Written By: John O’Sullivan, Founder of the Changing the Game Project
One of the most unique things about the game of baseball and softball is that it is a game of failure. The best players, the ones headed to Cooperstown, are only successful in 3 out of 10 at bats. During those at bats, they might see 7 to 10 pitches without making solid contact. A pitcher might throw 30 pitches in an inning to get three outs, and multiple games without a win. Baseball and softball are sports of constant failure, with moments of proper execution leading to success. It is difficult for professional players to deal with this low percentage of successful swings, so imagine what it can feel like for our kids.
There is no way around it; Little Leaguers® are going to struggle and fail, experience both frustration and stress, and hopefully plenty of elation, too. As such, one of the most important things coaches and parents can do is help our young players learn how to deal with stress, anxiety, and even fear. Afterall, it’s pretty scary having someone throw a hard, spherical object at you as hard as he can from 46 feet away. So how can we help them reduce their fear, and diminish their stress, so they can perform their best?
One of the most influential books in mental training for athletes is W. Tim Gallway’s classic The Inner Game of Tennis: The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance. In his book, Mr. Gallway laid out an equation that is incredibly helpful for athletes, and those that influence them such as coaches and parents:
Performance = Potential – Interference
Simple, huh? We can increase our performance by expanding our potential (through hours of practice, eating well, sleeping well, all the things we can see) and by stripping away all the things that interfere with that potential, most of which lies between their ears. Our players can learn to remove self-doubt, fear, concentration lapses, and other thoughts and beliefs that can limit their potential. Mr. Gallway argues that instead of simply focusing on the “outer game,” that being things we can see such as hitting, throwing, catching, and running bases, players can fundamentally change their performance by also developing their “inner” game.
“There is always an inner game being played in your mind no matter what outer game you are playing,” writes Mr. Gallway. “How aware you are of this game can make the difference between success and failure in the outer game.”
Coaches and parents can be huge contributors to stress and anxiety unless we are intentional about stripping it away. The way we communicate and interact with our young players, and the way we teach them to frame pressure situations is critical to how they will perform in the short term, and oftentimes whether they continue with baseball over the long haul. Before we can strip away that interference, this is probably a good place to understand why fear and stress exists in the first place, and how the bodies emotional responses to situations contribute to reduced performance.
How People React to Stressful Situations
Whenever humans encounter a situation that they perceive as a threat, or to have potentially negative consequences, it activates the sympathetic nervous system. You may have heard this called your “fight or flight” response. That threat can be a fastball thrown high and tight, or it could be the fear of an angry response from a coach or a parent if they swing and miss. The brain has a physiological response to perceived threats called arousal, which is actually a positive thing. Arousal is preparing your body to respond to the situation, and includes the release or suppression of hormones, a raising or lowering of the heart rate, and reduced blood flow to certain organs that will not be in use. We have all felt this, either through butterflies in our stomach, sweaty palms, or even nervous shaking during a big moment.
Along with our physiological arousal, our brain has an emotional response to threats. Since they happen at the same time we often think they are one and the same, but they are not. For many athletes, this emotional response has negative connotations. Their increased physiological arousal leads to negative emotional appraisals of that arousal. This leads to what psychologists call maladaptive physiological responses. The body cannot process oxygen as efficiently, the brain becomes hyper-focused on other potential threats, you suffer a reduction in working memory, and of course, performance is diminished. You become so hyper-focused on the negative potential threat that you lose sight of other opportunities. This fixation on the negative may be OK when you encounter a grizzly bear in the woods, but it does not help when tying to hit a fastball. One of the most important things we can do as a coach or parent is to help our athletes reappraise their stress and anxiety from a threat to a challenge. And it’s not that hard to do either!
Cognitive Reappraisal: Turning Threats into Challenges
Young athletes must learn to perform in stressful scenarios, as they can be unavoidable. You don’t ignore the threat, though. The research says the best way to positively enhance performance is to reappraise it. Sadly, this is not what athletes are often told to do. Instead, they are told to ignore that feeling, or worse, to calm down. Have you all seen the coach standing on the edge of the dugout yelling at his players to “Relax! Calm Down! Or I am taking you out of the game!” Really? As Tim Gallway says, “The instant I try to make myself relax, true relaxation vanishes, and in its place is a strange phenomenon called “trying to relax.” Relaxation happens only when allowed, not as a result of “trying” or “making.”
When athletes try and suppress the anxiety and stress they are feeling, it can feel like a dam trying to hold back a swollen river. What they are being told is to suppress the body’s arousal response to a situation, and to shift the nervous system from a high-arousal state to a low arousal state. How long is a young player supposed to stand there trying to calm down before the umpire makes him get back in the batter’s box? Certainly not enough time for all that adrenaline to leave his bloodstream.
