The Mind is Always There

The Way of Baseball Finding Stillness at 95 MPH by Shawn Green

the way of baseballThe title of this post comes from a great book,  The Way of Baseball Finding Stillness at 95 MPH written by Shawn Green. You do not have to be a baseball fan to enjoy this book.  I am not one and yet I found this book incredibly compelling.

A coach I respect recommended it as a companion to The Inner Game of Tennis.

I love The Inner Game so I picked this book up. And, it’s been well worth it.

Shawn Green was one of the best hitters in baseball. His career stats are impressive, but that success was not inevitable.

This book describes his journey from a frustrated young professional baseball player into an All-Star and incredibly successful power hitter.

As is true of all stories of success his path was not linear.

Stillness

The book begins with a Chapter entitled “Stillness,” but the start of his career was anything but still.

Green was frustrated. His coach wanted to change and limit his batting style. He and his coach disagreed on his potential and the path he should take.   So he momentarily turned to a different coach for guidance.

The result? He was banished from the team’s batting cages unless supervised.

Pissed, rebellious and a bit desperate he turned to a batting tee in a tiny space on the team’s training campus.

What begins as a ego-driven rebellion shifts to something else:

“However four or five days into it something changed. I began to enjoy it. After the first fifteen or so swing, my mind would quiet and the swings would start to be fluid…. I even made a ritual of placing the ball on the tee the same way every tie…my tee work had started out as a form of punishment, yet it suddenly felt like something else, something more than just a hitting exercise. 

Was it becoming meditation?”

He continued the routine even after showing significant improvement and a return to the lineup.

He stayed focused on his breathing and on the ball. He kept his focus external and concentrated.

The deeper he dug into his routine the less he was affected by other people, critics and fans alike. The more still he became.

Peer Influence

He describes how his peers around the league actually became his mentors and surrogate coaches.  He fulfilled the same role for others.  They picked each others brains in search of information and keys to success.

We meet Tony Fernandez a key influence on Green. He impacted him in many ways, but one method stood out: Fernandez was willing to take a temporary step backwards in the results he achieved in order to take a more meaningful leap forward:

“Tony wasn’t one to put Band-Aids on his swing just to scratch out an extra hit or two when he was struggling; rather he remained committed to finding his true swing.  If that meant going hitless for a game or two by swinging the heavier bat, he was willing…His mere presence had a profound impact on my personal success.”

The book reminds us that we often don’t give enough credence to the role models on our teams or the power of peer leadership.

We need to pay more attention and leverage this more. ( The Captain Class, another recent read, really drove that point home.)

Locus of  Control

His account is a fascinating look at the locus of control in sport. At this point he feels as though he has gained a measure of control over the ball.

I had reduced hitting, an extremely difficult activity, to its most basic form. As a result, I took each swing with full attention.

Previously when a pitcher threw a ball to me, the ball was in control. I reacted to the ball’s speed and movement.  Since the pitcher was the one with the ball I also reacted to the pitcher. Of course, in my tee routine I no longer worked against the pitcher and the ball. Now, there was no pitcher,and the ball was simply sitting there waitingfor me to hit it. I didn’t need to speed up or slow down. …In essence I reversed my relationship with the baseball.

And, on a deeper level,I was learning to step out of time.

This is a critical paradox. He learned the timing of hitting by placing himself outside of time. He becomes both proactive and less reactive. Awareness specifically indicates awareness of the ball, the pitcher, the movements–not himself.

Of course, this has profound implications for his life off the field as well.

Life also becomes calm.

Work With What You Have

Green details the imperfections of his stride and his swing.  But the bigger point is that all hitters, even the best, have flaws in their swings.

The key is to navigate these flaws and “work with what you have.”

He credits the tee work with giving him the mental space to finally solve some of these flaws. He recognized he had always been too analytical.

He was trying too hard to solve problems.

When he got quiet and allowed space, the solution emerged. He got a picture of what was going on.

The actual problem with his swing is neither here nor there to me. The important thing, is the process by which he solved it. This movement into calm, the growing awareness, the solution through intuition.

The lack of force.

The power of simply doing the work.

Green’s solution to his flaws, “Instead of fighting where my body wanted to go, I went with it.”

He, of course describes this thoroughly, but it’s an excellent description of how to get out of your own head.

I think I could have done better with my left foot if I had read this book at 18 years of age.

Here’s a thought for coaches. We often say get out of your head, but do we create environments where people can?

Have Fun and Compete

Another important factor was how much fun he had with the other great hitters. They used competition in training as a form of cooperation.  They enjoyed this and it ingrained the competitive habits that he would need at the plate in real-life competitive situations.  The athletes created these environments for themselves.

“Coaches had always wanted me to hit for power, but, oddly, they’d never told me to practice hitting home runs during batting practice. Instead they’d give me mechanical suggestions as to what changes in my swing or approach would help me hit more home runs, but they never suggested I simply practice hitting the ball as far as I could.

Often the simplest ideas are the best.”

