Mindfulness, Mental Imagery, and Breath

The goal of this section is to help you understand how mindfulness will not only help you be fully present in every moment, but will also take your play to the next level.  The lessons learned in this inning will help you focus and refocus at a moment’s notice in order to play your best game. In order to do so, you’ll need to master your breath. Breath work is a central component in remaining calm and present. We will discuss and practice breath at length within this inning.  

Your Best Game is Played with Your Quietest Mind  

Greatness happens in the present moment.  For true greatness to happen, you must have the ability to be present. In our 1-on-1 discussions, you may hear me emphasize the importance of  “being where your feet are”. It’s just another way of encouraging you to stay grounded, to focus only on what is right in front of you, and to stay present within this moment.

Mindfulness is an ancient practice that has been around for thousands of years, but not until recently did it find its way into the dugouts of baseball teams. Now every organization in the big leagues has multiple people on their staff whose main job is to teach and guide players to master the mental side of their game. It’s hard, even for professional baseball players, to make adjustments on the fly.  In a game where the smallest details matter most, and success is dependent on making the most miniscule adjustments, we have to be self aware. But you have the ability to become a master of your mentality in the same ways that the pros do.

Mindfulness is defined as “a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations”. Practicing mindfulness involves breathing methods, guided imagery, and other practices to relax the body and mind and help reduce stress. Baseball is a beautiful game, but it can be extremely stressful at times. When approaching the plate, for example, a rush of emotions can flood into our head. The question becomes, “how do we muffle these thoughts and clear the space within our mind to focus only on this moment?” Because as soon as you step into the box, this is the only moment that matters. Using effective breathing techniques is a powerful way to eliminate thoughts about “what might happen” or what the outcomes of this at-bat could be. By breathing in a way that relaxes both the mind and body, our attention becomes centered only on the present moment. That is how we play our best game.

If not, that’s ok. You’ll have one by the end of this section.

In other words, it’s the ability to be present in this current moment, free of judgment. We want to see our play through a rational lens, not an emotional one. Mindfulness allows us to make corrections and tweaks on what’s really happening, not false judgments based on worry or fear of outcome.  This present moment is where the game takes place, and where we should try to spend most of our time.  Anxiety or anxiousness is living too far in the future by worrying about “what might happen”. Being upset or bothered by things that already happened is living in the past and/or holding on to previous shortcomings. Mindfulness is how we separate ourselves from the past and future, and live each moment in the here and now.  The goal of true mindfulness is to sew each present moment to the next and the next. In doing so we stay truly connected to each individual moment, and that’s exactly how the game is played, pitch by pitch, moment by moment, right here right now.    

Mindfulness can also be a powerful way to condition the mind by training the ability to focus and/or refocus.  Think about when, as a hitter, the pitcher keeps you waiting. So you step out, get a breath and refocus.  We all have a very limited time frame of intense focus (on average less than 8 secs) so the ability to re-focus time and time again is a very necessary skill set. 

Most of us find ourselves uncomfortable in the present moment just sitting alone with our thoughts or just observing our surroundings. We can practice being in the present moment at any time. That way, when the time comes that you need to remove distractions during a game, you have everything you need in order to do so. In the sections that follow, we’ll discuss how you can practice breath and mental imagery in your every-day life. Ultimately, we are trying to develop two things: awareness and insight.

Awareness

knowledge or perception of a situation or fact

Insight

the capacity to gain an accurate and deep intuitive understanding of a person or thing

That person just happens to be yourself

Mindfulness training is essentially forming a deep awareness and insight into the most important person in your life: you.  

Think about these things in terms of a baseball game. Awareness is what helps you self-regulate and make changes to your game as necessary. Insight will give you a glimpse into how your body is feeling, what your strengths and weaknesses are, and where improvement can be found.  Any high performer uses these to their advantage. If used correctly, they will direct an athlete to make tweaks or changes to their game in order to best perform within the current environment.   

