Pitching is the most important aspect of the game! A dominating pitching staff can make all the difference in determining a team’s success. Practice and mastery of the physical elements of pitching will improve the mechanical skills, but developing the psychological aspects of pitching can improve the overall concentration of the pitchers. Pitcher concentration is directly related to control, confidence and success.
The key psychological aspects of pitching include a thorough understanding of personal pitching strengths and weaknesses, as well as the development of the following areas:
- The successful pitcher will continue to master his strengths and work on his weaknesses in practice and during isolated drill sessions.
As a coach, become aware of what type of pitcher you are dealing with. A power pitcher? A control pitcher? A breaking ball pitcher? Once the type of pitcher is determined, start to work toward strengthening and improving weak areas. For example, a pitcher throwing in the low 80’s is not going to be a power-type pitcher. He is going to have to rely on having good control, developing a good breaking pitch, and establishing the ability to quickly change speeds with his pitches. On the other hand, the pitcher who throws hard (85-to-90 mph) will emphasize the use of his fastball more often. He should also develop a breaking pitch or changeup. When behind in the count, these pitches are used to set up his fastball or to upset the hitter’s timing.
- Developing mental discipline
A pitcher must be able to control his thoughts, emotions, and actions throughout a game. Pitchers should stick with their routine no matter what happens during the game. They cannot work on things during the game, so they need to be under control and have a clear plan on each pitch. The pitcher should always be in control since the hitter can only react to the pitch being thrown. The pitcher cannot allow a situation to become a factor of intimidation, but rather an opportunity to pitch with self-control and confidence. Some examples of distractions that can affect a pitcher mentally are:
(a) environmental conditions–rain, wind, heat, etc., crowd noise, a poorly maintained mound;
(b) game situations such as a batter calling time out, a baserunner who may be a stealing threat, the umpire missing a few pitches, a teammate making a costly error, a poorly-thrown pitch that results in a base hit, and/or a trip to the mound by a coach.
These situations can affect the pitcher mentally and usually will result in loss of concentration. The pitcher who is prepared to handle these situations has already placed himself in similar situations during practice and masters his own mental approach. The pitcher should always be in control, able to pitch in a variety of situations and under all conditions.
- The ability to set goals and take the necessary steps toward achieving them
All athletes set goals for themselves, but the great ones work harder at aspects that will assist them in reaching those goals. While practicing, pitchers should establish specific goals that they will try to accomplish. Pitching practice should be more than just getting a workout. Some specific goals may be:
- working on rhythm and balance
- working on a routine and release
- working on throwing to a target
- pitching from the stretch
- pitching in different situations to use a variety of pitches
- working on certain drills that emphasize visualization skills such as shadow pitching
Setting goals before practice sessions will enhance practice performance and assist in developing good work habits in pitchers.
Before games, pitchers should also set goals to assist in maintaining concentration and setting the tone for the performance. Preparation for the game should consist of more than just a time to get loose; it should be a time to get a feel for accomplishing goals during the game. Setting these types of goals and following through will eventually lead to peak performance.
- The understanding and positive approach for dealing with adversity and/or success
Most pitchers are competitive by nature and must learn to deal with success or failure by making adjustments and taking responsibility for their performance. When pitching in trouble, pitchers should not resort to throwing harder, they should keep pitching with the same confidence and a smooth, tension-free motion. Trying to throw harder tends to produce tension, and pitchers usually lose control, lose the efficiency of their motion, and slow down arm speed. Aiming the ball or trying to make perfect pitches is another negative way in which pitchers may deal with adverse conditions. Pitchers need to be taught that they do not need to strike batters out but instead throw off the hitters’ timing to get the desired results. Coaches need to watch for these signs and emphasize to their pitchers the importance of making good pitches, hitting the target, and committing to the pitch they are about to throw.
Successful pitchers will not need to be reminded of these examples; however, they will always need to be reminded that they should never be satisfied with a performance. The successful pitcher will always try to improve by seeking to learn more and always looking for that better way of throwing a particular pitch.
- Preparing and developing a game plan
Getting pitchers ready to pitch is an ongoing process that requires a focused approach to their job. Pitchers should think about a game plan before the game. Coaches should meet with pitchers to review scouting reports, hitter tendencies, and how to pitch in a variety of situations. Reviewing specific defenses and pickoff plays will also assist in this preparation. While in the bullpen, the pitcher should go through his pregame routine by preparing the body to throw–warming up, stretching, and short distance drills. Pitchers should also use this time to practice what they are going to do on the mound–getting used to their pitches, finding a comfort zone, concentrating on staying back, using a good explosion, and following through. This routine is further accomplished by ensuring that the last few pitches of the warm-up are thrown at game speed or similar to the first few pitches of the first inning. Visualizing mechanics and release point will further assist in the preparation and reinforce total concentration on the pitching process.
