Why do kids hold back and limit their performance?

Parents and coaches are always mystified as to why some players do not perform at full potential in games. Our Instructors receive questions about that all of the time. It happens with pitchers, yes, but also with other players. There are several major factors that affect both.

Barriers within the form are often the answer. Most kids do not take the same movements to the game that they utilize in practice. They get nervous and become tense, and tension is always the enemy in a sport which requires fluid and smooth acceleration in order to be successful. In order to understand its full effects, you must understand the science of tension. When we create an explosive movement we usually use one muscle to generate that explosion, and another to decelerate the muscle that created the dynamics. For instance, in overhand throwing you will feel the muscles inside the forearm stretch and cause the hand to whip the ball, and the ones outside the arm decelerate the hand so it doesn’t just fly off into space. One creates speed in the extremity while the other brings it safely to a stop.
When the mind is nervous, or tense, that mental feeling is introduced into the body. Tension is, literally, the action of employing the acceleration and deceleration muscles at the same time. She puts on the brakes while pushing the gas. No wonder form falls apart.
One of the best solutions is to make sure she is practicing great habits. If a pitcher throws seven great pitches in practice, but three pitches which are bad, many people would think she is doing pretty well. In reality, she practiced poor form thirty percent of the time. She needs to practice proper technique and movements so rigorously that she knows no other way to do it. That allows her to relax and become completely aggressive.
Many people say a poor performer’s “mental game” is weak. It may be, but most of the time she did not practice correctly and completely “buy into” the things which will make her successful, so she stepped into the circle with just a bit of nagging doubt. There is an ever-present fear that the improper movements will return. That lack of confidence causes her to become even more tense. With that mindset, the pitcher loses 5 miles per hour in actual games and moving pitches become non-existent.
Game situations bring out all kinds of distractions which affect her focus including noise, heat, poor field conditions, or even umpires with “unique” strike zones. Even though her arm circle may be smooth and perfectly aligned in practice, in a game she gets nervous and doesn’t get fully into a position to allow that to happen.
What can you do to help? Keep it simple. Don’t try to do too much. Make sure she has mastered a specific skill, and is fully confident in that skill, before moving to the next. A pitcher who is still struggling to control the fastball in stressful situations should not be trying to throw three other pitches. Build a great foundation and progress at the proper rate for that specific pitcher.
Make sure she knows exactly how it feels when she does it right. Let her be a part of the solution. Make sure every rep is perfect when you are correcting a specific movement. Find creative ways for her to receive feedback when it is done incorrectly.
Don’t try to do too many things at once. Sometimes a parent watches a daughter at lessons and recites a whole list of things she did wrong. That is too much information. Tension is guaranteed. Frankly, too many parents pour their own lack of self-discipline right into their daughters then wonder why there is a problem. Take the time to fix one thing. Take the time to make it permanent, praise her constantly for the correct movement, and momentarily disregard other barriers you may see occurring. Build one habit at a time.
Knowing which problem to address first is the key. Often, one of those issues may be causing another. Make sure you are addressing the root cause, not the symptom. That takes a lot of patience and study, so be prepared to put in the time and pay attention to details.
Finally, resist the temptation to have her push through it. The arm circle is a good example. She will never attain full speed until that issue is fixed. Control will be lost, and trying to push through it to gain speed can easily result in injury. The harder she tries the worse it gets.
Finally, realize there are different personalities. Some kids are totally aggressive, while others are slow and steady in their improvement. How they begin has little to do with how they will perform in a few years. Just because she doesn’t strike out everyone and hit home runs at ten years old doesn’t mean she won’t be great at sixteen. There is little correlation, in fact. Give her the tools and the opportunities, and allow her to run with them.
As she feels safe and confident with specific movement patters, she will learn to replicate them and become more aggressive with them. That is when you see her “release the beast within” and reach achieve the potential you knew was within her.