Baseball is a mental game, so is life
Yogi Berra once said, “Baseball is 90% mental and the other half is physical.” I’ve heard business leaders and teachers say that everything is 98% mental and 2% technique. No matter which percentage you go with, everyone that talks about the mental part of things agrees that the largest majority of what it takes to succeed is mental and the technique, while a very small portion, is still extremely important. This formula can be applied to anything in life, not just baseball.
Let’s start with the 2%. The 2% is your physical skills that you learn. It’s your execution or actions. In baseball, this is your ability to field the ball, catch, throw, hit a ball, etc. You cannot succeed without the 2% and you spend hours upon hours practicing the 2%, but it is only 2% for a reason. I have seen players that have all the talent in the world on the baseball field. They execute perfectly in tryouts, practice like they are going to be the next superstar, and completely lose it when it’s game time. They don’t even look like the same player in the game. The reason for this is because their 2% is not enough. They have to tap into the 98%.
Some people call the 98% Baseball IQ, some call it Situational Awareness; some call it thought process or just simply the way you think. Whatever you call it, it involves knowing what to do in different situations, decision-making on the fly, and your overall thought-process when approaching the game. Babe Ruth was quoted talking about his approach to batting saying, “Every strike brings me closer to the next home run.” The Babe’s thought-process was very similar to the mental approach of Thomas Edison when inventing the light bulb. Edison said, “Many of life's failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.” A lot of players get down on themselves when they have an at bat that doesn’t go the way they want. They strikeout or ground out and get down on themselves. Even the most mentally tough player can start to waiver if they have a string of bad at bats or mistakes in the field. Babe Ruth treating every strike as a step closer to his next home run is part of the reason he became one of the greatest hitters of all time. He did not see a strike as failure, just as Edison did not see each of his attempts to make the light bulb work as failure.
“I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.”
Sometimes, it only takes once to be a success, like with the light bulb. But in baseball, you have to succeed over and over again. Baseball is essentially a string of failures with a sprinkling of success. Think about a player's batting average. The greatest players to ever play the game have batting averages in the .300s. Ty Cobb has the highest career batting average with .366. Ted Williams, a Red Sox legend, hit a career .344. Babe Ruth hit .342. Joe DiMaggio, another player whose name will live on in the game, hit .325.
José Altuve and Miguel Cabrera, some of the more current players that have made a major impact in baseball, hit .315. Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier and opened baseball up for future Hall of Fame players and was a Hall of Fame player himself, hit .311. And two of the greats to play centerfield that scared pitchers when they stepped in the box, Mike Trout and Ken Griffey Jr., hit .305 and .284.
So what’s the point? There are many others I could mention, you may be thinking of some I left off the list. But these players are all Best of the Best in baseball and none of them batted over .400. That means that every one of the best baseball players to ever play the game, without exception failed at the plate more than 60% of the time. Think about that for a minute. What have you done in your life that you gave up or got discouraged after failing just 20% of the time. Ken Griffey Jr. was a first ballot Hall of Famer with the second highest percentage of votes of all time with 99.32% (437 out of 440 votes) and he failed more than 70% of the time at the plate. Does this make him a terrible player? The Hall of Fame voters didn’t think so and neither did the teams that Griffey Jr. beat with walk-off home runs. Success is built on failure. No one succeeds accidently. Every failure, just as Babe Ruth said, brings you closer to your next success. You learn from failures and become better prepared for your next attempt.
Let’s talk about a few different things that you can teach your player to help them have the right thought process when approaching life and baseball. Controlling your mind and your thoughts is no easy thing to do. I once heard a teacher make a golf analogy when talking about controlling your mind, “the hardest hole on the golf course to conquer is the 6 inches between your ears.” Sometimes your emotions can get the best of you and you have to reinterpret them to keep your mind right. Nervousness can feel like excitement and your mind will signal your body. When that happens you get more nervous and jittery and anxious. Instead of accepting this, you can redirect those emotions by speaking that you are excited and ready out loud. There are several books on the market that explain the science behind using your own words to change the signals your brain sends to your body. To put it simply, if you change your words, you can change the signals your brain sends to your body. You don’t want to eliminate that feeling of excitement, just control it so it doesn’t turn to nervousness. Excitement is normal and necessary to perform. You can use that excitement to channel game time adrenaline to drive your actions. Accept that feeling and don’t be calm.