While sitting in the stands at a University of Florida game a few years ago, I began considering different things that brought two consecutive National Championships to Gainesville.
The Gators had great players, for sure. No doubt their coaching was great. I chatted with the head coach at an event we were both doing and was struck by his “blue collar” approach to the game. Still there is something else, and how can we apply that concept to training our pitchers and players?
It hit me. Everyone in NASCAR has a big engine. Many soccer teams are loaded with great players. All NFL quarterbacks can throw fast and long. Most pro golfers can hit very far and very straight. Tall is normal in the NBA. How do you stand out from the pack when you reach the point where talent is all around you?
Applied to pitching, the answer became very clear and very simple. What you take into the circle determines what you will get out of it.
If I were to take one characteristic and bottle it to help pitchers become great, it would be the ability to anticipate. Anticipation is the laser-like focus on specific things to come, and the discipline to put yourself in position to take advantage of it.
Anticipation begins with total honesty. You must be willing to take a long, hard look at yourself. Where am I strong? Where am I weak? How can I improve on both so that, when that one crucial moment comes in big games, I can step up to the next level, then the next, and the next?
In order to do that, you must be able identify the exact obstacles you will face. I like to call it “training for failure”. When the conditions are not ideal, when the hitter makes unexpected adjustments, when the umpire refuses to call my best pitch, and when my best stuff is not working, how can I prepare to win anyway?
Many of the greatest players in history, in every sport, were not the most talented. Here are qualities that set them apart from the rest.
1-They were able to imagine with clarity. They carefully observed their sport, then mentally put themselves in the toughest situations they could possibly face.
2-They imagine with purpose. The objective is anticipate challenges they might face so they will never be surprised. Once they totally understand the obstacle, they design a game plan for that eventuality.
3-They “scout” themselves. How would I attack me? As I get better and better, teams will try new ways to beat me. I must prepare to deal with new surprises.
4-As they gather this data, they make sure they clearly understand the skills they will need to keep winning. One skill at a time, they go to work, sometimes with help from a coach, designing a plan to develop themselves further.
Great pitchers know exactly where they need to be and when they need to get there. Let’s say you know you can beat a certain hitter with your best pitch. As you reach the highest levels, batters will know the pitch is coming and learn to deal with it. The key is in knowing when, and how, to set up that pitch. You can no longer “blow it by” everyone. The other pitches you throw are the key to getting her off balance. If you start with your main pitch, it may be smart to put it in a slightly different place than she expects. After you get ahead in the count, throw something she does not expect, and make it so good that she has to respect that pitch. If she starts to worry about other pitches, now your best pitch is ready to rock. Or, you may happen to fool her with one of your setup pitches, saving your best pitch for another at-bat. The problem comes when you miss the setup pitches, or you do not execute the strikeout pitch perfectly. Now, because of your lack of focus, things can get interesting and the hitter has the advantage.
Great pitchers know when, and exactly how, to turn it up. You must anticipate the different prongs of the attack and how to shut the door. Many pitchers, when they get in trouble, try to “throw harder”. That can be exactly the wrong strategy against many teams. There are a dozen or more ways to stifle a rally. If you are limited to one, opponents will quickly learn that and prepare for it.
Sometimes it comes down to tiny things, such as training a single muscle to be stronger, faster, or more flexible. Great pitchers pay attention to detail, seeking out the best experts to give them small advantages. How are you going to get there if the people supporting you do not have a history of creating great pitchers on the highest levels? Knowing exactly where you want to be gives you confidence to find people who can help you identify chinks in the armor that inhibit you.
You cannot wait until you get to the College World Series to determine if you are ready to compete at that level. That mindset assures that you will never make it. What you take into the circle determines what you will get out of it. One of the best ways to fail is to convince yourself you can get more out of the circle than you take into it. Not matter how talented you might be, you will meet hitters who spent years filling their tool chest. When they start bringing more to the box than you bring to the circle, that’s when your promising career takes a nosedive.