Updated: Nov 23, 2019
We finished state runner up during the 2018 softball season and it had nothing to do with our teams talent. We had averaged 8.5 runs per game, but in the double elimination state championship tournament, our team averaged just 3.6 runs in 6 tournament games. We knew facing some of the best pitchers in the state that our offense may take a slight knock, but to me the drop off was too steep and there had to be a reason for the precipitous decline.
The end of the school year 2018-2019 came against a backdrop of the baseball team I also coach (softball in GA is in the fall, baseball in spring) losing the state championship. Upon completion of the school year, I sat down to seek out what went wrong in those championship games and then compare what I found to what went right in the 5 state championship seasons I had previously been a part of.
What I found was intriguing.
Clutch Hitting against elite pitching was a commonality shared by each of the state championships I have been blessed to be a part of. In these state championship "runs", we faced many top arms in both baseball / softball, and performances that matched our season averages were not always the case, but there was always a moment during the run where the season was on the line during offense and someone rose to the occasion to propel us to a win. This conclusion, although factual, runs contrary to many of the “sabrmatricians” that will tell you that there is no such thing as a clutch hitter. See Link for details: https://www.baseballprospectus.com/news/article/38398/prospectus-feature-revised-look-clutch-hitting-part-1/
I dove deeper into my conclusion about clutch hitting to find it wasn’t so much that the championship teams I coached had 1 or 2 players that always rose to the occasion to get clutch hits, it was that there were (in some cases MULTIPLE) moments when a hit was needed to keep the season alive and the teams ALWAYS got the hits regardless of what hitter was at bat. In comparing that finding to the seasons in which we finished runner up, the same opportunities existed in the runner up seasons but those teams were unable to capitalize in the pivotal moment and get the clutch hit(s).
So with this knowledge I knew I had to figure out how to tap into something to help create a more CLUTCH TEAM. As the John Wooden quote says: we needed our team to “Perform at our best when our best is required”, which I did not believe we had not done in 2018.
There was a quote in particular made by one of my top softball players (a Division I commit) at the State Championship tournament that kept surfacing in my mind. Out of frustration after a poor performance in game 1 of the tournament, this player said “I can’t hit”! (going into the game she was hitting .531 and slugging .948)
I had to ask myself, if this player truly was suffering from a lack of confidence in that moment, had I supplied her with the skills necessary to regain her confidence?
With that thought in mind, I scribbled down the following thoughts:
“We want FOCUSED players with LIMITED DISTRACTIONS
LESS DISTRACTIONS MEANS LESS STRESSORS
LESS STRESSORS MAKE CONTROLLING EMOTIONS EAISER
CONTROLLED EMOTIONS MAKE IT EASIER TO FOCUS ON YOUR PROCESS
FOCUSED PROCESS MAKES MORE CONSISTENT AND CONFIDENT PLAYERS/PEOPLE
CONFIDENT PLAYERS/PEOPLE ARE FUN”
In an effort to turn thoughts into directives to my staff I focused on the end result of building confident players and came up with the following:
1. We need to make sure all practices, games and team interactions include an element of FUN
2. We need to teach players a thought PROCESS to use as a tool to bolster their Confidence
3. We need to help players learn to recognize and control their emotions so they can enact their PROCESS
4. We need to help limit distractions to players so that they can genuinely focus on perfecting their PROCESS
During our 1st softball staff meeting of the 2019 season, we decided that we needed to start by TEACHING OUR PLAYERS WHAT A PROCESS IS! It has become cliché in athletics to simply say “Trust the process”, but that means a million different things to individual players. Our staff wanted to define the process, lay out the benefits of having a process, and refine our process to assist the individual athlete in becoming a more CONFIDENT athlete.
Our staff reached a consensus that our teams emotions seemed to “spiral” out of control during crucial moments in the state championship tournament and we felt like that was a contributing factor to our diminished offense, or lack of clutch offense.