It starts with being aware of our own breath.

Breath

Before you begin reading the following section, listen to this guidance on breath from Dr. Michael Gervais. It will help you as you practice effective breathing. Below, you’ll be asked to pause and focus on your breath multiple different times. Each exercise has a different end goal, helping you to work on your breath with the goal of being more aware of your emotions, your body, and your environment.

Thoughts – Most days are spent in a type of informational overload and our mind is never given the chance to fully “explore itself”.  The quiet time that we try so hard to avoid because it’s uncomfortable or “boring” is exactly the time we want to be more comfortable with, allowing our minds to do what they do: wander. Where your mind naturally wanders when given the chance can provide an incredible insight into yourself and the things you truly value. 

Your thoughts are central to your athletic performance. The way you view yourself prior to or during game time can have a positive or negative effect on your game. (We will talk later about how self talk and our thoughts are central to confidence). Negative thoughts or emotions will never lead to positive outcomes. It’s your job to audit those thoughts and make sure they serve you well. Effective breathing will help you calm down, think positively, and set yourself up for success. While some players are controlled by their thoughts, the best athletes control their thoughts and in doing so, have complete control over their game.

Emotions – Breathwork will allow you to explore different aspects and events in your life. It will help train you to notice and observe your emotions and accept emotional reactions as they arise.  It will also allow you to be aware of your emotional state but not react in an emotional manner. Focusing on your breath slows things down and enables you to be aware of where your emotions are coming from. When you do that, it’s much easier to have a rational reaction as opposed to an emotional one.

You will experience a host of different emotions throughout the course of a game. Knowing how to handle them is important.  What do you feel after a subpar plate appearance or an inning where things don’t go your way? Do you learn from it and leave it or does it consume you? Do we have the ability to face the facts of what happened and make an adjustment or do our emotions run wild and ruin any shot we have to perform well the rest of the game? If you have the habit of taking a negative plate appearance to the field, doing effective breathwork during the game will keep you grounded and calm.

Physiology – Believe it or not, breath has a powerful effect on the way our body performs. Ever notice how when you think of certain situations, moments in your life, or upcoming events, it can cause a shortness of breath, tightness in chest, sweaty palms, etc? That’s because your thoughts are powerful and can have a very powerful effect on your physical body.  Learning to understand what thoughts lead to certain bodily responses is the foundation for ensuring they don’t affect you. Returning to our breath helps us regain control over negative thoughts and ultimately regain control over our body. 

Having the awareness to recognize when your physiology is changing during a game, as well as having a mechanism to correct it, is a huge skill baseball players can employ.  When you feel your palms get sweaty, anxiety ratchet up, concentration or lack of focus creep in, or performance doubts get louder, having your own personal breathing practice will help bring you back to right here, right now.

Environment – Just sitting and observing will help you notice things in your environment around you.  Being conscious of how both ourselves and our environment constantly change will give you a bit of freedom to modify yourself to these ever-changing surroundings. 

This practice is especially powerful in the midst of a baseball game. The landscape of a game changes on a pitch by pitch basis.  Having the ability to focus and refocus as the environment changes around you is an important skill set, especially in an ever-changing environment like a baseball game.

Breath work is so central to mindfulness because if we’re focused on breathing, we’re present.  When you trigger deep breaths in your diaphragm, it activates your “parasympathetic nervous system” which in turn lowers heart rate and blood pressure, bringing your mind to a much calmer state. This is why it’s so incredibly helpful to have a practice in place to utilize when either life or the game gets a little too frantic for you. Proper breath work can bring you right back to where your feet are.  Your breath is a powerful tool if used correctly and does much more than just keep you alive. Far too many of us take it for granted.

One last time, take a few minutes and sit in silence, focusing diligently on your breath. When you’re done, answer the following questions:

**Revert back to the opening video if this inning if you need a refresher on what a proper breath looks like**

Did you feel a sense of calm come over you, more relaxed, thoughts slowing down, heart rate or breathing rate slowing down? These are all signs that it was/is having a positive effect on you.  Remember, the goal is not to be free of thought, just more conscious of our thoughts. Acknowledge them, let them pass, and return your focus to your breathing.

