It’s All Between the Ears.

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The game of baseball, as my 8 year-old son Everett commented yesterday, is weird.  It is played on a field that is partly grass, partly dirt.  The field is in the shape of a diamond of sorts.  There are a bunch of other painted spaces, though, where the coaches stand, the batters stand, the catcher squats, the pitcher roams, and so on.  The innings, the count, the score are recorded on the spaces of a wooden scoreboard or paper scorebook.  So many spaces. 

But the game of baseball boils down, in my humble opinion, to a single space:  The space between the ears.  I think this is probably true for all levels of the game, but I know it to be true in Little League.  I have seen this idea at work since my now 12 year-old played his first game as a 5 year-old.  Now, at the more competitive, “Majors” level of Little League, I feel like I am locked in a sprint.  A sprint to get our team’s players to recognize the power in their minds before the other teams’ coaches are able to do the same with their own players. 

San Francisco Little League does not “roll over” the same players to the same coaches and same team season after season. Instead, we coaches essentially start from scratch every season, with a new group of kids.  I understand that our league may be unique in this respect.  It can be frustrating, in a sense, because we invest so much time in these boys over the course of a season.  And at the end of it, they move over to a different team with different coaches the next time around.  On the other hand, the annual sea change brings abundant opportunity for the coaches to ply and hone their trade.  It’s exhaustive, exhausting, and so totally worth it. 

Each player is a mystery, and I don’t have much time to figure them all out, because the reality is that we do indeed want to win some baseball games.  There is a process.

I squint my eyes and wrinkle my nose in a season-long effort to divine what makes each boy “tick.”  What is the thing that holds them back from experiencing the feeling of achieving something they thought impossible?  And once I figure out the “thing,” then help them overcome it by applying some mental energy, how can I get them to embrace this?  And how do I help them understand that they control “it,” not I?  It’s theirs to conjure up at will, not something we can hand to them before they step to the plate.  And once they experience the heat and power of their newly-discovered mental intensity, how can I motivate them to maintain it? 

This last one is the kicker.  The most critical to a team’s success.  And more importantly, the most critical to the player’s “success” in life, I would say.

It is extremely difficult to keep up the highest level of focused concentration during the entirety of a baseball game without letting up even for an instant.  The ebbs and flows of the innings.  Periods of rhythmic chatter from the dugout, mingling with weirdly quiet lulls.  A player seeing absolutely no action for an hour, then suddenly fate thrusts him center stage completely out of the blue.  How can we expect kids to dial up the intensity and then stay laser-focused throughout all of this?

If they’re doing it right, the player in the field is seeing the batted ball heading his way, envisioning how he will surround it, and how he will get rid of it.  All in his head, in the moments before the pitcher unwinds and slings the ball towards the plate.  The fielder mentally rehearsing how he will move his body.  If the pitcher is doing it right, he’s doing the same thing.  Playing in his mind a movie of the next pitch, before he makes it, in the space of his preparatory exhale after he has accepted his catcher’s sign.  And the hitter, if he is doing it right, will be picturing the pitched baseball in his mind’s eye. The ball’s path cut short by the metal stick he grips in his hands, thrust downward from his shoulder on the proper path. Imagining the feeling of applying the bat’s sweet spot to the baseball with evil intentions.

Elite alpine skiers do this in the minutes before they launch from the starting gate at the top of a run.  Elite gymnasts do this constantly.  Divers too.  Probably bobsledders, as well.  Certainly basketball players, when measuring up the rim from the free throw line for the 100,000th time. 

There’s a lot going on between the ears, you see. Or at least there should be.  But it has to be taught.

And all the moving parts involved with the game of baseball can make this an especially supreme challenge for our kids.  Once a player catches a glimpse or whiff of the power of his mind, it can be very cool.  And it can also be a little scary.  For the player, it’s akin to pulling a bag of just-popped popcorn from the microwave.  Too hot to handle.  They can only pinch a tiny corner, careful not to have a hand slip in the way of the escaping steam and get cooked like a lobster. 

I can usually spot when a player has the popcorn bag in his hand.  I can recognize it from behind my L-Screen in the batting cage, straddling the white line in the 3rd base coaches’ box, or subbing in briefly for a player’s throwing partner during warmups and thereby making a connection that is unique between two people playing catch with a baseball. 

Bag-in-hand suddenly, their eyes widen, as if they had just stumbled on something for the first time.  They have.  And it’s awesome. 

“You see what you just did?” 

“Um, yeah. Wow!” 

“Well, I have some good news and some bad news.” 

“Huh?” [still holding the bag up between pinched fingers]

“The good news is that you just tapped into the power of your mind there, and you now know how to flip that switch to the ‘on’ position. Congratulations.”

“Cool!” [still holding the bag up, and they now begin to look around to show someone how hot the bag is and look at them holding this hot bag, hoping that maybe mom or dad is watching]

“Are you still with me?  The bad news is that you have to stay at this high level of intensity from the moment you step onto the field until the game’s final out is called.”

“Oh, um, oh.” [the bag will lower, likely dropped completely, and the popcorn will spill onto the grass]

It is extremely hard to maintain that focus, that energy, that intensity. 

It’s all between the ears, you see. 

Thanks for reading.

Note:  Thanks to Ariel Braunstein for the photo I used above, captured this past weekend at our 2nd graders’ Little League game.   I’m trying to get them to pick up the popcorn bag, too.  Though at these little guys’ age, the geese tend to fatten up on the kernels littering the field. 🙂

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