Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Dealing with stress in a pressure situation

During my playing and coaching career, I can remember being faced with hundreds of pressure situations; hitting against the top pitcher in our league, coming to bat with bases loaded and the winning run on second base, deciding whether to intentionally walk a hitter in a tight game, watching a pitcher struggle to get the final out in a state championship game that we are winning, etc. It knots up my stomach just thinking about them again.

These type of pressure situations can cause stress which inhibits performance. So the coach must train the player to deal with the pressure using various techniques to neutralize the effects of stress that will lead to improved performance. I have found 3 techniques that seem to work extremely well to relieve the stress of a pressure situation and therefor creating an opportunity for the athlete to perform. They can be used independently or in conjunction with each other. What ever works for you and your players.

Technique 1: Smile. It sounds funny and when first introduced may come across as corny, however I have seen this work time-and-time again. Smiling relieves stress. So when you or your player finds themselves in a situation where they feel all eyes are on them...smile.

Technique 2: Take a deep breadth. In from the nose, out from the mouth. The exhale causes a relaxation to occur in the major muscles of the body. This relaxation in the midst of competition allows for speed, quickness, and control; All key to executing a skill in a high pressure environment.

Technique 3: Go through your routine. The familiar is always more certain then the unexpected. Having a pregame routine, a pre-at-bat routine, a pre-pitch routine, etc. will settle you into the moment for optimal performance. Learn your routine or develop one to aid you in those pressure situations you may find yourself in.

These are all great techniques to use when you find yourself feeling the stress of being in a high pressure situation. Playing competitive sports is filled with these type moments that can't be avoided. They come with the territory. An even better strategy for managing these situations and increasing the probability of success occurs prior to the start of the event. They are preparation and visualization.

Some aspects of your workouts should consist of a series of "game speed" and "game situation" exercises that mirror various moments where execution of a skill is critical to the outcome of the game. The more you and your players have performed a skill in a "game-like" situation the more confidence each will have. Preparation builds confidence, confidence neutralizes pressure and re-labels it as routine.

The other, less taught, strategy for increasing success in a pressure situation is visualization. High performance athletes are taught to imagine the successful execution of a skill prior to engaging in the activity. After the mind has completed visualizing the event, the body simply follows the path laid out by the mind. Visualization takes discipline and practice but is a critical element to successfully maneuvering through high pressure moments.

There is no avoiding pressure in sporting events. Pressure is simply the emotional influence of the event on the body. The bodies reaction to the pressure is STRESS. These techniques aid in reducing stress. We don't have control over the pressure however we can manage the stress. Use these techniques and your performance will improve.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Get to second base and score more runs

Part of my game plan entering into any league or tournament is to score at least 6 runs per game. A critical element to the teams ability to attain this production mark is their ability to get to second base quickly. If you think about it, a runner on 2nd is only one hit away from scoring whereas a runner on 1st is either two hits away or needs for the hitter to drive the ball to the wall for him to score. In the next few moments, I will provide you with evidence on the scoring percentages for all the bases with varying number of outs in an inning, as well as provide different methods for advancing the base. One thing is clear, if you can't get to second base, you will have difficulty scoring.

The scoring percentages below are based on more than 60 years and thousands of major-league baseball games. We can make the assumption that they will be reasonably similar for our high school programs.

Scoring Percentages

Runner on 1st
w/ 0 outs = 43%
w/ 1 out = 29%
w/ 2 outs = 14%

Runner on 2nd
w/ 0 outs = 60%
w/ 1 out = 45%
w/ 2 outs = 26%

Runner on 3rd
w/ 0 outs = 70%
w/ 1 out = 54%
w/ 2 outs = 32%

Goal is to get to 2nd base or beyond with 0 or 1 out. The likelihood of scoring is significantly high and can impact a game.

A runner can get to second base a number of ways:

  1. Extra base hit (double, triple, etc.)
  2. Steal
  3. Hit-and-run
  4. Sacrafice bunt
  5. Passed ball
  6. Balk
  7. Error

My approach has always been to acquire 2nd base based on the players ability to execute the skill in the order above. For example, I would evaluate the players ability to steal the base ahead of a decision to sacrafice bunt and give up an out. The bottom two elements, I have little control over.

The scoring percentage on 3rd base is obviously higher and a decision to advance from 2nd to 3rd base should be weighed against the risk of the attempt. A runner advancing from 2nd to 3rd on a steal with 1 or 2 outs may not be worth the risk- depending on the game situation. The main point of this post is to communicat the important for your players to drive toward second base early using varying methods.

Get to second base and score more runs.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Don't swing at the first pitch

At the high school level, less than 50% of pitchers throw a strike on the first pitch. A lot of hitters make the mistake of being too aggressive at the plate and swing at the first pitch- getting themselves out 81% of the time. Every coach has communicated to their players the need to be patient at the plate however few coaches have actually explained the strategy behind being patient, what do we hope to accomplish, how does the hitter/team benefit, and what are the situations when you would deviate from this approach. The text on this page will provide some answers to those questions. My hope is after reading this posting, you will understand patience and how the approach WILL result in improved success every at bat.

