Archive for April, 2011

Back to the Future: BBCOR bats are changing the mind-set in baseball

Back to the Future:  BBCOR Bats are changing the mind-set in baseball

Sporting federations and leagues dedicate enormous resources in regulating the impact of technology on the integrity of their respective sports.  For the first time that I am aware, baseball has joined this ever expanding group, with more restrictive regulations for bats being used in High School and College Baseball.

BBCOR bats are designed to act more like wood bats, as they are engineered to reduce the speed that a ball leaves the bat.  This nationwide movement to BBCOR bats was spurred, in part, by the near death of Marin Catholic pitcher, Gunnar Sandberg, last year after being struck in the head by a comebacker. 

While there are many voices for and against these changes, there is no doubt that the advent and implementation of these bat changes have taken baseball back to its roots.  No longer can a hitter get rewarded with an artificial hit just because his bat is made of some chemical compound.

A recent NCAA article lends some initial support to the effectiveness of BBCOR bats, as 2011 mid-season offensive statistics are below those of 2010.  The trend is expected to continue as long as bat standards continue to be compared to wood bats, not last year’s model.

“Small ball” is making a comeback because it has to.  BBCOR bats seem to be leveling the playing field and separating better players from average ones.  If this progression continues, position players in baseball will be forced to develop more all-around offensive abilities and develop a hitter’s “tool box” that includes different ways to get on base and score runs.

One of my core beliefs, is that inherent in sport is the need to adapt and adjust.  In earlier years, talent can carry someone a long way.  Yet, as talent gaps shrink, adversity increases and athletes reveal their ability or inability to cope with different, stressful and ever-changing circumstances. 

BBCOR bats are revealing weaknesses in hitters who benefited from the technological advantages provided in the pre-BBCOR era.  Hitters will now begin to experience difficulties earlier in their careers, as before BBCOR bats many baseball players eventually learned that their metal bat swing did not get it done when they moved to wood. 

Wood bats are simply the tool that separates good hitters from average hitters.  With BBCOR bats being made to react more like wood bats, this separation will begin to occur sooner in one’s career, rather than later.

From the psychological perspective, BBCOR bats will also reveal how hitters cope with and respond to the adversity created, either real or imaginary.   There are certain patterns I see with hitters, in both baseball and softball, no matter what bat they have in their hands. 

Hitters will show their frustration through swinging more or swinging less.  They will become indecisive and not be able to start their swings or they will swing at any pitch thrown.   Physical tension will show itself in a hitter’s forearms and grip of the bat.  Every hitter knows the feeling of what it is like to freeze on a pitch down the middle of the plate and not understand why they could not swing the bat.

Hitters will think they are thinking too much.  They will search for mechanical and technical quick-fixes, yet their performance may not improve.  In sports, especially baseball, the first thing athletes do is to try and fix something mechanical, when what plagues them is something else. 

This all occurred before BBCOR bats and it is my belief that more hitters are experiencing these roadblocks, frustrations and dips in their offensive production than ever before. 

This is also occurring to a generation of hitters who were used to certain expectations when they hit the ball, fair or unrealistic, and now they will have to not only adjust to the physical limitations but also the psychological ramifications of not having the same outcomes.

Individual players will now have to work harder and work smarter.  No longer can the average baseball player just take 100-200 swings a day.  BBCOR bats will challenge individual players to focus more on improvement, doing things correctly and becoming a complete and all around hitter.

Harbour Town and Aristotle

by Matt Cuccaro, Ed.M.

The PGA TOUR is in my backyard this week at Harbour Town Golf Links in Hilton Head Island, SC.  Harbour Town is a unique venue.  The course is not long, the rough is not “rough”, and the greens are not heavily undulated.  The course is extremely tight with trouble lurking on every hole, however.  Magnificent trees form fairways that look like slender, meandering bowling lanes.  Approach shots into the greens require pinpoint accuracy as treacherous bunkers, water hazards (including the breathtaking Calibogue Sound) and seemingly endless outstretched tree limbs protect the smallest greens on the PGA TOUR.  A power game typically does not prevail.  This place is suited for golfers who manage their games and themselves with precision.

Golf is not a game which requires world-class physical conditioning to attain success. It is, however, a game which requires a high level of mental and emotional conditioning to endure the many challenges it brings.  Aristotle put it best in The Nichomachean Ethics by saying, “Anyone can become angry – that is easy.  But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and the right way – that is not easy”.  From a mental perspective, anger causes attention to narrow which hinders decision-making.  From a physical perspective, anger causes increased tension and a lack of body awareness. None of these qualities lend themselves to quality golf, especially at Harbour Town.

