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In the latest in his ongoing series for the Leaders Performance Institute, Michael A. Chernow, Pittsburgh Pirate Fellow of Minor League Operations, shines a light on elite performance across elite sport. His previous feature can be found here.
We become narrow-minded if we are strictly measuring development based on performance results, when in reality, there are multitudes of people with different disciplines who contribute to the growth of an athlete before he or she gets the chance to perform in their respective arenas.
For an athlete to perform at their best, their bodies need to be performing at peak levels, and mentally they have to possess the ability to establish, train, and maintain a championship-caliber mindset. While the athlete’s skill may be what we are witnessing on the playing surface, the importance of the mind and body cannot be understated.
I had an opportunity to speak with two experts in their respective fields for this two-part series. Part I details my conversation with Pittsburgh Pirates Mental Skills Coach Andy Bass, PhD, about developing mental skills and creating better training methods with higher degrees of transfer.
Part II will look at how Jeremy Loftice, a Biomechanical Pitching Consultant, uses his experience and background to evaluate the anatomy and physiology for developing athletes.
First up, Andy Bass.
“I was afraid to go to the stadium… my hands would shake on the way to the park.”
Andy grew up playing basketball, baseball and football in his childhood. His experiences playing and competing have helped to shape his lens on how he views athletics. When deciding on school, he ultimately chose to play baseball at Davidson, because he knew it would offer a rigorous challenge academically, while still providing him the chance to compete at the Division I level. Andy’s decision to attend Davidson proved to be wise; he graduated as a Psychology major with a Philosophy minor and was drafted by the Tampa Bay Rays at the conclusion of his senior year.
In his first appearance as a professional baseball player in the New York-Penn League, he entered the game in the bottom of the ninth inning. He threw 15 balls in a row, prior to giving up the winning run.
“That night got me interested in coaching,” recalls Andy. Following his second walk on eight pitches, the pitching coach came to the mound and told him ‘just throw strikes.’
“It’s the most ridiculous thing I can think of … I thought to myself … what do you think I’m trying to do here!’ he continues. ‘Captain obvious coaches’ are everywhere, to minimize a situation with the word ‘just’.”
Andy did not recover that season and the Rays released him at the conclusion of his first professional campaign. Struggles while competing are common performance challenges for many athletes, but Andy’s issues ran deeper than that.
“I was afraid to go to the stadium; my hands would shake on the way to the park,” he admits.
Realizing that there needed to be a change, Andy decided that he was not going to leave the game of baseball being afraid to play the game. He began to read books on the mental side of the game, and studied methods to overcome what he faced while playing.
That offseason, he signed with the Chicago White Sox and was given a chance to attend minor league spring training and compete to make a team.
Although he was released from the team at the conclusion of spring training, he characterizes this experience as successful.
He says: “I wasn’t afraid to pitch, I wasn’t afraid to get on the mound.”
When he left the game, while figuring out the proverbial ‘what’s next’, he came across a Graduate Sport Psychology and Motor Behavior program at the University of Tennessee (UT). He fell in love with the coursework, and was fascinated with studying Motor Behavior, and the ways in which it could supplement the mental game. It was here he earned his Master’s Degree in Sport Psychology and Motor Behavior. While teaching undergrad courses, he became fascinated with how people learn, and aspired to continue learning.
To continue his education, he was admitted into the PhD program at UT.
“My master’s degree I focused about 70% on sport psychology and 30% on motor learning,” Andy explains, “my PhD was the opposite, it was about 70% motor learning, and 30% psychology.” He was able to develop a strong foundation in these two areas and had decided that he wanted to continue to grow in the field as a professor. That was, until he met Bernie Holliday, PhD, with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Concluding his dissertation, Andy became a fulltime employee of the Pittsburgh Pirates as a coordinator of Mental Conditioning.
Developing mental skills and creating transfer
“Mental skills are ways to help players work through the problem, training methods are ways to help them to solve the problem, and together they work hand in hand,” says Andy. “The concepts of developing mental skills are generalized to all sports. The priority is for the coaches to be creative in how they implement them.”
Andy goes on to provide some examples: “In basketball, you will see instances in which teams will run plays over and over without defenders there. This is blocked practice. Putting the defenders on the court will create a more game-like environment for the athletes.” He references a personal example from his playing days: “When I played basketball, we weren’t allowed to leave the court until we hit ten free throws in a row… the problem is, you never take ten free throws in a row in the game. At most, there should be three shots in a row because that’s the most you could take in an actual game.”
As we explored the topic further, Andy explained how many in the industry struggle with the proper way of providing feedback during training sessions.
“Oftentimes during basketball or football practices, if an athlete makes a mistake during a repetition or play, the coach will blow the whistle and stop play to make an immediate adjustment. The issue here is that you are not creating game-like reps. Let the play or the rep continue until it is completed.