What if I told you that statistics show that you have a better chance of getting a hit on an 0-1 pitch rather than on an 0-0 pitch. Would that surprise you? I bet it would. Well, it's TRUE. There are 4 key reasons for not swinging on the first pitch: 1) starting pitchers will throw more pitches when teams commit to taking the first pitch, 2) allows for coaches to advance base runners, 3) permits the hitter to get timing on pitchers and see all pitches, and 4) assists the hitter to work toward a more favorable count. Let me explain each.

1. Starting pitchers will throw more pitches: If we can cause the starting pitcher to throw more pitches, we can reduce the number of innings he will be able to throw. In addition, as the pitcher fatigues, he will make less quality pitches resulting in an improved ability to drive the count in the hitters favor.

2. Allows coaches to advance base runners: Advancing base runners to second base is critical to scoring runs. If you think about it, a runner on 2nd is only one hit away from scoring whereas a runner on 1st is either two hits away or needs for the hitter to drive the ball to the wall for him to score. Probability of scoring from 2nd with no outs is 40% higher than scoring from 1st with no outs. Probability of scoring from 2nd with one out is 55% higher than scoring from 1st with one out. Probability of scoring from 2nd with two outs is 85% higher than scoring from 1st with two outs. Taking the first pitch allows for the coaches to steal 2nd or advance the runners via the bunt or hit-and-run play.

3. Permits hitters to get timing on pitchers and see all pitches: An important factor in hitting a pitcher is getting your timing. One way to improve your ability to time a pitcher is to see more pitches. The deeper you get into a count the more opportunity you have to get your timing. Also, the more pitches the pitcher throws to you AND your teammates increases the teams ability to see all his pitches (fastball, curve, slider, change up, etc.) and to uncover patterns for throwing certain pitches. For example, if over the course of the game you discover that the pitcher always follows his curve ball with a fastball, then the team can anticipate/predict the tendencies and use this to the hitters advantage. This can only occur if the hitters are patient and fight the urge to go after the first pitch.

4. Work toward a more favorable count: According to a study of Division I baseball for 5 years, the batting average on the first pitch, or 0-0 count, is .186. The batting average on the 0-1 count is .199. Below I have noted the Batting Averages on Specific Counts:

Count/ Batting Average

0-2/ .118
1-2/ .151

2-2/ .169

0-0/ .186

3-2/ .192

0-1/ .199

3-0/ .267

1-1/ .269

2-1/ .290

3-1/ .329

2-0/ .342

1-0/ .386

As noted earlier, with pitchers throwing less than 50% strikes on the first pitch, the percentages are in the hitters favor that the pitch will be a ball- thus increasing the chances of getting a hit- when they take the first pitch. In future blogs, I will explain how working the count allows the hitter to better predict/anticipate certain pitch types and locations. Once a hitter can anticipate and predict he immediately increases his ability to have a successful at-bat. Stay tuned for that discussion.

Exception: An exception to the "take the first pitch" rule is when you have a control pitcher on the mound that has EARNED the right for us to swing at the first pitch. A pitcher that consistently throws first-pitch-strike will cause the hitter to adjust his approach and look to go after the first pitch (only if it is a fastball- talk about that in the future). If we allow the pitcher to consistently get ahead of us by taking the first pitch then we are working from behind and the percentages are not in our favor. Note that the pitcher has to earn the right for us to change our approach to go after the first pitch. This is typically charted by the coaches and the adjustment is generally made in the 3-4th inning after going through the line-up once.

Summary: At the major league level, the average player sees 3.85 pitches per at-bat. Data has shown that there is a direct correlation between the number of pitches a hitter sees per at-bat and his batting average. Acknowledging this fact, my teams have always had a goal to get to the 4th pitch every time up to the plate. Sometimes we will get to 3 pitches and other times we will get to 6 pitches. What I have found is that by targeting 4 pitches we can improve our on-base percentage, increase our batting average, and impact the number of runs we will score per game. All of which impacts the game positively for us.

So, take a patient yet aggressive approach at the plate. Don't swing at the first pitch to; cause the pitcher to throw more pitches; allow your coaches to advance the base runners, permit you to get your timing, see all his pitches, and discover tendencies; work toward a more favorable count while recognizing that the pitcher has to earn the right for us to change our approach and go after a first pitch (fastball-strike).

Best advice I ever got

When I was a young student athlete, I was given advice on everything from what to eat, how to workout to gain a competitive advantage, what coaches are looking for at the next level, etc. All great information however most was forgotten just after it swept through my ears. However, there is a single piece of advice that has remained with me to this day and I would like to pass it on to you. This golden nugget of information is so impacting that I use it in other aspects of my life...even to this day. Are you ready...?

I will never forget who gave this information to me and where I was when I received it. I will reserve the entire story for another time. The advice came from Coach Beetle Bailey in 1988. Coach Bailey was the hitting coach for LSU at the time. I'm not sure that I can recount his resume accurately but just know that during his tenure, LSU won 5 National Championships in 10 years. Not only was he a great baseball coach with teams and players succeeding as a result of his influence but his personal accomplishments seemed even bigger. So none-the-less when Coach Bailey spoke people listened.

As I lay out the advice to you, I will attempt to use the exact words from Coach Bailey.

Advice: At some point today, tomorrow, next week, next year, someone will give you some information that will change your life. It will make you a better student, a better athlete/baseball player, a better son/daughter/father/mother/friend, a better human being. Will you be listening...