Secrets to Great Post Season Players

During the Major League Baseball playoffs , we are able to watch the best and longest standing reality show.  Sports in general is the original reality TV show.  We are able to live vicariously through the successes and failures of our favorite players and teams… it is happening .

For major league players, the argument that they are not prepared or “ready to play” is not necessarily valid.  In our clinics last week, we did the math on the number of hours these players have put into this season alone.  We determined that every player has well over 2,000 hours of work on their baseball skills this season.  Every player is physically prepared (barring injury) for a great post season.

The key to great performance in these high pressure games is the ability to relax under pressure.  When we listen to interviews after post season games, players often refer to their ability to relax and “breathe” in the moment as the key to their success.  Major league players work very hard to relax in big moments.  Great performances in playoff games are a result of staying calm under pressure, allowing for clear thinking, proper decision making, and letting their physical abilities take over in big moments.

Below are a few of the tricks of the trade to staying calm in a high pressure moment:

  1.  Simplify the Situation:  Every play in a big game has happened before.  It may feel different with the large crowds and overall buzz in the stadium, but great players find familiarity and simplicity in every big moment.  Starting pitchers have thrown (on average) over 2,500 pitches in competition by the time the playoffs start.  Hitters have had 600 at bats, and seen over 2,000 pitches during the regular season.  Great players are able to simplify the moment and gain confidence in the fact that they have done this before…and had success doing it!!
  2. Routines Rule:  Great players rely on routines to get them through adversity and pressure-filled situations.  Routines are consistent, familiar, and are designed to get the player in the right place mentally to perform.  Pre-Pitch fielding, hitting, and pitching routines are on display every game, every pitch throughout the entire season.  In a big moment, their subtle routines take over to remind them that what they are about to do is familiar and consistent with what they have been doing all season.  More on the power of routines in a future blog post.
  3. Breathe In/Out:  Among many other relaxation techniques, taking a deep breath is one the best ways for an athlete to decrease physiological stress. Nearly all great players have a purposeful, cleansing deep breath as a part of their pre-pitch routine.  If you are watching a game, look for the pitchers and hitters taking deep breaths as a part of their routines for each pitch.
  4. I Am Good Enough, Smart Enough, and People Like Me!:  Positive affirmation is one of the keys to bringing confidence into big games.  A great coach of mine gave us a very simple speech before one of our biggest games.  “You all have earned your way into this game.  You are here because you are prepared and are playing well enough to win this game.  All you have to do is go out and do what you have done all season.”  It was very simple, but gave us all the positive affirmation to be confident in that moment.
  5. Enjoy the Moment with Your Teammates:  Above all else, baseball is a team sport.  Actually, every sport is a team sport.  There is a team of people that have helped you get to this moment.  Enjoy it with your team.  Great players turn to their team and enjoy the moment with them, rather than fearing the possibility of individual failure.  Turning to a teammate with a “This is awesome” reminds everyone that this is a game and a challenge that we should enjoy rather than fear.
  6. Adversity is an Opportunity:  While some players look at pressure situations and fear failure, great players look at these moments as opportunities to do something great.  Lebron James and Steph Curry look at last second shots as an opportunity to win the game, and do not fear the failure that comes with that opportunity.  They give themselves permission to fail, in order to have the opportunity to win the moment.  The well known quote applies here:   “You miss 100% of the shots you do not take” — Wayne Gretzky

These are only a few examples of how great players perform under pressure.  As we watch the next big game, look for signs of these characteristics and actions in our favorite players.  And most importantly, remind yourself of these the next time you are in a big moment on the field.

Brad Woodall
— Former Major League Pitcher
— Owner, Woodall Baseball Academy and Silver Sluggers

10 Things to Watch in an MLB Game

Most of us are enthralled by home runs, strikeouts, diving plays, wins and losses. However, if we look closer between pitches and away from the ball, we can learn so much about why we will pay to see these players play the game.

Here are 10 things to watch in a game to teach us a lot about what great players do to compete with the best in the world:

1. Pre-Pitch Routines: One of the best things that a young player can learn from a major leaguer is the process that each player goes through to prepare for each pitch.  Professional athletes are the best in the world at what we call “working hard to relax” during games.  Taking a deep breath, active visualization, consistent focal points (feet set up, home plate, barrel of the bat, foul pole), and consistent movements before each pitch are just a few of the great examples of how the world’s best players relax under pressure.  A player’s routine before each pitch is their secret sauce for consistent preparation to compete every pitch in a game.