- Develop a confident approach to pitching
This approach is accomplished by concentrating on the execution rather than on the results. A positive approach to pitching is essential to any good performance. Being able to take it from the bullpen to the game is one of the biggest factors to a pitcher’s success. A successful pitcher will be able to take his best stuff out to the mound and pitch with confidence. He should not have any doubt, tension, or fear. This approach is accomplished by being totally confident in all of his pitches and his ability to win the battle. A pitcher should believe that he has warmed-up properly and has had ample opportunity to prepare mentally for the delivery of the first pitch. Pitchers do not always need their best stuff to be successful. In fact, most pitchers can get hitters out with poor pitches, since most hitters go up to the plate overly aggressive and swinging at the first pitch. The key, as discussed earlier, is being under control and pitching with confidence.
- Be aware of the pitcher’s rhythm
Rhythm is a primary objective when trying to develop consistency in a pitcher’s timing, balance, and control. Most pitchers will get into trouble when they begin to work too fast or start to allow situations to bother them. Once a coach senses a loss of rhythm, it is time for a trip to the mound or time to get a reliever loose. Losing rhythm is usually the first sign of trouble.
- The use of visualization skills
To be successful, pitchers should learn to visualize their mechanics, rhythm, and control. Visualizing before throwing each pitch is an important step for all successful pitchers. They have to be able to see themselves throwing the pitch before they actually throw it! Pitchers have to learn to make visualization a part of their routine, so it needs to be developed and mastered during practice. This skill can be accomplished in a variety of ways. Bullpen work is an excellent time to work on visualization skills. The coach can ask the pitcher about pitch selection, location, and target for each pitch being thrown. This response will give the coach some clues about whether the pitcher is developing the necessary visualization skills.
- Development and use of relaxation techniques
Relaxation techniques improve performance, concentration, and confidence. Learning to relax is a useful tool in the pitching process that facilitates necessary adjustments needed throughout a ballgame. Using controlled breathing, stretching, or just taking time out to gather thoughts are techniques that will assist in the relaxation process. Keywords or phrases used by the coach are valuable starters for a pitcher to begin using relaxation techniques while pitching. “One pitch at a time,” “smooth and easy,” “nice and loose,” “stay within yourself,” “just let it happen,” “see the target and let it go,” are some suggested phrases that have been used by coaches. These phrases are also repeated by the pitcher as a means of relaxation, further facilitating the process and assisting the pitcher in gaining control of himself.
- Develop a technique for evaluating performance
This aspect will assist in teaching pitchers to constructively evaluate what they are doing, either in practice or during games. Most pitchers have a difficult time evaluating their personal performances in a way that will assist them in improving their game. It is not uncommon for pitchers to only see the good things and the results, such as ERA, hits given up, walks, and the number of strikeouts. These results do not give a clear picture of what happened during the actual outing and the events that transpired leading to these results. Most pitchers see themselves as pitching well and the “rest” of the team making mistakes, errors, or not scoring runs as the primary reason for their lack of success. Coaches should be aware of these situations and plan a visit or sit down with the pitcher between innings to discuss what they want to occur rather than what has been happening. A good pitcher will be able to evaluate all these things and gain control of his emotions once he has developed a plan of learning to make adjustments.
Pitching is a difficult task, and learning to pitch with a positive attitude and well-established pitching psychology are important factors in predicting success. These key areas will enable the coach to develop practice situations to gain the desired outcomes during a contest and assist in recognizing certain points of emphasis that can assist in this success. Coaching pitchers on the psychological aspects will greatly enhance development and peak performance.
Mike Matulia is in his 8th year as Athletic Director and Head Baseball Coach at Lake-Sumter Community College in central Florida. Prior to his present position, Mike spent six seasons at Miami-Dade Community College as the Associate Head Coach until the program was dropped. A native of Frederick, Maryland, and a graduate of The Citadel, Mike began his coaching career under Hall-of-Famer Chal Port at The Citadel. Mike has published several articles and co-authored a book with Dr. Charles Greene, Build A Winning Pitcher-Catcher Combination, which received outstanding reviews from coaches and players around the country. Coach Matulia has conducted several clinics for youth, high school, and college teams, and has presented at the American Baseball Coaches Association annual clinic. He has also served on several committees at the state and national levels.