COACHING TIPS: How to Get Athletes to Perform at Their Best during the Heat of the Game

I have had the good fortune to have known Rick Peterson for well over 20 years. And in the world of professional baseball, there is no one who is more respected when it comes to working with the top pitchers. Rick has studied not only the inner mechanics of how to pitch, but over the years, what impressed me was how he understood the complex impact a pitcher’s psyche has on his ability to pitch, and to pitch well, in a tight game.

An extremely busy guy who is much in demand in the baseball and the corporate world for his insights on performing well under pressure, Rick finally found time in his busy schedule to write a book entitled CRUNCH TIME: How to Be Your Best when it Matters Most. It’s a terrific and fast-paced read. Excellent insights along with entertaining stories. The book is written with Judd Hoekstra, who’s a VP with the Ken Blanchard Company. The book is published by Barrett-Koehler, and is in stores or available from Amazon now.

There are a number of excellent observations in the book, but overall the main takeaway is one of how a pitcher can learn to re-frame, or re-set their approach during crunch time. For example, I think every baseball fan watching from the stands or watching on TV has often wondered what does a pitching coach actually say to his pitcher when he’s a tight jam in a close game. That is, we see that coach going out to the mound to add a few words of inspiration to the pitcher.

So, what does the coach say? What are the magic words he delivers to his pitcher? Especially if the game is at a very tense moment, aka crunch time?

In short, Peterson first gets to know his pitchers so well during the course of a season that he instinctively finds a way to get them to relax by often injecting a sense of humor. This is no (pardon the pun) no joke. By finding a way to release the tension by getting the pitcher to smile and laugh for a few moments, that often releases the tension just enough for the pitcher to have a chance to re-frame their current predicament. It’s as though all the built-up pressure is let go, the pitcher can mentally re-group thanks to a good laugh, and can then go back and re-focus on the task at hand.

‘MY LEGS ARE NUMB”

Peterson tells the story of former All-Star closer Jason Isringhausen who was caught in a very tight and unexpected game. Nothing seemed to be working for him that day, and as the tension rose, Jason felt as though the wheels were truly coming off. After giving up another hit, Peterson was summoned to the mound.

“Rick,” Izzy started with real anxiety, “I don’t know what’s going on. I…I can’t feel my legs. It’s like they’re all numb.”

Recognizing that Izzy was experiencing a bit of a minor panic attack, and that he needed to blow off some steam and re-frame, Peterson added the perfect quip to get his ace closer to relax.

“Well, that’s okay about your legs,” Peterson said with a straight face, “Because we don’t need you to kick a field goal to win this game. We just need you to go and throw normally.”

A moment of pure laughter and the tension was broken. Izzy went back to work, re-framed his approach with that burst of humor and was able to regain his confidence and finish the game.

IS HUMOR THE ANSWER?

If you like that story and different kind of insight into alleviating tension, then you will enjoy CRUNCH TIME. Funny thing is, over the years as sports psychology has become more and more accepted, I have found that a lot of my colleagues insist that the best way to cope with the tension is by taking deep breaths, or by simply thinking positive thoughts. In my years of working with the Cleveland Indians and in coaching top college players, I never found that kind of approach to be all that effective. But humor, as Rick Peterson points out, is extremely powerful at getting the job done.   A well-planted line allows the athlete to laugh, to have fun, to step back, and to re-frame the situation, and go on to re-group and to re-attack the moment at hand.

There are other lots of other very applicable solutions in the book as well. For example, there’s some terrific observations on how we, as a society, always want our athletes to “go out and try harder” if they want to win. Especially during crunch time, you need to really push yourself and make a superior effort to push your game to a higher level.

Peterson makes a case that when athletes actually try and do that, e.g. a pitcher tries to throw even harder, then the result is a negative one. The pitcher often ruins their easy flow on the mound, and screws up their mechanics. In short, if anything, you shouldn’t try hard….you should try easy.

Pretty interesting observations. CRUNCH TIME,which features endorsements from Billy Beane of the Oakland Athletics as well as from MONEYBALL author Michael Lewis is available on Amazon.com and in bookstores now.