Aug 17, 2018
Visualizing Success

Sports are filled with rituals — from a football quarterback readjusting his helmet after each down to a softball pitcher taking a deep breath before every pitch. But do these routines amount to anything? Or are they nothing more than nervous habits? The truth is that a consistent routine can play a major role in helping athletes stay focused during high-pressure situations.

“Routines are extremely important for integrating the mental skills of performance,” says Dr. Patrick Cohn, a psychology expert and founder of Peak Performance Sports. “There’s always a divide between the conceptual part of a mental skill and the application, and routines are a great way to address this. They help athletes stay in the moment and focus on execution.”

These routines can manifest themselves in various ways, but essentially they are a type of visualization exercise. Players use these moments to think about the task at hand and visualize what they need to do to succeed. For a baseball pitcher, this could be where they need to throw the next pitch. A batter could think about what type of pitch to look for, and a fielder can anticipate where the ball is likely to be hit and where to throw should it come to him.

“Players have to learn to paint a picture of success in their mind,” says Steve Trimper, Head Baseball Coach at Stetson University. “We want them to approach every situation with a mental mindset, but that approach changes with every pitch. Whether the count is 0-1 or 1-0, you’re going to have a different approach at the plate or on the mound. So you have to visualize how you’re going to approach each situation.”

Having an established routine helps players visualize what they need to do next. This becomes increasingly important during pressure situations because it helps the player focus on the task at hand. Whether it is a pre-pitch, at bat, or fielding routine, developing a mechanism for staying in the moment can help players through the toughest of situations.

“I call it mental rehearsal,” Cohn says. “Basically this means saying to yourself, ‘This is what I want to do with the ball’ or, ‘This is where I want to take the ball,’ or, ‘This is the pitch I want to throw.’ Everything leads up to players being able to trust their muscle memory when it comes time to perform.”

Coaches can help players develop these routines by talking about them before the season starts. “Early on, we try to get players to understand the importance of routines and how they allow them to get into the moment and remain comfortable and confident even under pressure,” says Scott Berry, Head Baseball Coach at the University of Southern Mississippi. “After that, we let each individual explore and identify a routine he can use to be successful.”

Adam Moseley, Head Baseball Coach at Hoover (Ala.) High School, regularly stresses the value of routines to his players and makes sure they work on them in practice. “I explain to the players that routines are important to develop beforehand so that in the big spot of a playoff game they’re doing the same thing they did during the first week of the season,” says Moseley. “We try to identify a routine that is going to get them mentally prepared.

“Some players already have established routines, so we have them verbalize these to us at the beginning of the season,” he continues. “For those who don’t have one, we’ll offer suggestions that generally involve a visualization aspect. Some people look at the left field foul pole before they step into the batter’s box, while others stare at the barrel of their bat. Some pitchers draw something on the back of the mound. What they actually do isn’t important, as long as it’s something they can repeat time after time.”

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