The disheartening thing about this “spiral” was that we had spent considerable time discussing the “Traffic Light Analogy” from Heads up Baseball, Refocusing strategies when things were beginning to spiral, leadership trainings discussing how to recognize a “spiral” and how to prevent it, and numerous talks about controllables and uncontrollables and yet, 2 separate “spirals” in the tournament contributed to losing a state championship.
We decided that rather than tackling team concepts in regards to “spiraling” we needed to take a new approach and make athletes more accountable to controlling their individual spirals and bolstering individual confidence. We thought the best way to do that would be to attempt to make each player more MENTALLY TOUGH, or MORE CONFIDENT PLAYERS.
At our 1st Team meeting of the year, our “Blast off dinner” (we used a space theme for the 2019 season), we unveiled the following PPT to introduce the concepts we planned to tackle during the season: https://3f942ada-e874-4d62-b6d71ad1b1d21313.filesusr.com/ugd/f35ae5_c51a8679527f4a1d993dad9455f59515.pdf
Our plan incorporated 2 important points:
1. Our mental toughness definition = believing in and sticking to your PROCESS no matter what
· In softball or baseball, mental toughness isn’t as much about physically persevering in exhausting circumstances as it is in being mentally CONFIDENT for EVERY SINGLE PLAY of the game.
With failure (especially on offense) being a cornerstone of the game, people have a hard time understanding just how difficult being CONSISTENTLY confident is to do. (as evidenced by my players quote at the 2018 tournament)
2. Our basic understanding of the Yerkes Dodson Curve
· Players ABSOLUTELY have an optimal level of performance and we needed to get our players to understand this, figure out what routines bring out their optimal level of performance, how to raise the optimal level through structured practices, and how to maintain the optimum level for an entire game.
It was these 2 concepts that gave birth to our “PROCESS JOURNAL”
The “Process Journal” was a google doc that was accessible by the coaching staff and individual player. We set up a spreadsheet with the following questions that we would answer in a computer lab prior to Friday practice each week.
Prior to the 1st process journal, each player identified to the coaching staff what they believed their individual process should be.
For a while, in the beginning part of the season, we had what we referred to as “PRESSURE PRACTICES” where we would place players in adverse situations to make them uncomfortable and them make them utilize their stated process to keep their mind in a peak state of performance! We did this in a competition style format which made the activity more enjoyable for all and gave players a chance to test their process.
We believed the ability to practice a process coupled with journaling would work, but only if we could give relevant feedback to the journaling. I read each individual response and commented on the responses giving feedback about the players process and helping guide them towards discovery of an optimal state of thought.
The coaching staff noticed that players would equate successful processes with successful results. This was problematic because we actually wanted players to FEEL the same whether they had failed or succeeded and not tie their mindset to their performance. In a way, we almost had to redefine what success on the field actually was for our team. Success for us became whether or not a player FELT in control of their emotions regardless of success or failure.
Over time, the journals became more thoughtful and individualized and working on strengthening our mental process actually helped us to develop more disciplined hitters. We drilled into our players that you cannot face an “ACE” pitcher every game, but the mental approach and routine taken against an average or below average pitcher is the exact same one taken against an “ACE”. Players began feeling more and more comfortable in their routines and as the year progressed, our results improved more and more to the point where our team went on a program record 23 game winning streak after starting the season 7-4.
In the end, our season was on the line again at the state tournament, and as in state championship games in the past, we were able to secure the clutch hits needed to squeak out two 1 run wins in the tournament against two “ACE” pitchers.
We have been good on offense before, but never as good as we were this past season with the big difference being the relaxed state our team ALWAYS seemed to be in. There were no negative spirals this year and I truly believe that our process enabled us to relax and raise our game to a new level enabling us to get the clutch hits when needed and free our minds to optimally perform to the point of setting the school records listed below.
Winning streak 23
Runs / game 10.52
Batting average .427
Slugging % .702
On base % .524