There is no right or wrong time to practice your Mindfulness routine but I would encourage you to spend some time practicing (daily) when and how it works best for yourself. Studies show as little as 7 mins/day can provide an effective dose and will allow you to start seeing and feeling the effectiveness of mindfulness in your day to day life.  Be conscious of the changes that happen. How do you feel, what do you feel? More relaxed, more at ease, less stressed?  Try attaching it to an already in-place routine such as; “After I get out of the shower I will practice”, “after dinner I will practice”, “after I brush my teeth I will practice.” 

As you move through the next few weeks I want you to be conscious of the work you’ve done here and call on it in your day to day life.  Mindfulness and the power of it can’t be overstated, but it all starts with your breath.  We will speak at length about referring back to your breath and mindfulness so it’s important you get comfortable with your practice.

I look forward to hearing about your experience with this and helping you to develop a practice or routine that serves you well.

Mental Imagery

The movie you let play in your head is up to you to control.  Is it a highlight reel of all the amazing things you’ve done or are capable of doing?  Or is it all the areas where you feel like you don’t stack up, your shortcomings, your fears and worries?  Make no mistake, the stories that play in your head will continually affect how you see yourself in the world and how you perform on the field.  Too many times we allow the wrong movies to play and it has a detrimental effect on both the quality of your life as well as your performance. It’s your job to change the channel.

Mental imagery (using your imagination) is the ability to create and experience an event in your head, long before the event itself ever happens. Utilizing a mental imagery practice has the ability to be your super power and separate you from your competition. The goal is to internally recreate the event in an attempt to better control the reality once you actually get there. Come game time I want you to feel like you’ve already been there and already succeeded in that moment because you have already rehearsed and “seen” it in your head.

Remember as a kid playing baseball in the neighborhood and imagining you were playing at Wrigley Field or Fenway Park? That tree over there was first base, the manhole cover was 2nd.  We had ghost runners and we emulated our favorite players’ swings. Or playing basketball and counting down to the game winning shot with no time on the clock. The point is, we used our imagination, visualization or mental imagery a lot. You’re using your imagination right now painting a picture in your head of the words you’re reading.

Or as a kid imagining Christmas morning or an upcoming birthday, you were so excited. You couldn’t sleep and were counting down the days.  You imagined all the presents, the food, the friends and family that would be there, heck, we imagined so hard we couldn’t sleep at night. We all are very well versed in the art of visualization, we just have to get back to putting it into practice. 

Your brain doesn’t have the ability to differentiate between doing and thinking. So simply learning to “see” yourself doing something first in your head has the same benefits of physically performing the act. Let me say that one more time…visualizing yourself doing something in your head vs physically doing it in real life can have the same effect on your brain. Imagine being able to “practice” hitting the offspeed the other way while sitting on your couch. Or a pitcher visualizing a perfect outing, commanding every pitch, confidently moving through each batter before striding back to the dugout. You are much more likely to bring your best game to life if you can first “experience” it in your head, that’s imagery and it’s powerful.

Take for instance the following poem as I think it does a beautiful job of summing up mental imagery as well as the “mental game as a whole.”

“If you think you are beaten, you are

If you think you dare not, you don’t,

If you like to win but think you can”t

It is almost certain you won’t.

 

If you think you’ll lose, you’re lost

For out of the world we find,

Success begins with a fellows will

It’s all in the state of mind.

 

If you think you are outclassed, you are

You’ve got to think high to rise,

You’ve got to be sure of yourself before 

You can ever win a prize.

 

Life’s battles don’t always go 

To the stronger or faster man,

But soon or late the man who wins

Is the man WHO THINKS HE CAN!”

