In an attempt to better serve the coaches, players and parents involved in youth baseball, the PBSCCS periodically publishes information on factors that can affect conditioning and performance in at this level. Topics are selected from questions submitted by participants, coaches and parents involved in youth sports.
Why Do Some Players Perform Better in Practice Than in Games?
Gene Coleman, Ed. D., RSCC*E, FACSM
A parent of a 10-year old baseball player was concerned that his son looked great in practice, but was unable to carry it into games. The following response was prepared after consulting with specialists involved in sports psychology and coaching at the university level, MLB and those in private practice.
“During my career, I missed more shots than I made, but I never stopped playing hard because I was having a bad day. The only way to avoid missing shots is to stop shooting. Don’t be afraid to fail. You have to try to succeed and you can’t succeed if you are afraid to try”. – Michael Jordan
“Never let the fear of striking out get in your way.” – Babe Ruth
“You can’t think and hit at the same time.” – Yogi Berra
“Fear of failure leads to more fear, which leads to more failure.” – Cal Ripken, Jr.
A lot of good athletes fail to perform in game situations because the pressure that they feel in games is significantly different and more intense than the pressure that they feel in practice. It is not uncommon for some players to say that they are more nervous in games than in practice. Experienced coaches and sports psychologists believe that the reason players get nervous in games is because they have a lot of chances in practice and a few in games. Recent data tends to support their belief. Inspection of fielding data between 2017 and 2018 indicates that the typical MLB infielder has, on average, 2-6 fielding opportunities per game and MLB outfielders have 2-4 opportunities. On the offensive side, the typical MLB player has 3-4 at bats per game and takes, on average, less than 10 swings per game. These values are average and can increase significantly especially in high-scoring and extra inning games.
You might think that these values are low, but if you look at the stats of one of the best fielders in the game, Derek Jeter, you will see that they are not. In 20 seasons, Jeter played in 2,674 games and 23,225.4 innings and had 10,679 fielding chances. When you divide his chances by the games and innings played, he averaged 3.99 fielding chances per game and 0.46 fielding chances per inning. When you add in his putouts and assists, he touched the ball, on average, approximately 8 times per game and slightly less than 1 time per inning.
Think about it. If MLB players are fielding 50 to 100 or more ground balls and/or fly balls per day in practice and taking 4-5 rounds of batting practice, but getting fewer than 6 chances in the field and less than 10 swings in a 9-inning game, imagine how few chances and swings youth league players are getting in games that have 90-minute time limits and often last 4 innings or less because many pitchers lack the command of their Big League idols. Most youth league teams practice for 60-90 minutes 2-3 times per week for 1-2 hours per session, play 3-6 games on weekends and sometimes play two of more positions in each game, so they get fewer chances at each position. Practices tend to be significantly less intense than games. If they mess up in practice, so what? They can still do it over and over again. In games, however, they sometimes have only one chance. If they blow it, they don’t get a “do-over”. There’s no second chance which, in the mind of the player, puts a lot more at stake on every fielding opportunity and at bat. While this line of reasoning is usually not true, it highlights the main mental mistake responsible for this problem – focusing on the outcome, i.e., the result.
In practice, players tend to concentrate on what they are doing at that moment and little else. They don’t focus on the outcome. If they miss a ground ball, misjudge a fly ball or swing and miss, there is little or no consequence. No win or loss. No failure. No blame. No boos. No one gets benched. No scholarship is pulled. They re-set and try to do better on the next chance. They don’t pressure themselves to produce. They are not focused on or worried about failing or messing up. Instead, they are focused on the right things – what they are doing and how they are feeling. They are calm, relaxed and their muscles are loose. Because being relaxed is the secret to peak performance, many players usually do well in practice.
Unfortunately, this changes once the game starts. In their minds some players assign too much importance to performance. They focus on the outcome/result. They start to think about the “what ifs.” “What if I strikeout? What if I walk this batter? What if I hit this batter? What if I miss a ground ball? What if I misjudge a fly ball? What if I throw this pitch in the dirt? What if I bounce this ball or throw it over the first baseman’s head?” They pressure themselves to produce because they tell themselves, “Now it really counts!” Thinking about the “what ifs” leads to a costly mental mistake – they start trying too hard. Trying too hard is a losing battle. When a player pressures himself into trying too hard, performance decreases, nervousness increases, confidence decreases and muscles become tight.
So, what can you as a player do to make your performance in games look like what you do in practice? First, you have to stop pressuring yourself by thinking that everything is at stake in on every pitch and in every game. You have to let go of the “it’s now or never, do or die, there’s no tomorrow, hero or goat”. You have to get rid of the motivational garbage that that you have thinking before and during every game. You have to stop making yourself believe that this performance is so important that it’s larger than life. You have to leave your goals and expectations at home when you compete. This is easier said than done, but you have to understand that focusing on the outcome going into a game will ensure that your performance will usually not be what you want. If you want to perform well and give your team a better chance to win, you have to understand that focusing on the outcome will ensure that you don’t get the results that you want. You will end up with a lower level of performance and feeling bad.