Here it becomes clear that the tee is only one piece of what propelled him forward. He needed this batting practice time to “bring his tee time into the real world.”

Green also does a great job of describing the way the mind can get in the way even when you are aware and experienced at managing it.

As he says “the mind is always there.”

He developed detailed routines and habits in order to manage the mind’s chatter and keep his awareness focused on the pitcher’s movements.

Success got to his head at one point even as more experienced people around him tried to guide him. Without vigilance and constant practice it was easy to slip into old habits and negative spaces. His journey back from that was fascinating and filled with many more insights. He reconciles with his former coach and comes to understand the interaction a bit better.

All in all a really insightful and entertaining read.

If I were still coaching I have no doubt The Way of Baseball Finding Stillness at 95 MPH  would be a useful tool for a thoughtful athlete.

I’ve written about baseball before

One Shot at Forever

A Short list of soccer books

(Disclosure:  The Coaching Conversation is an amazon affiliate. If you purchase a book or anything through here the blog makes a small percentage. Thank you in advance.)

Head Coaches: Don’t Wish Time Away

Valuable Advice

Head Coach

Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” –Arthur Ashe

I just discovered Mike Deegan’s email newsletter.  He writes regularly about life lessons from sports and coaching.

The particular one that came to my attention, “Seven Things You Should Consider Before Sliding Into the Big Seat,” has to do with the transition from assistant coach to head coach.

The transition is not always an easy one.

Continue reading “Head Coaches: Don’t Wish Time Away”

Managing Pressure

Here is an interesting take from last May on the NY Yankees approach to managing pressure.

Managing Pressure

Their mental conditioning expert Chris Passarella would like to eradicate the use of the term altogether and thereby reduce the hold that pressure has on all athletes.

In his estimation athletes create pressure for themselves based on their expectation of success.

Passarella says, “Pressure is simply the cognitive measure of your likelihood to meet personal standards of an execution of a skill.”

In other words, we put pressure on ourselves based on our expectations. There is no absolute pressure situation that will be the same for all.

Therefore instead of managing pressure they are attempting to eliminate the concept of pressure.

Here are a three of the ways that they are trying to manage this:

1. Every at bat is essentially the same.  Focus on how hitters perform in all situations not clutch thereby eliminating the idea of more pressure and less pressure.

“This is a player who performs at his best regardless of the situation. For every homer in the bottom of the ninth with the bases loaded, there are many other identical hits that occur throughout the season without the same fuss.”

2.   Train your focus on your own process and ability and not on the external situation surrounding you.

In order to do this the Yankees make use of “trigger” words while training that they can then repeat while performing. An example of this would be “process” indicating that the athlete should focus on the process and nothing else.

The benefit of this training is found in the simplicity. There is no complex method to master.

By repeating these words throughout the tournament, McIlroy was able to place the same emphasis on each shot. His opening tee shot on Thursday meant as much to him as his final putt on Sunday. Passarella points out that it is the simplest techniques that yield the best results, “It wasn’t a complex scheme that he has able to master” he says. “It’s just reverting back to normal and ensuring that those triggers have meaning. It’s so important to express how you’re feeling in any situation because then you can either stay in the zone or revert back to normal.” As previously mentioned, it is often the simplest mental processes that allow for improved performances during pressurised moments.

3. Immediate feedback.  The Yankees also make immediate use of video for feedback with attention to mindset during situations and not just for technical or tactical assessments.

 

The Great Earl Weaver

Earl WeaverCreative Commons License

Keith Allison via Compfight

I was sorry to hear of Earl Weaver’s passing today. I have written about him before.  He was a big coaching figure in my childhood. Both my father and my brother regarded him as the brilliant manager of their beloved Baltimore Orioles. As a result I read his book which I found incredibly valuable despite the fact that I coach an entirely different sport.

Paul White writes in USA Today about his great abilities as an innovator as well as his strong personality.”The lasting visions of Earl Weaver always will include an irate man with hat askew, kicking dirt and screaming at an umpire. But the Hall of Fame manager was more innovator than instigator.

The Washington Post’s Bart Barnes weighs in on Weaver describing his tremendous winning records, his ability to manage players and the tremendous toll that coaching took on the man.

Allen St John from Forbes adds a tribute to Weaver which addresses the difference between the man and the myth. “We tend to think of Weaver as an old guy, and, indeed, he was the prototype for the grizzled manager in Bull Durham. But Weaver was only 37 years old when he got his first managerial job–only five years older than his star player Frank Robinson. He was only 55 years old when he retired in 1982.”

The Baltimore Sun sums up his career nicely, “Weaver piloted the Orioles from 1968 to 1982, and in 1985-86, earning nicknames like “the little genius” and “the Earl of Baltimore.” Weaver’s teams won 1,480 games and lost 1,060, and his lifetime winning percentage (.583) ranks ninth all-time and fifth among managers in the modern era who managed 10 years or more. Five times, Baltimore won at least 100 games for Weaver, who stood 5-feet-7 but was a legend to his players.

“Having Earl gives us a four-game lead on everybody,” pitcher Sammy Stewart once said.”