Anyone who has ever stepped foot into a batter’s box understands the feeling. Striding to the plate in front of a crowd of people, mostly strangers, can be a nerve wracking experience to say the least.
As long as the game has been played, little leaguers and inexperienced players have been notorious for letting the pressure get the best of them. This feeling of being under a microscope can be pretty intimidating.
“Just don’t strike out,” this thought process has been the Achilles heel of 1000’s of Little League players throughout time. “If I can just make contact, I won’t look too bad.”
Well, we’ve got some great news for all the anxious ballplayers out there. Despite the common misconception that striking out is the worst possible outcome in an at-bat - that is not true.
The worst possible outcome in a plate appearance is when a hitter goes up there without a plan of action. Whether it be a solid plan regarding the situation in the game or from a personal perspective, a hitter should go into every plate appearance with an objective and an idea of how they will achieve success. This includes being scared at the plate, unprepared or a combination of the two.
Also important to remember, not all strikeouts are created equal! Consider this scenario: A hitter is leading off the final inning of a game, with their team trailing by three runs. Exhibit A, strikes out on three pitches out of the strike zone - that’s about as ugly as it gets. Exhibit B, strikes out in the same situation, in a 12-pitch battle on a full count. Which at-bat was more valuable? Which player will be lauded for their efforts?
Without a doubt, Exhibit B is a more valuable plate appearance. By forcing the pitcher to throw an abundance of “out pitches” a hitter increases the always important pitch count and allows the other guys in the dugout a good look at the pitcher’s repertoire. Despite the undesirable result, Exhibit B had a quality at-bat and the team is better off because of it. This concept has also been covered in the "Stayin' Alive" blogs on MaxBP featuring epic at-bats by Alex Cora and Brandon Belt.
As time goes on, and a player begins to reap the rewards of their hard work and preparation, the anxiety and fear of failure will subside. However, this is a battle that every hitter endures - from Little League to the Major Leagues. That is why mental training and preparation is so important? What goes on between the ears before, during and after an at-bat can debilitate a player, and on the flip side, it can make them perform beyond their abilities. Often times mental toughness is the main ingredient in a slump, and it plays a major role in deciphering over and under-achievers.
New York Yankees legend Yogi Berra famously said, "Baseball is ninety percent mental and the other half is physical." Now granted, that doesn't make complete sense, but it does reflect the ties between success on the diamond and a quality mindset.
A great way to practice mental toughness is by being prepared - physically and mentally - just as Berra suggested. It’s also beneficial to make the team and winning the game your number one priority. Focusing on team prosperity over personal performance is the most fundamental way of being a good teammate. This type of attitude is contagious and leads to a winning vibe in the dugout and on the field.
Be mentally tough, and don’t let the fear of striking out affect your game plan. Step up to the plate with confidence, be mentally prepared and ready to battle it out. If a strike out does occur, which they inevitably will, at least get "your money's worth." That way you can hold your head high as you hustle back to the dugout.