 

Walter D. Wintle 

It’s important to bring in as much detail as possible when practicing imagery, envisioning how things will look, feel, smell, taste and sound is important, we want to make it as real as possible.  Mental imagery is a powerful tool for high achievers and performers. What you think, you become. So controlling the narrative around future performance is imperative to performing to your true capabilities.  Seeing images of greatness in your head first increases the chances of these things coming to life.   

How can Imagery help you as a baseball player and why should you practice around it

  • To help maximize training – The best athletes use visualization to help maximize strengths and eliminate their weaknesses. Imaging having a problem swinging at breaking balls in the dirt or having a tough time spotting your changeup.  You can set up a visualization routine where you feel, touch, and see yourself spotting that change up exactly where you want pitch after pitch without ever picking up a ball. Or as a hitter you can set up a routine to where you see yourself taking breaking ball after breaking ball down in the dirt.  Remember, practicing these things mentally can have the same effect as the “physical” practice itself.
  • To maximize preparation and minimize fear – It’s no secret that quite a few athletes have fears around future performance. Coming up short, letting down teammates, coaches or parents, or just flat out embarrassing themselves with a sub-par performance. A proper visualization process helps you see yourself in an upcoming performance EXACTLY like you want to perform.  Visualization helps to drive another layer of preparation thus increasing confidence, which is never a bad thing (we will discuss confidence in depth in a later inning).
  • To help stay motivated – Inevitably times will get tough and the motivation to keep going might be tough at times.  Visualization can help you maintain the image of who you’re trying to be and what you’re trying to accomplish, making it a bit easier to stay in pursuit of your best self as an athlete. 

HOW TO USE IMAGERY AS AN ATHLETE

“When I want to turn it on, I have a routine I go through. I get away from the plate. I stretch, control my breathing, and slow up my heart rate. I slow up. I imagine myself putting the sweet spot in the hitting area just as the ball is getting there. I see a line drive going to center field. IT’s important to me to see myself putting that bat there and not swinging it. When I visualize, I feel my approach and the contact.”
-Reggie Jackson

When putting visualization into practice, remember the following: 

  • Be as rich in detail as possible – Bring in as much detail and make it as real as possible.  What day is it, day or night, what color jersey do you have on, turf or grass, what color is the opposite team wearing, what color are you wearing.  The more detail, the better.
  • Use all your senses – Be sure to incorporate all 5 senses when practicing.  What does it feel like, how does the bat or glove feel in your hands, what smells are present, what are we seeing with our eyes, what are you hearing, what’s the day taste like.  Be as vivid as possible when you’re using your senses.
  • What we want to happen, not what we want to avoid – When practicing your visualizations make sure you’re talking to yourself in a language of what you do want to happen, not what you’re trying to avoid.  This is a very important step, ensure you always speak to yourself or envision yourself exactly like you want to be, NOT what you are trying to avoid.  For instance, when a hitter is down 0-2 and his thoughts are of “don’t strike out”, the mind doesn’t process “don’t”; it only hears “strike out”. A better thought would be “see it deep and drive”. Make sure your speaking in functional directives

Effective mental imagery can have a huge impact across multiple aspects of your life and can help bring those goals you set for yourself to light. Your brain has a very powerful way of bringing to life what you’re feeding it. If you constantly feed it good visions of yourself and your future, you will get more good.  If you constantly feed it negative images or results you will continue to get negative images and results in return. 

HERE’S AN EXAMPLE OF A VISUALIZATION PRACTICE FOR HITTER

I step into the box, nobody on, nobody out.  right foot 1st, I hear the crunch of the dirt under my spikes, the heat of the sun on my shoulders, my batting gloves are white and i’m swinging a black Zinger wooden bat, my left foot now settles in the box, my eyes focus in on the pitcher, he’s tall and throwing right handed, his uniform is white, he has a blue hat, socks and belt on, my left hand goes to my helmet and I now settle in to the box and assume my stance, i’m thinking one thing only, see the ball deep and drive, pitcher goes into the wind up, I see the ball out of his hand, track it deep in the zone and drive it in the right center gap, I round 1st base and stand up easy at 2nd with a double, the dugout is clapping as I point both hands at them followed by 2 claps.  