2. Pitch Sequencing:  Young players can learn so much from getting involved in the game on TV.  Play the game with the MLB players.  Put yourself in the batters box against Clayton Kershaw.  Guess along with the hitter as he tries to predict what pitch or location is coming next.  Young players strategizing within the game is a great exercise to prepare for their games on the field.  If you are a pitcher think along with the pitcher to put together a pitch sequence to get a hitter out.

3. Runners’ Leads:  Watch how baserunners take leads at first and second base.  Evaluate their footwork, their lead length, athletic positioning, and their secondary lead after the pitch.  Every step or hop has a purpose and a strategy. The name of the game is to get to the next base in every way possible.  MLB baserunners are in the business of scoring runs.  Baserunning strategy and footwork is a big part of the formula for scoring runs.

4. Player Communication:  Players are constantly communicating  between pitches.  It is tough to pick up with the camera angles, but watch how infielders talk to each other between pitches, especially when runners are on base.  Confirming how many outs, signaling who is covering on a steal, telling everyone who is covering on a ground ball to the pitcher, what pitch is coming and where to play depending on the count and hitters tendencies, and confirming with every infielder and outfielder what is happening on a bunt play are a few of the examples of communication.  Players are constantly talking to each other between pitches because there is little time to communicate during the play.  They need to be on the same page for their defense to run smoothly.

5. On Deck Process:  Mark McGuire used to stand in the on deck circle with his eyes closed visualizing his at bats in front of 50,000 fans.  Prince Fielder used to work on his timing getting his front foot down and getting to the contact position.  Watch what hitters do on deck to get ready for each at bat.

6. Coaching Strategy:  Coach along with the coach during the game.  Try to predict when and why the team might bunt or steal.  Whether they will swing on a 3-0 count.  How long will they stay with the starting pitcher before going to the bullpen?  What are they talking about during the many mound visits during the game?  Thinking along with the game makes young players much more experience when their time to be on the field and compete comes.

7.  Turns Around Bases:  Baserunners are running the bases looking for any opportunity to take the next base.  Their turns around the bases are aggressive moves.  If the outfielder bobbles, is slow getting the ball or lobs the ball in, good baserunners are looking for that opportunity to take the next base.  Great turns around bases are the first step in getting that jump to take the extra base.

8.  Fielders Footwork:  Watch how fielders prepare for each pitch.  Identify how 3rd basemen set up differently than SS and second basemen.  How outfielders set up differently from infielders.  Watch how infielders approach a ground ball with their footwork, their glove positioning and movement to get in position to throw.  Great fielders make great plays look rather easy with their footwork and glove positioning.  Pay attention to the details of their movement to see how they move into position to make great plays.  This same idea goes for catchers receiving the ball, pitchers mechanics to pitch from their windup and stretch.

9.  Hitters Taking a Pitch: Balance, great posture, hands back, eyes tracking the ball in…. Watch how great hitters take a pitch.  They often use a take as practice tracking the ball to see the ball better for the next pitch, when they swing.  Notice their balance and athletic positioning when a hitter takes a pitch.  They are always ready to swing, even when they do not swing.

10. Pitchers Holding Runners On Base:  There are many subtle ways for pitchers to hold runners on base and slow down the running game.  Holding the ball longer, head movement, various pickoff moves, quick step to reduce their time to the plate are just a few of the strategies pitchers use to keep baserunners from stealing the next base.  Young pitchers can learn a lot from watching how MLB pitchers hold runners on base.

11.  Bonus Watch– The Dugout:  The camera will often pan the dugout between pitches.  There are always many players on the top step of the dugout watching the pitcher, his pitch sequencing, how he holds runners on base.  Great players are always looking to find an edge.  Watching the game looking for any trends or tips from the other team can help them perform better during the 18 minutes of action of a baseball game.

There are so many other things we can learn from watching a major league game.  These are great ways to get you started, and to let a young player understand why baseball is really a game of strategy and anticipation for the next pitch.  Great players are great at preparing better than anyone else for the next pitch.  Watch the game to learn the details of how great players perform on the field.

Thank you for reading.  Good luck this season.

Brad Woodall
Owner- Woodall Baseball Academy and Silver Sluggers Baseball
Former Major League Player