This course will likely bring about its fair share of anger from competitors who unexpectedly catch an outstretched tree limb, find a lingering hazard, or watch a ball deflect off of a railway tie which rests only feet from the one place the ball is intended to finish.  The victor will likely be the individual who manages himself and channels his emotions appropriately from the tree-lined chute on #1 tee to the expansive (yet typically wind-blown) 18th fairway.  On Sunday afternoon the tartan jacket will be placed on the shoulders of the man whose mind and body work in unison, allowing him to execute with precision under the exciting, challenging and uncertain conditions of the RBC Heritage at Harbour Town Golf Links.

The Problem With “Confidence”

Confidence is at the back bone of high performance. This being said the labeling and diagnosing of athletes in need of help with confidence seems a bit short-sighted. Being quick to suggest an athlete needs more confidence runs the risk of both missing the heart of the matter and serving up insult.

  • The prep school lacrosse player that dresses with the varsity team, believes he can run with the starting line, but bumbles and stumbles a bit when given some spot starts against tough competition. In need of confidence… or skills to manage performance stress?
  • The equestrian competitor, full of passion and just beginning her competitive career, that struggles with “What if…” statements bouncing through her head on show day. In need of confidence… or short on experience and self-awareness?
  • The wrestler that is inconsistent on the mat despite loads of talent and a decade plus of experience. In need of confidence… or more optimal goal-orientation and focus?

All of the above athletes walked into my office having been “diagnosed” by a coach, parent, or self as having problems with confidence. A bit more precision (and accuracy) helps get at the heart of the matter and improve performance. Furthermore, have you ever seen a high-school, collegiate, or young professional athlete’s reaction when labeled with low-confidence? It’s often one of disbelief and disregard. It’s a bit insulting for striving athlete, one that often identifies him or herself with toughness, to be called low on confidence regardless of the statement’s veracity.

“Confidence” (or sports self-efficacy a term I like better) is a multi-faceted and multi-layered phenomenon. When using it as a label be wary of the limits of the term’s precision. Furthermore, when challenging a player’s confidence (whether with the best intentions or not) think about how confidence claims shape the dialogue with the athlete. Developing the mental game requires an open minded athlete and efficient approach to cognitive-behavioral growth. When considering “confidence,” step back and consider the best way forward.

Training for Patience

It’s important to remember that success isn’t going always going to happen overnight. Whether it’s waiting out a performance slump, looking to break into a starting line-up, or finally overcoming a nagging injury, patience isn’t just a virtue – it’s a necessity. Athletes and coaches can be notoriously impatient. I once reminded a coach that “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” He told his assistant coach standing next to him that it was strictly because he wasn’t the foreman. I’d be the first to tell you – I’m not very patient. However, I’m a firm believer that good things can and will happen if one is patient and persistent.

Sport is full of examples of patience and persistence paying real dividends for athletes and teams.   Similar to any skill – patience takes time and well – patience – to perfect. Here are some necessary components of patience-training:

Patience starts with developing realistic expectations. Often, previous experience with instant or seemingly “overnight” success can breed impatience – especially when confronted with a task or problem that will take time to fulfill or overcome. Most of the time we aren’t going to experience success immediately – but we can’t get discouraged and give up on our efforts. Success is often a function of time and effort. Setting realistic goals for improvement and/or success is a necessity.

Recognizing setbacks as temporary is another important component of patience. Growth and development rarely occur in a smooth, upward trajectory. We things go awry, you have to step back, evaluate the situation, make the necessary adjustments and continue on. Thomas Edison invented the light bulb after thousands of unsuccessful experiments. Yet, he never viewed his failures as a waste of time – “I realized after each attempt I was successful in proving that you couldn’t make a light bulb in that manner.” Setbacks aren’t just temporary – they may even be necessary feedback in order for us to reach our potential.

Choose to be part of the solution and not part of the problem. Setbacks make it easy give into bitterness: “Why me?” “What did I do to deserve this?” “I don’t deserve this!” Ultimately, this outlook – one that focuses on outcomes rather than process – doesn’t move us any closer to success. A more effective outlook would reflect patience in the process. It’s asking at the start of each training session: “What will I do today to get a little bit closer to where I want to be?”

Finally, remember that patience is rooted in the belief you can overcome. This kind of belief doesn’t guarantee success but it does create an environment that fosters success. It’s the opposite of doubt, worry, and fear. It predisposes the athlete to perform well and then allows talent to take over. As my graduate advisor loved to say, “Trust is a mindset. It’s not dependent on circumstances or situations. It’s really the will to choose.”

