The 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.
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 to practice his hitting 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 swings, 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 he started showing significant improvement; even after returned 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. He became still.
Later we learn that the tee is only one piece of what propelled him forward. He also needed a community of peers who competed and shared this batting practice time to “bring his tee time into the real world.”
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 credit to the role models on our teams or the power of peer leadership.
As coaches we might need to pay more attention to this resource and leverage it 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; 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 in his development was how much fun he had with the other great hitters.
The athletes used competition in training as a form of cooperation. They enjoyed this and it ingrained the competitive habits that a batter would need at the plate in real 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.”
The Mind is Always There
No progress is linear though and Green 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.
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