“Rarely should you interfere and provide feedback right away. You should allow the players to mentally self-organize and reflect on what just happened. We are trying to grow the athletes into ones who are able to be adaptable in crucial situations.”
What Andy is describing can be an extremely difficult proposition for many coaches in sport who have spent the majority of their coaching and instructing careers being ‘hands on’ and providing instantaneous feedback. The issue is, however, ignoring this can lead to significant development constraints.
“If we, as coaches, are constantly jumping in to correct immediately, the athlete loses the capability to self-correct in game… losing awareness of their bodily movement– they have become dependent on the coach to fix things for them. This is analogous to how a muscle not utilized can atrophy. When this happens, during a game or competition, the ‘muscle’ isn’t able to do what it needs to do.”
An example Andy shared is if a gymnast is in a training session and he or she is working on a beam and fall off. The natural response is “get up and start over,” however if you fall during a competition, there is no chance to re-do, you have to get back on the beam and continue from where you fell.
Although traditions may have taught us one way to develop athletes, the reality is that not understanding proper methods of offering feedback could be detrimental to learning, and not creating game-like reps during training sessions can limit the amount of transfer an athlete takes into their competition.
These ‘traditions’ have led Andy to believe that coaching in the United States is perhaps behind coaching in other countries, particularly in Europe.
“We fall back on ‘this is how we’ve always done it,’ the way we coach in the US overall tends to be based primarily on an anecdotal belief system (‘I did this so …’) and there is some apprehension to incorporating more empirical data. We are continually making progress, but it’s easy to swing an opinion, hard to change a belief.”
How can he work to change some of those beliefs?
Andy views himself as being available as a resource for coaches and athletes. “I approach it as an objective educator. ‘Science says this theory is …’ The mental game is not tangible, you want to engage the coaches and athletes and educate them while providing autonomy, they are more likely to make internalize what you’re putting in front of them.”
He finds that the best ways to engage an athlete or coach is by asking questions. “It’s an environment of give and take; peer to peer conversations lead to a more dynamic result in a collaborative effort, as opposed to approaching it ‘I know what you need to know.’”
Relationships and building trust are foundational elements to development. As the relationship grows, there becomes more openness to listen to different training methods.
As it relates to baseball: “Do we want them taking standard batting practice off a tee, or is it better to work with them in a constraints-led approach, differential learning, or random practice? Specifically, practice that challenges and causes failure… where optimal learning can occur?” asks Andy. “Challenging the ‘traditional’ training methods forces you to ‘fail’ in controlled, practice settings. This allows you to deal with emotions, challenges and failure, which are all things that you will face in a game.”
“As an industry, oftentimes we tell players that our goal is to ‘create game-like situations,’ yet you watch baseball teams sometimes take batting practice on the field before a game, you will see the BP pitcher continue to throw right down middle.”
He continues: “It’s challenging to talk about emotions with each other. How much more effective would it be to have these difficult conversations in a similarly emotional state while working in a controlled environment? This is where a coach is able to use these tools that we provide to work in real time in simulated ‘game-like situations.’”
Is it reasonable to expect an athlete to handle emotions in a competitive environment if their training is easy mentally? If they are not aware of the damage negative self-talk has on an athlete, will they stop it?
When Andy first begins working with a player, they discuss the players’ strengths and weaknesses. As they progress further, they begin diving into self-talk. Once they start to peel back the layers, they move forward into developing training techniques to reframe thoughts as they begin to occur.
“Self-talk control can be developed. Can we catch ourselves when negativity begins to spiral us down?” Andy asks. He points out that self-talk for a baseball player looks different than it does for a cross-country runner, however the purpose is the same. Developing this skill can help prevent athletes from spiraling mentally when they are competing at the highest level.
Developing the mind can be challenging. In a sport like baseball, where the best hitters often fail 70% of the time, an emphasis on training mental skills will help to overcome these ‘failures’.
As the industry as a whole continues to put a premium on developing the mental game, another area that is of crucial importance is the continual education aimed at creating awareness in the mental health space.
Andy explains: “Understanding mental health is vital, the more we understand, the less stigmatized it will become. As a society, it is an area we continue sweeping under the rug.” In Andy’s position, although he is not able to treat it, he approaches mental health with a mindset of; “I can’t help this competently and ethically, but I, and all coaches, should be able to recognize signs and refer to a licensed professional.”
In the sports world, three areas that are rapidly growing within organizations are; the understanding and ability to contribute to mental skill development, identifying the best training methods in order to maximize transfer into games and, an ever-increasing awareness to eliminate the stigma associated with mental health.
In Part II, we will continue to discuss the different areas within the development of an elite athlete, as we speak with Jeremy Loftice, a Biomechanics Pitching Consultant.