Not-So-Great Expectations

Working recently with a high school cross country runner, the theme of “expectations” has been a frequent discussion point.  Similar to many others, cross country is, without argument, a numerically-driven sport.  This runner bases his perceived competence, his athletic enjoyment, his post-race mood, his sense of self-worth, his family stability, even the soundness of his sleep on running time.  And I doubt he is unique in this outcome-glorified school of thought.  Time, after all, is so measurable, so final.  We can clearly see and understand numbers.  Especially for the high school athlete, mentally and physically rehearsing the actual result is more alluring than rehearsing the process by which the result is created.  It’s also often easier to image an outcome (the visual experience of running a 5:20 mile), than a feeling (the multi-sensory experience of running with confidence, purpose, and consistency).  One’s tendency to focus on the outcome can make running a certain time appear more easily attainable.  And what’s easily attainable should be expected, right?

Well, can a runner fully control his or her running time?  Weather conditions may play a factor, as may the quality of the track or running shoe, or the presence of other runners.  A runner does have total control over the amount of effort put forth, over his quality of preparation, over his sleeping patterns & eating habits, over his breathing patterns, his mid-race focus, and his attitude.  Beyond that, there’s very little over which he has complete power.  So how can something not fully within an athlete’s control – for instance, the outcome of a track meet – be expected?  When it comes to results and other uncontrollables, expectations have no place in sports.  Perhaps this real-life off-field example will demonstrate my point.

Imagine you are in the doctor’s office for your routine physical.  Expecting a clean bill of health, you’re surprised when the doctor tells you he’s detected an odd growth by your abdomen.  A bit concerned, a biopsy in conducted, the results for which will be available in 5 days.  After 5 days of unrelenting torture and thoughts of various worst-case scenarios, you receive a phone call reporting that the growth was benign.  You’re perfectly fine, the doctor says.  That moment, immediately following the phone call, may feel like the best of your life.  Nothing’s changed since 5 days prior – you have the same health, you’re in the same position in which you previously were – but you’re grateful for your health now.  Why?  You were hoping for it, yes, but you weren’t expecting it.

We typically go about our lives expecting health, taking it – among other things not completely within our control – for granted rather than being thankful and grateful every day for it.  Wouldn’t we experience greater happiness if we were to wake up every morning acknowledging and appreciating that which we seldom acknowledge and appreciate? “Wow, I feel great and healthy, I have warmth and food and vision and love – I’m so lucky for this.  I’ll make today a special one.”

In the context of sports, if one expects a certain result, the athlete may be underwhelmed in response to it being achieved (“Hey, I expected to run this time, I was supposed to do it, nothing surprising here”) and completely demoralized in response to it not being achieved (“I can’t believe I didn’t do it…I never thought this would happen, what’s wrong with me?”).  An athlete with outcome-oriented expectations has no opportunity to enjoy that youthful exuberance that accompanies success – an exuberance, I contend, that’s a prerequisite for maintaining motivation in sport – and may not fully appreciate that success.

But aren’t some expectations helpful?  Can’t we expect, for instance, to be properly energized for a race, to adopt a positive and relaxed attitude three minutes before the meet, or to maintain our focus mid-way through the race if passed by an opponent?   Well, these factors are personal, process-oriented, and lie within the power of our own control.  If we recognize that focusing on such factors are the ingredients to success, and we develop strategies and purposefully set goals to commit to these factors, then yes, we certainly may set expectations.  “In tomorrow’s meet, I expect to stay focused on my running rather than on everything else going on and expect to push myself to maximum intensity after the third lap.  To ensure this happens, I’ll leave reminders in my gym bag, read my mental notes on the bus ride there, and spend 3 minutes pre-race creating that mental image of what my perfect race feels like.” A concrete plan, a few strategies…why not expect that which you’re planning on working hard to accomplish?

I say above we MAY set expectations because, as is typically the case in sport, it ultimately depends on the athlete.  For runner #1 who expects to run with a certain intensity level (“I really should push it hard tomorrow”), doing so may produce unnecessary pre-competition pressure, muscular tension, and an excess of unhelpful mental chatter.  For runner #2 who expects to run with a certain intensity level (“I really should push it hard tomorrow”), doing so may act as fuel, increasing motivation and focus levels and pump him up beyond belief.  We’re all idiosyncratic, and that makes the field of sport psychology so addictively challenging.

Leave behind expectations that are result-driven, as it’s something we very seldom have full control over.  Focus on the process, develop a plan for how you’ll achieve those process goals, and, whether or not expectations are set, allow yourself to be appreciative and gratified once they’re accomplished.

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