Denial Is Not Just a River in Egypt

Mental Skills
By Andy Bass

Player: “Coach I’m really nervous to pitch in this game.”
Coach: “Don’t be nervous… just have fun!

Player: “Coach I feel so sad cause I let the team down.”
Coach: “You shouldn’t feel sad. We won the game anyway!”

Player: “Coach it frustrates me that I’m striking out a lot recently.”
Coach: “Why? Just work harder in practice.”

Although these conversations may be the extreme side of player/coach interaction, we have more than likely experienced a similar back and forth at some point in our careers as player or coach. What is the problem with these types of interactions though? We want our players to have fun. We want them to be happy that we won the game. We want them to work harder in practice. What is missing is the coach, first and foremost, validating the emotional state of the player—that is the problem. Consider these different responses:

“Sounds like this game really means something to you, and is making you nervous.”
“I understand you feel down about how you played, and you may feel you let the team down.”
“It is frustrating to strike out, and that’s a hard part of the game.”

What is so important about this process? (For more in-depth study, see Validating Emotions). For one—we should not disagree with an emotion that a person is feeling. If a person says they are “feeling embarrassed,” they feel embarrassed. We may disagree with the action they took to become embarrassed, or perhaps the way that they dealt with the embarrassment, but if they feel embarrassed, they are embarrassed. Second, when we validate a person’s emotional state, several physiological things happen. The validation itself has the effect of slowing down the heart rate, dilating veins, and calming down the amygdala (the fight or flight portion of our brain). All these physical responses are beneficial to performance and working through the emotion.

Validating the emotions of our players does NOT mean they cannot also be disciplined, focused, and fiery competitors. Moreover, although we should not challenge the emotions that players are feeling, we can confront the actions/behaviors they take to deal with that emotion. If players slam their bats after a strikeout, or throw their gloves in disgust after giving up a homerun, we can discipline them for the way they dealt with the emotion. But we can also help them work through that emotion by acknowledging that we understand what they are experiencing (e.g. anger, frustration, sadness). Remember too that is often easier for players to deny the emotion, to put their heads down and pretend to “move past it.” It is actually more difficult to recognize the emotional space we are in, or to help someone recognize it. Do we want our athletes to take the easier route (deny what they feel and ignore it) or to take the more difficult route (engage with the emotion and work through it)?

The author would like to thank Jake Mencacci, Assistant- Coaching & Player Development, from the Pittsburgh Pirates for his input and edits to this article.

Andy Bass is currently a Mental Performance Coordinator for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Bass played college baseball at Davidson College and was drafted in the 18th round of the 2011 MLB draft by the Tampa Bay Rays. He received his PhD in Sport Psychology and Motor Behavior from the University of Tennessee.