Leave your goals at home, in car or in the dugout. Don’t take your expectations onto the field. If you pressure yourself for results, the results will usually be poor. Drop the outcome pressure and your performance will improve. You don’t have to pretend that the outcome doesn’t matter; it matters. Why else do we keep score? But, focusing on outcome is a mental mistake. Focusing on what might happen instead of what you are doing will set you up for failure.
To help solve the problem of good in practice, but not so good in games, you have to learn how to control your focus so that when you go into a game you are not making the outcome larger than life, regardless of how important the game is. To achieve peak performance, you have to block out how important this pitch, this at bat, this fielding opportunity and/or this game is and focus on what you need to do to execute effectively.
You need to learn how to discipline yourself to recognize the instant your focus starts to drift towards anything related to the outcome. Once you become aware that you are in the future and concentrating on the outcome, you want to quickly bring your focus back to the task at hand. It doesn’t matter how many times your focus shifts to the outcome as long as you are able to bring it back to what’s happening at this moment. You want to quickly return your focus to this pitch, this play, etc. The longer you allow your focus to stay in the future, the more nervous you’ll get and the greater the risk of poor performance. You can’t get uptight if you stay in the now and focus on what’s important.
If you want your performance in games to match what you do in practice, you need to start mentally duplicating what you do in practice in games. In practice you don’t pressure yourself. In practice you stay focused on what you are doing. In practice you are relaxed and having fun. In practice you are not worried about messing up or the “what ifs.” Think about what you do mentally in practice and then repeat these “mental strategies” in game situations.
If you are a pitcher who gets nervous to pitch, concentrate on one pitch at a time. Don’t get ahead of yourself. When you find yourself thinking about how important this next pitch is, stop, step off, take a breath, calm down, let go of your last pitch and re-set. Get your concentration back on what you are doing instead of what you think your coaches, teammates, fans and parents are thinking. Don’t get over anxious and let one bad pitch lead to two or more. Control what you can control and let go of the things you can’t control. Don’t try harder. It won’t work. Focus on only the things that you can control and then trust your preparation and skill.
If you are a hitter who is struggling in games, avoid thinking about what will happen if you strike out or strand a runner. Instead think about your stance, your set-up, seeing the ball out of the pitcher’s hand, executing the perfect swing and making hard contact. Those are the things you can control. You can’t guide the ball, control where it goes or whether it will be caught or not. You have executed your swing a thousand times or more in practice without ever thinking about it. Clear your mind and trust your preparation and swing. Yogi often told hitters – “No brain, no headache.” Focus on judging the pitch, executing your swing and making hard contact, not on the possible result.
The same goes for a fielder. Know the pitch type and intended location, read the hitter’s setup and swing and then position yourself to be in the best spot on the field to make the play. Get in your stance, create momentum by moving as the ball is being delivered, see the ball off the bat, use your experience to determine how hard it is hit, whether you should charge it, get around it, drop step before moving laterally or field a short-hop. Field the ball the way you were taught, then point your lead shoulder to the bag you are throwing to, take the appropriate step or steps, firmly deliver the ball to the fielder at chest height and follow your throw. Focus on what you are doing, not on what will happen if you miss the ball or throw it away.
Similar scenarios can be made for outfielders, catchers and baserunners. The physical skills and movements are different, but the objective is the same. Stay positive, stay relaxed and stay focused on how to do your job. Avoid the “what ifs”. Stay focused and let your body do the work.
If you are the coach or parent of a player who is experiencing this problem, you need to be supportive and find ways to help him focus on the process and not the outcome. Performing well, making errors, striking out, not covering home on a wild pitch, etc. are all outcomes. One of the reasons that a player performs better in practice than games is because he doesn’t have an outcome focus in practice and he does in games. Focusing on the outcome leads to tight, tentative, less than optimal play.
Every player wants and needs feedback from his coaches and parents. What coaches and parents say can and will affect a players pregame and in-game focus. So, it’s critical that parents and coaches are aware of what they say to their players and sons, how they say it and the timing of what they say. You can’t say “don’t suck today” in jest and expect a boy who is struggling not to take it personally.
Every player and every son needs approval. They joined the team to have fun and please an authority figure (parent and/or coach). They want respect, support, acceptance and approval. They want and need positive feedback when it’s warranted. Parents and coaches can’t provide too much positive feedback as long as it is deserved. Avoid criticism and negative comments. Approximately 75% of all kids who join a team, regardless of whether its baseball or not, will drop out by age 14. The primary reasons that they drop out are because they are not having fun, not performing or competing as well as they want and not pleasing an authority figure. Parents and coaches must be aware of the power that they wield on a daily basis. Understand also that sometimes what is said or not said to a player can help cause their performance problems.
“The ride home. I got to tell him what he did wrong.” – Koby Clemens on the best part of playing in a minor league game with his dad, Roger.
“Every time I got up, he told me to get down and every time I got down, he told me to get up.” – High school football player explaining to Bum Phillips why he quit football before Bum became the coach of the team.
“I like Little League Baseball. It keeps the parents off the streets.” – Yogi Berra
Gene Coleman, Ed. D., RSCC-E, FACSM, was the Head S&C Coach for the Houston Astros from 1978-2012 and is currently a strength and conditioning consultant for the Texas Rangers and Professor Emeritus in the Exercise and Health Sciences Program at the University of Houston – Clear Lake and Website Education Manager baseballstrength.org.