as an experiment.  Of course, I felt he would be a good sport about it, and he was.

The situation was set up so as to have three others, two coaches and a manager, in on the experiment.  They knew what was going on.  I stood at the writing board in front of the entire minor league staff.  They were seated in rows of chairs, and the men, involved in the “experiment” were in the front row.  On the board I wrote the number 2; under it I put another 2, with a + sign to the left of it.  I drew a line under the numbers.  So it was a simple arithmetic example:  two plus two. 

The “set-up” staff member was the fourth to be called on.  The first coach, having been asked for the answer to the example, said, “Five.”  The next person, a manager, said, “Five.”  The third “plant” answered, “Five.” 

Now it was the victim’s turn.  Without hesitation, he responded, “Five.”  The room was in an uproar.  The victim was, despite initial embarrassment, mostly angry with himself for selling out his belief.  It can happen that easily.  I then tried to explain the process of having that belief–the “absolute” knowledge that the answer is four–eroded.

The first person says “five” and the victim says to himself something like, “Is this guy wacky?”  The second response of “five” makes the victim look at the example on the board with more “concentration,” asking himself something like, “What’s going on here?  What am I missing?”  The third “five leads to panic, the victim knowing he has to speak in a moment.  That fear of being wrong leads to a collapse of his belief system.

It is a valuable lesson about how vulnerable people can be to forces that may reveal a self they don’t want others to see.  They become blind as to what they want to be, seeing instead what others might think them to be.

To understand the results a placebo, a sugar pill, can get is to understand the power of belief.  Many medical studies support this view.  Psychoneuroimmunology addresses the theory, validated by research, that the body manufactures disease fighting cells if the patient, a person discovered to have cancer, for example, is upbeat, aggressive, and an active participant in his own healing process.  This patient, who believes in himself and in life, is not a “victim.”  he is a battler, a winner.  And it usually is revealed by pathology, during his immune system’s battle with the disease.  His “stats” for survival are by far superior to those of someone who believes in the disease more than in himself and his approach for combating it.

What the Pitcher Should Do….

  • Understand the power of belief.  He is what he believes. 
  • Understand that every person is vulnerable to forces, outside himself and within himself, forces that challenge his beliefs and are capable of eroding them.
  • Recognize that his own belief in himself and in his talent is prerequisite for becoming an elite pitcher.
  • Believe also in his knowledge of what it takes to be successful, as gained from direct and vicarious experience.
  • Remember that this faith and knowledge is of little value unless “it informs every action” (de Duras) he takes.
  • In competition, use his beliefs as an instrument to focus on the task at hand, rather than on doubts that inevitably arise.
  • Review the process of making that adjustment, if necessary.

The Mental ABC’s of Pitching:  A Handbook for Performance Enhancement, pp.32-34.


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June 23, 2013 – 7:00 am
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If people are, indeed, what they think, the importance of an athlete monitoring his thoughts should be clear.  And if belief is an engine, prediction is a fuel.  A pitcher who predicts outcome–for better or for worse–is preparing himself and his muscles to play into that prediction.

Physicians and psychologists–and research–all confirm that a patient’s belief in the likelihood of his healing will significantly affect his health.  There is psychological and physiological power in prophecy.  The self-fulfilling prophecy is so named because of the correlation between the belief and the behavior.  If a pitcher says something is going to happen, he will behave in such a way as to confirm his prophecy.  In baseball, it often seems, more often for worse than for better.

The pitcher with a healthier attitude is more apt to see positive outcomes than negative.  He will therefore use more self-affirming language and focus positively on what he wants to do, rather than on forces that will inevitably bring about adverse consequences.

The tendency is linked to control, responsibility, mental discipline–positivism and/or negativism, to name a few related topics.  A pitcher’s perspective will determine the nature and direction of his prophecy. 

Sitting in a dugout on a May afternoon at Phoenix Municipal Stadium, in 1985, I was chatting casually with the Tacoma Tigers (Oakland organization) Triple-A pitcher, Steve Mura.  Mura was a 20 year-old veteran who had spent six seasons in the big leagues, winning 12 games for the 1982 Cardinals.  A bright, dependable person and a pitcher, Mura was the scheduled starter for this night’s game.

He shook his head silently, and I asked him what that meant.  “I can never win on this mound, he said.

The reader will be spared the entire lecture, but my first response was to the language Mura had employed.  “There is a difference,” I said, “between, “I have not won and I cannot win…”  And I expanded the point.

When questioned further, Mura complained about the height and slope of the mound.  I asked what kind of adjustments he could make because of it.  Being intelligent, he thought for a while and produced a strategy.  He never had–and he couldn’t understand why that had been the case.

“You don’t think about strategies when you think that outcome is inevitable,” I said.  “That’s what self-fulfilling prophecies are all about.  You’ve pitched right into your certainty that you can’t pitch here.”  And so on.

Mura pitched seven innings that night, giving up no runs on two hits.  He threw the ball well.  After the game, he was more embarrassed than elated.  Understandably so.

Many pitchers have held similar points of view.  Early in his career, Greg Maddux felt he couldn’t pitch well against a particular team in the eastern Division, and felt he just had to “throw my glove out there,” and he would beat another particular team in the same division.

Day games, bad weather, opposing pitchers, opposing hitters–all present possibilities for formulating prophecies.  More often than not, it is a negative prophecy.  “I can’t, “It’s going to be one of those days,” “I’ve got no chance,” “This isn’t going to be pretty…”  These are the phrases of predicted doom, almost certain defeat.

