A Weak Mental Game Can Be Entirely Physical

Last week a parent called for advice on her daughter’s “mental game”. The girl would get upset very quickly. She was always expecting too much of herself. I asked for a video and the mother could not understand that request, but sent it anyway.

What I saw on the video was a kid who had every right to be frustrated. The things she had been taught made it impossible to fire off the mound, had her body contorted through the motion, and due to this lack of explosion she was putting way too much pressure on the shoulder to try to make up the difference. Yes, the mom admitted that the shoulder had been injured in the last year.
This pitcher can have the strongest mental game in the world but, until the physical problems are corrected, she will be ineffective on the mound and lose all confidence. I love kids with a strong competitive desire. That is the best starting point. But if you are standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon with all of the confidence in the world that you can leap across it, gravity will still win. That will change your confidence level the next time you consider such an undertaking.
Another destructive force in the mental game is the fear of injury. Once a kid feels pain, the brain goes into protective mode. It will find ways to reduce the risk. Let’s say a kid is hitting her hip so hard that it causes bruising. The brain will do one of three things. It will throw the hips backward so the arm can clear. It will slow the motion so the impact is lessened. Or, it will cause the arm to loop around the hips. All three actions have slowed the motion tremendously. The kid may want to gain speed desperately, but the cause of the impact must be identified and resolved first. There are 7 major causes. Okay, let’s say we find and fix the problem. Now she will throw faster, right? Not necessarily. The brain will continue the protective action until it is completely assured that injury will not result, whether it is looping outside the body or throwing the hips backward. The next step is to help the pitcher become confident in the new movement and begin eliminating the symptom (Looping or throwing hips back) until the brain relaxes and lets go. Only then can we achieve the desired speed.
The mental game is dependent on three physical factors. We have identified two. One is great form. Another is fear of injury. A third is proper strength. This is a huge subject. Let’s say a kid has anterior pelvic tilt and rotation ( predictably towards dominant side ) that is created by over active hip flexors and lateral thigh/ hip musculature. What did I just say? In simple terms, her core can no longer engage properly. She can no longer transfer energy effectively from the ground up through the legs and out through the arm. There is a breakdown in the chain. She may want to do well, she can try to do well, but the body cannot perform at peak. Trying to push through that vastly increases injury risk, and immediately the brain kicks into protective mode. Now you are fighting two of the three enemies of a strong mental game.
The mental game is still a huge part of her performance. A kid who wants to do well will more quickly work to eliminate barriers. But, until those barriers are identified and eliminated, no amount of competitive desire and confidence will allow her to reach her potential.