Now, this is not in any way saying that mindfulness and meditation practices are not a critical component of athlete performance. They are great practices to engage in during the hours before a game. Nor is this to say that taking a few deep breaths is not a helpful way to get recentered on the task at hand; it is. But these are often accompanied by the advice to stop feeling the physiological response you are having, and that is poor advice. New research is demonstrating that training ourselves to reappraise our interpretation of our arousal state.
Remember above when I explained how the physiological and emotional responses to stress are two different things? In reappraisal, instead of trying to ignore the physical response, we reappraise the emotional response. Since the mind assigns meaning to those emotional responses, we can train our athletes to assign a better meaning.
For example, researcher Jeremy Jamieson taught students at Harvard who were preparing for the GRE exam – a hugely stressful test that determines graduate school admission – how to reappraise their physiological responses to taking a practice exam. Half of the participants in the study were taught that their physiological responses, such as an increased heart rate or sweaty palms, predict better performance on the test. They were taught to embrace these sensations as signs that their body was prepared for the task ahead. Participants who were taught to reappraise their responses outperformed those students in the control group who were not taught to do so on the practice exam.
Three months later, when these same students took the actual GRE, the appraisal group again outperformed the control group and reported that their feelings of arousal on test day aided their performance. Subsequent studies by Mr. Jamieson on public speakers has found the following results; not only do speakers who are taught to reappraise their arousal in a positive manner more focused and effective in their speaking, but they also return physiologically to their baseline state faster than those who are not taught to reappraise their feelings.
So how do we help our athletes reappraise their stress? The answer is surprisingly simple. First, we can teach them that the responses they are feeling are actually the body’s way of saying “this is an important moment for me, I care about this!” My mouth is dry because I am not about to eat, and my limbs are slightly shaking because my nerves are getting primed for activity. These are not signs that there is impending doom; they are signs that this matters to me, and that is a great thing.
Second, according to Harvard researcher Allison Wood Brooks, when your athletes encounter a stressful situation and they feel the litany of physiological responses such as butterflies, sweaty palms, or nervous shakes, they need to reappraise that feeling into one of excitement and opportunity instead of threat. In her studies of public speakers, karaoke singers, and in math students, participants who reappraised their feelings as excitement performed better. How? All they need to do is say to themselves, out loud, three simple words:
“I am excited!”
That is it. Those three words, “I am excited,” said a few times out loud, with the genuine belief that some part of you is actually excited for this opportunity and this challenge, can alter the emotional response to the situation. It does not mean that anxiety completely disappears. As Mrs. Brooks writes in her research, “imagine that anxiety and excitement are like the bass and treble knobs on a stereo. By reappraising anxiety as excitement, it seems individuals turn the excitement knob up, without necessarily turning the anxiety knob down.” Those three words help the body and mind switch from threat to challenge mode, help increase cardiac efficiency, and help take the focus off the potential negative consequences of the situation.
Fearlessness as an important attribute that great athletes have. But what we mean by fearlessness is not necessarily the absence of fear. It is the absence of a negative emotional reaction to the body’s physiological response to a threatening or stressful situation. Your athlete will feel it; they simply must be trained not to let it fuel their actions and responses.
“What are four things that create fear? Uncertainty, attention, change, and struggle,” says Trevor Ragan of Train Ugly, a top trainer in motor learning, mindset, and overcoming stress and anxiety, as well an advisor for the Cleveland Indians.
“What are four things that happen a lot in sports? Uncertainty, attention, change, and struggle. As athletes, we’re kind of signing up to do something that’s just going to involve a lot of emotion and a lot of fear and the nerves. That’s the fun part, but we have to be able to kind of take a step back and understand I’m operating in an arena that involves a lot of uncertainty, which means there’s going to be a lot of fear, and that’s okay.”
We do not need to eliminate all the fear, stress and anxiety for our athletes. We simply need to help them reappraise them. As Mr. Ragan concludes, “The whole goal isn’t to get rid of the fear. It’s just to kind of change the way we interpret it and to work to stop it from making our decisions. Fear isn’t driving the car. It doesn’t mean it’s not in the car. It’s in the back seat, but it’s not driving.”
We can help our young baseball players reappraise their fear and anxiety, and not let them interfere with their performance. Be patient with them, help them understand that unsuccessful throws and swings are a big part of baseball, and most importantly, teach them to say “I am excited” when those nerves creep in. It makes a big difference.
This article is part of a content partnership with John O’Sullivan, Founder of the Changing the Game Project, to provide its parents and volunteer coaches with educational resources and guidance to create a better Little League experience for all children.