On the other hand, having a positive anticipation of outcome will enhance a pitcher’s belief system and likelihood for success.  That is fine.  But an indiscriminate and determined approach to every external factor will, to my mind, best serve a pitcher in his desire to be consistent and responsible for his own performance.  Rather than regarding the forces of fate and outcome, he will focus on task and behavior.

In other words, it is better for a pitcher to believe in positive outcome than negative outcome.  But it is best for him to believe in his talent and his ability to make adjustments and execute pitches.

What the Pitcher Should Do….

  • Understand the power of his belief system.
  • Anticipate positive behavior, irrespective of external factors.
  • Make necessary adjustments based on external factors, rather than predicting failure because of them.
  • Listen to the language he employs.
  • Be certain to use self-affirming, functional language, rather than the self-defeating language of negative prophecy.
  • Focus on behavior and task, rather than on circumstance and possible outcome.

The Mental ABC’s of Pitching:  A Handbook for Performance Enhancement, pp. 212-213.


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June 23, 2013 – 8:17 am
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Breathe or die,” I warn pitchers.  They don’t need the literal warning.  It is simply a verbal key, reminding a pitcher to pay attention to the “when” of breathing and the “where.”  The pitchers know how, and they know why.  Yet some tend to forget everything they know in the heat of battle.  It only seems to happen during periods of tension–when the relaxation technique is most required.

Anyone who has ever been to a movie thriller has had a chance to understand the relationship between tension and inhibited breathing patterns.  For example, during a Stephan King film, an ax is held high, the killer poised to strike.  Down comes the ax; off comes the head…The scene ends abruptly.  Cut away to a pastoral scene now, quiet, peaceful.  An audible gasp by the audience.  People had been holding their collective breath.  The cutaway relieved the tension; they could breathe again.

I have seen pitchers hyperventilate during competition, the result of racing thoughts and a general disorientation.  The hyperventilation (shortness of breath) has mental causes and physiological effects.  Muscles tense up; the arm does not have a fluid motion.  The delivery breaks down:  coordination, range of motion, balance, timing, power, and accuracy are adversely affected.  All this is triggered first by what the mind has focused on (danger) and, then, the unsatisfactory ratio of carbon dioxide to oxygen in the blood stream.

To use the race car metaphor once again, carbon dioxide acts as a brake; oxygen acts as an accelerator.  Carbon dioxide slams down on muscles; oxygen propels them smoothly.  When exhaling deeply, pitchers release carbon dioxide from their blood stream and allow oxygen to take over.

The last act of downhill Olympic skiers, before they push off for their run, is to exhale deeply.  Most basketball players do the same, before taking a foul shot.

Pitchers often forget.  They breathe, for certain.  But during crisis, many think about the “falling ax,” and their breathing either becomes shallow or it stops.  The skiers and foul shooters are not in the midst of action.  Their breathing proceeds it.  And that, too, should be the case with pitchers.  Breathing should be part of their preparation on the mound–on the rubber–before each pitch.  As with every other good habit, the more consistent the breathing pattern, the more consistent the total approach.

How, specifically, can breathing help a pitcher’s approach?  First, it relieves muscular tension and enables the pitcher to maintain his typical/mechanical behaviors.  Second, it will aid the pitcher in calming himself.  In slowing himself down.  The tendency of a pitcher in trouble is to rush–to speed up his tempo with his arm, and his release point will be too high.  As will the pitch.  Power, as mentioned above, will be lost.  But the major loss will be his ability to slow down his thoughts.  how many times can such a pitcher be seen letting out a gasp when the catcher is returning the ball?  Many times.  He has no chance of making appropriate adjustments because his mind is racing.  He has forgotten to breathe, and he will forget to get off the mound to fix himself.

It is easiest to create a pattern, a habit, of breathing if it is practiced.  And it is easy to practice.  It can be done in a pitcher’s room and should be done during his side work in the bullpen.  Working out of a stretch is conducive to developing a natural, deep exhalation.  As the pitcher brings his arms down slowly in the stretch, he can slowly let air out from his mouth.  It is a naturally coordinated procedure.  Working out of the windup, a pitcher can look in the catcher, take his sign, exhale slowly and then begin his delivery.

Effective breathing is not gasping.  It is not necessarily a discernible action.  It should be a regular one.  A number of pitchers have involved themselves in martial arts training, the better to regulate and develop effective breathing patterns.  Dave Stewart was a prime example.  Reliever Robb Nen is one of the most consistent and regulated “breathers” among pitchers.  (As a closer, he always works out of a stretch.)  It is the first aspect of his approach he checks, when he’s not satisfied with a performance during which might have rushed himself.

Each year, it seems, more pitchers learn to incorporate patterned breathing into their approach.  It becomes obvious to them that random breathing is not as helpful to them as regulated breathing.  Or no breathing at all.

What the Pitcher Should Do….

  • Understand the breathing patterns–or no pattern, at all–have physiological effects on him during performance.
  • Recognize what these effects are
  • Realize that breathing will involuntarily change during times of crisis/tension.
  • Practice creating a consistent pattern of breathing before delivering each pitch, in order to relax his muscles and himself.
  • Stand in front of the mirror in his room to see what seems to be best for him, and to feel what seems to most natural.
  • Experiment in the bullpen, until he is satisfied with his technique.
  • Use it before every delivery, in order to integrate it fully into his approach.
  • Check himself regularly, when making adjustments during the game and when reviewing behavior after the game.

The Mental ABC’s of Pitching:  A Handbook for Performance Enhancement, pp.  42-44.

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