I had just returned to school my junior year of college and fall baseball was starting up. After practice one day I began talking to one of the assistant coaches about the mental side of the game and he had one piece of advice to offer me -- "only focus on the things you can control." This might sound like common sense or something that should automatically be done, but even though I had read several books about the mental side of pitching I had never quite heard those words, or if I had it became more clear what those words meant after talking with somebody who had seen me pitch and begin to compare tendencies I have with that phrase.
My sophomore year had been a wreck, primarily because I let things spin out of control too often during games. Our entire team had an admittedly bad season in all respects -- we made too many errors, left too many guys on base, pitched poorly, etc. And through those rough times, during my outings, I felt as though I wasn't as focused on executing my pitches and my game plan. At times I remember being upset at certain position guys for the error they just made in the field, or perhaps the runners they just left on base while hitting, or at myself for having just walked a guy, or given up a hit, or allowed a run. My reaction to such situations was often that I simply couldn't let the batter put the ball in play because my shaky fielders might make another error and instead I better strike out every batter.
As you can imagine, this often led to me trying to throw too hard or trying to throw the "perfect" pitch as opposed to executing good pitches. My coach simply expressed to me that he thought I would be a much better ballplayer if I could focus on the things that I could actually have control over because that is what is most important.
This advice is very simple, yet it is remarkably profound. And of course, I am not saying that my coach came up with this saying, as it has been said in one way or another for many years. But from that point forward I began to only focus on things that I did and the things I could effect. Baseball is a game where you really have control over very few things. You can throw a great breaking ball down and away and the hitter lunges out and hits a blooper over 2nd base for a hit, or as a hitter you crush a ball but it is right at a fielder. These things are all out of a player's control. What is in a player's control is the way that the athlete prepares for a game, the level of concentration during practice and the game, and executing a game plan. These are all things that, if done well, will over time reward an athlete with success.
After really trying to adopt this mantra, I began to search for interviews from elite athletes to see if they addressed this issue in any way. I soon found an article on Greg Maddux after he had what was statistically one of his worst years in the MLB. The reporter kept prodding Maddux to explain why he had such a bad year - were his abilities diminishing as he aged, was he pitching through injury, had hitters figured him out, etc., and his response to the reporter was simply that he was satisfied with the year that he had because the stats he cared about weren’t what batters were hitting against him, or the amount of runs he gave up, but the way he executed his game plan, and more specifically, his pitches. He stated in the interview that he commanded the ball and threw the pitches he wanted in the locations he intended at the same percent as he had in previous years, but this year the way things played out he gave up more hits and runs.
You could tell the reporter did not like these answers, but they are very telling as to how one of the all-time greats approached pitching. He was not concerned with batters getting hits because that was not something he could control. Instead, he was focused on how well he threw his pitches and he had no regrets about how everything else played out. He knew that if he continued to execute his pitches the other stats would fall back into place.
So many coaches and pitchers would be ready to make serious changes to a delivery, or try to change the arm slot, or learn a new pitch all because they are focused on things they can't control. And let’s face it, you can't control when batters get a hit. Although I have focused this article on pitching, the same goes for hitters. All that a batter can control is how well he makes contact with the ball. He can square it up perfectly and hit it right at somebody for an out, or he can hit it poorly and get a base hit. However, if a hitter consistently makes solid contact time and time again his batting average will reflect that.
I think over time this phrase, "only focus on the things you can control," actually evolved into a deeper and more important understanding for me. It is an understanding that Ron Wolforth at the Texas Baseball Ranch completely gets and helped me to understand: The process is more important than the result. Focus on the process and the result will take care of itself. Whether the result is that you get the batter out or as a hitter you get a base hit. My next blog is going to discuss more about the importance of the process and what "deliberate practice" is all about.
Until next time,