I first came across The Mental Game of Baseball in high school, and it's still one of the most influential books I've ever read. Harvey Dorfman outlines how one's mental approach influences physical output. He explains how to leverage this reality for better performance, both in general and applied specifically to professional ballplayers.
For me, it felt like one of those books that just happened at the right time. I still think about some of the lessons to this day. As part of my annual reflection, I thought I would revisit the book and take some notes. These are my favorite passages and quotes.
- Harvey offered no apology for swearing; he just knew that ballplayers would feel more comfortable with him if he spoke the language of dugouts.
- He possessed one amazing skill: He knew how to communicate with ballplayers. He knew how to get them to open up about their fears, worries, and insecurities.
Harvey would actively listen. But he didn’t offer sympathy or offer a kindly smile. Rather, just the opposite. Harv would roar at the player and demand in a loud voice: “Okay, hot shot, you’re hitting under the Mendoza line. ... Tell me — what are you going to do about it? How are you going to make the appropriate adjustments?” In other words, Harvey was very big on getting players to confront their shortcomings and failings. Harvey would often tell me that he saw his job to “hold a mirror to these guys” so they could deal with their issues. “Hey,” Harvey would bark at me, “somebody has to tell these guys the truth! That’s my job!”
- The performance goals a player sets – what he thinks he can do, based on his ability and degree of confidence – usually become his personal standard of acceptance. For this reason, it’s very important for the player to set realistic, reachable goals.
- It's important to distinguish between goals and expectations. Observe your movement and make the appropriate adjustments, know where you are, know where you want to be, know how to get there.
- Whatever you think about most will function as a goal.
- Goals are achievable; they are easy to evaluate. And as we attain each goal, we then give ourselves credit for the attainment. Our confidence will grow with these daily, identifiable successes. Our total performance will improve.
There is a big difference between the two attitudes and she identified it for herself. “If you waste time wishing, you can’t be alert to any of the practical solutions marching by you,” Ms. Wade said. She set about changing her behavior. “I was more than ready to want Wimbledon for myself. I thought about it every day with that goal uppermost in my mind. New ideas came to me. How to do it. Why I deserved it. Soon I had a realistic picture of myself winning Wimbledon. It was not merely a dream. I knew exactly what I wanted and how to get it.”
- The mental message will dictate the physical action and help determine its quality. A negative thought is not a quality thought and it doesn’t lead to quality action.
- Steve Carlton’s training and self-discipline were exceptional. Asked how he handled a situation in which a negative thought popped into his head, the pitcher said, “I don’t allow that to happen.”
- Change “I have to” and “I must” to “I have decided to" and “I want to” instead.
- One of the strongest principles of behavior lies in human choice. If you do not take responsibility, you have still made a choice. A wrong one.
- Each of our lives is a sequence of actions meant to achieve our purposes. And before we can understand ourselves, we have to understand the purposes that move us into action, that motivate us, for better or for worse, that express our dominant needs.
- Attitude is always within our capability to control it; within our responsibility.
“I’ve made up my mind what I want to do. I’m happy when I pitch well so I only do things that help me be happy. I wouldn’t be able to dedicate myself like this for money or glory, although they are certainly considerations. If I pitch well... I’ll be able to give my family security. But that isn’t what motivates me. What motivates some pitchers is to be known as the fastest who ever lived. Some want to have the greatest season ever. All I want is to do the best I possibly can day after day, year after year...”
- The start of confidence-building has nothing to do with whether we’re right or wrong; whether we win or lose; whether we get a hit or strike out. Most important is what we think about ourselves. What we are to ourselves matters more than what others see us as or what they see us doing. That’s where confidence is found. Inside. Inside each of us.
- No one can make us feel as if we’re failures without our own consent. Confident people never consent. They approach risky and challenging situations without the possibility of being a failure. They relish the challenge, all the while knowing they may fail at their task, but that is all. They remember that they’ve succeeded in the past and will again in the future.
- We suggest that confidence actually precedes true success, whether the activity be familiar or unfamiliar. As we stated, the confidence comes from the manner in which the participant has prepared for the activity. This confidence is built one step at a time, coming in steps as each task-specific goal is achieved.
Pitcher Ron Darling summed it up nicely in Marc Gunther’s Basepaths: “You can’t last in any sport without being confident. Even if you’re not the best, you’ve got to be confident that you’re better than the other guy... Ninety percent is mental. There’s enough guys who can throw breaking pitches over and have the physical ability, but when you believe that you’re better than that hitter, I think that’s the most important thing.
Learning from Failure
- Good learners risk doing things badly to find out how to do things well.
- We usually know what mistakes we’ve made and what the problem is without spending much time thinking about it. The more time we spend with it, the more likely we are to repeat it.
- The wise man has more to offer, no doubt, but the fool is a fool because he doesn’t learn from others — or from his own experience. The wise man is wise because he seeks to learn from everyone and everything he confronts. Our wise man will learn something from the fool; our fool will get nothing from his contact with the wise man.
When we become defensive — take instruction as a personal attack — we close ourselves off or “lash back.” Either of those behaviors prevents us from learning and improving. We want to remember that, no matter what kind of tonality or language the instructor is using, our aim is not to be distracted by his behavior or attitude, but to listen to his words and evaluate them, rather than him. That will keep our focus on what might be able to teach us something. And the more we pay attention to what we want to learn, the better we will learn it, because attention itself is a learning reinforcement.
- Visualize yourself doing it correctly. Willie Stargell explained it as well as anyone. While playing with the Pirates, he said, “I think about what I didn’t like and I fix it in my mind. I don’t analyze it. I see, feel and hear myself getting the results I want.”
- Players can’t be effective when they concentrate on concentrating. The complete focus of attention should be effortless. It should flow like a graceful physical movement, like a gliding bird. Concentration isn't thought about, it's just there.
According to Cal Ripken, Jr. of the Baltimore Orioles, “The most difficult aspect of baseball is concentration. Being able to put everything out of your mind while standing at the plate is not easy.” According to the many major league and minor league players who have spoken with us over the years, concentration is easiest when confidence is greatest. Both directly and indirectly, the players indicated that when things are going well for them, they concentrate well.
My hope in publishing this is that even if baseball isn't your thing, you still might take something away from this post. The points above, especially on confidence, visualization, and attitude, have influenced me in all tons of ways. Most of which have nothing to do with sports. Anyways, you know the drill. Until next time.
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