The ability to practice mentally like the above in as much detail as possible will increase your chances of that double actually happening.  That being said, effective mental imagery will help you take a round of batting practice in your living room sitting on your coach.  Imagine that. Just sitting on your coach visualizing a round of BP going exactly how you would like.  Every ball barreled up and driven exactly where you want it to go, every mechanic of the swing perfect. Or a pitcher throwing a bullpen on his day off, every pitch, every mechanic exactly how it needs to be. That’s the power of visualizing, and it works and will make your next performance that much more likely to go exactly the same as your vision.

Now that we have been through the above, I would like you to spend some time working through a visualization. 

Find a quiet place and start with a few breaths from the mindfulness section

  • Select an event you would like to practice imagery around (could be the next pitching outing, next at bat, practice etc..)
  • Practice visualizing surroundings where it will take place, the field conditions, people in the stands, teammates. Envision the sights and sounds of the environment you will be in, is it  hot or cold, day or night.
  • Now using all 5 senses feel and see yourself in that moment performing exactly how you want to.  Bring in as much detail as possible and truly try to experience that moment, feel that moment as if it’s actually happening. Feel the wind on your jersey, the sun on your face, the smells, bring it all in. Now do so again and again to where each time you do that image feels more and more real. 
  • I recommend practicing this type of imagery as often as possible.  To achieve anything, it helps to 1st see it.  The more you practice this, the more you’ll both feel and see the useful applications of it.  

Mindfulness

Why it matters

The takeaway is mindfulness can be an incredible tool to help you remain present and calm which is a central tenet of baseball.  It will help you learn to focus and refocus.  It provides awareness or truth around what you need to do as an athlete to improve your game.  It provides a deeper insight and understanding of who you really are.  It has a powerful effect on your physiology and can help us regulate ourselves when we get out of control mentally.  It provides truth, the truth to our emotions so we can react accordingly, rationally not emotionally. 

How do you practice it

It’s important to note that I’m not asking you to join a yoga studio or start a full blown meditation practice, I am asking you to learn and explore the power of your breath as well as the calm stillness it can provide.  For practice, I would like you to put together a routine that works for you, one that you can stick to.  Let’s start by relistening to the attached 1 minute video on Mindfulness.  Dial in that breath work, surrender your thoughts and just be and breath.  Afterwards spend some time reflecting how that could help you in a game and how it made you feel, before and after.  If you feel more comfortable, feel free to explore some longer practices or routines.  Studies say 7 minutes a day can be a very effective time frame in developing your mindfulness routine, let’s work up to that time domain.  Just sitting, breathing properly, acknowledging thoughts as they come but getting right back to focusing on each individual breath.

Visualizations

Why it matters

The essential takeaway here is, one of the best ways to make something happen is to say it will happen and see it happen 1st.  You have the ability to control your thoughts around future events, but it doesn’t come for free, you have to put these things in practice.  Visualizations can drive confidence and we all know baseball is a difficult sport without it.  Visualizations have the ability to help drive future outcomes towards desired results.

How to practice it

To start off, I would like you to practice once a day visualization you want to bring to life.  For hitters It can be an at-bat, a series of at-bats. For a pitcher it could be an inning pitched, or just a few batters faced.  Start with your breath, then see yourself move through that experience exactly how you want it to happen.  Use the notes above, bring in all the sensory things you can to drive home a realness of your vision.  I want it to feel like you’re there, in that moment. Another great way to practice is to listen to a baseball game on the radio  (or your computer). In doing so you’ll get a very good glimpse into how visualization works and the detail it can provide.

Let’s check your work

You made it though the third inning! Submit your notes and answers from this inning here and keep an eye out for an email with a link to schedule time to go over it with me.