The Head is Not Just a Hat Rack

FUNdamental Skills
By Darren Fenster

“Baseball is 90% mental, and the other half is physical.”

While nobody truly knows what Yogi Berra was talking about when he famously said that many years ago, along with his countless other now-legendary Yogi-isms, he may have been one of the first to shed light on the role our mind plays in our successes (and failures) on the field. Most Major League teams in this day and age have Mental Skills departments in their baseball operations, created specifically to help develop our players on the mental side of the game, just as a Player Development department works to improve their physical abilities.

Currently in my sixth season coaching with the Red Sox, following six years on the coaching staff at Rutgers University after my professional playing career ended, I’ve been fortunate to have worn a number of different hats that have given me a very unique perspective on the game. From my vantage point, the differences between various levels of the game are as apparent as the many similarities that exist across the board when it comes to the things that put players in a great position to be successful, along with the clarity as to why they fail.

Without question, the biggest separator in the game at its higher levels is not talent, but rather mental makeup. Everyone playing college or professional baseball is talented. But not everyone carries the mental fortitude to continue to grow and develop when the talent pool becomes an ocean of great players.

Many are well aware of the five tools in baseball: the abilities to hit, hit for power, run, throw, and field. What few realize is that there are actually six tools in the game, the last of which can make those aforementioned five significantly better, or markedly worse. A player’s abilities to focus, handle failure, deal with success, and play under pressure are all far more mental skills than they are physical. The head is not just a place to hold a hat; it is a player’s sixth tool.

“You can observe a lot by just watching.”

Yogi had it right again, as only he could, with his understanding of the value to simply sitting back, and watching what’s going on around us. As impactful as we can be on our players both on and off the field, the game itself can repeatedly be its very best teacher. By taking the game in with focus, from the bench or field, players can use the information they see and apply what they learn to their individual game, taking their physical skills to a higher level. When players fail to observe and use everything around them, it’s akin to a teacher giving his students a bunch of hints to an exam that go completely disregarded.

For hitters, at bats shouldn’t start when they set foot in the batter’s box, but rather begin from the dugout and on-deck circle by keenly watching the pitcher to see his pitch repertoire and to get a feel for timing out the delivery. Defensively, it’s identifying pull hitters versus guys who look like they will go the other way; power guys versus Punch-and-Judy’s. It’s learning to adjust hitter to hitter, pitch to pitch, based on the information we see and putting it into where we position ourselves on the field. On the mound, it’s noticing when a hitter has no chance to catch up to a fastball (and throwing it again), or seeing when that next hitter struggles to pick up the spin on a breaking ball (and throwing it again). And on the bases, it’s looking to see where the infielders and outfielders are playing before taking a lead (so the runner can get a better read on a ball off the bat, knowing if the ball has a chance to be caught or not). It’s watching the opposing pitcher’s delivery from the stretch and figuring out if the delivery is slow to the plate (and good to go for a stolen base) or a quick slide-step (that may keep us anchored).

When kids are introduced to the game at an early age, they just go out and play for the fun of the game and for the love of the game. As players mature and advance to higher levels, while most still have that true joy to play, many build an ability to also think the game in the manner described above; this is a product of experience between the lines, as well as from simply watching others doing the same. It’s never too early to introduce this train of thought to players, as the sooner they start thinking the game, the better they will become at playing it.

Spend enough time around the game, and it’s easy to see how baseball in many ways is a chess match of sorts: a constant game of adjustments with players and coaches trying to outsmart one another. With that constant give and take comes the innate pressure to the game: pressure on hitters to get on base or to drive in runs; pressure on pitchers to get hitters out or to throw a strike with the game on the line; pressure on the defense to take care of the baseball or to prevent a runner from taking the extra base.

Every part of the game has its own kind of stress that, when we are not prepared to handle it, can be our players’ downfall. The funny thing about pressure is that it’s immeasurable. We can’t see it, but can definitely feel it. We feel it in the dugout coaching, just as our players feel it on the field, playing. But for as much as it is a part of the game, there is a way that we can help our players prepare to handle it: by practicing under pressure.

Since every single aspect of baseball carries some kind of potential pressure with it when the game comes around, we can create some kind of chaos that adds stress to those parts when we practice. Sometimes, that may be as simple as playing for something… anything, like batting gloves to the winner of a situational game during batting practice, or a t-shirt for the pitcher who hits the most spots to perfection in the bullpen. Other times, the pressure can be a penalty on the line, like the group who fields most balls cleanly gets out of conditioning for the day, or something to build team chemistry with the entire team watching a single play as if their lives depended on not running.

By working on the mental side of the game, whether it be using the mind to think as a game is going along, or learning how to handle pressure by practicing under it, we cannot discount the role the brain plays when our players play. In 1989, Harvey Dorfman wrote the book, The Mental Game of Baseball, detailing countless principles that still apply to this day towards gaining peak performance on the diamond. Some 28 years ago, it was well ahead of its time, when players and coaches alike were scared to admit to the mental stresses that the game presents on a daily basis. Today, with the help of that book, Yogi Berra, and countless others, it’s apparent that the head is not just a hat rack.

Darren Fenster is a contributor to the USA Baseball Sport Development Blog, and is currently the Minor League Outfield and Baserunning Coordinator for the Boston Red Sox. Previously, Fenster was the Manager of the Portland Sea Dogs, the Double-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. A former player in the Kansas City Royals minor league system, Fenster joined the Red Sox organization in 2012 after filling various roles on the Rutgers University Baseball staff, where he was a two-time All-American for the Scarlet Knights. Fenster is also Founder and CEO of Coaching Your Kids, LLC, and can be found on Twitter @CoachYourKids.