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The Mental Game

Unfortunately, slumps are a universal part of sports at all levels. Even your best players will likely experience a time where they are not performing up to their usual levels. Slumps can be extremely frustrating and confusing for players and coaches alike. They often have a negative snowball effect on a player's confidence, focus and motivation. The disappointment of an 0-for-4 game can quickly turn into the frustration of a hitless doubleheader. If left unchecked, this situation can then compound into overanalyzing and pressing during the following games. When taken to an extreme, slumps can eventually turn into the paralyzing fear of losing a starting spot or being cut from the team.

Although Ben Franklin never won many softball games, he was right when he said, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." An obvious key to avoiding the pitfalls and frustrations of slumps is to try to prevent them in the first place. Olympian Leah O'Brien and I have already discussed a variety of mental skills designed to help your players be more focused, confident and consistent hitters in previous articles. However, if you have some players who seem like they are "0 for March" I encourage you to use some of the following suggestions to get them back on track.

1. Find the real cause of the slump.

Remember that while a majority of slumps are likely due to mental factors, not all slumps are mental. Some slumps can be caused by mechanical changes, physical fatigue or using different equipment. Take some time to assess your player's mechanics, training schedule, diet, sleep, physical health and equipment. Be sure to consider and rule out these causes before assuming that the problem is all mental.

2. Trying smarter often works better than trying harder.

Too often athletes think that trying harder will get them out of a slump. They use the same ineffective strategy with even greater intensity. This approach only makes the problem worse. Consider this analogy: if a key does not fit into a lock, trying harder to force it in is not going to help. Instead the key to breaking out of slumps is often in trying smarter. Usually, it is better to take a step back, assess the situation properly with the player and make some minor adjustments. One of Coach Mike Candrea's patented sayings to a struggling player is "make an adjustment." Just a small physical or mental adjustment in a player's approach is often the key to getting them back on track. Ironically, trying "softer" or smarter rather than harder is usually the best way to break out of slumps.

3. Focus on the process instead of the outcome.

Many times slumps result when players and coaches become overly obsessed with outcomes; i.e. batting averages, ERAs and records. Hitters start pressing because they think too much about their batting averages and other stats while pitchers start missing the plate because they worry about getting hit. Remind your players to focus on doing the little things that will lead to the outcomes they want. Instead of focusing on getting hits, hitters should focus first on seeing the ball well. Rather than worrying about how many runs they might give up, encourage your pitchers to hit their spots. Coach your players to take care of the process of performing. The outcomes will then take care of themselves.

4. Stop thinking and start trusting.

Finally, slumps are often caused by too much thinking and not enough trusting and reacting. Athletes in slumps tend to think too much and end up suffering "paralysis by analysis." Too much thinking gets in the way of execution. To help a player clear her mind, encourage her to take a deep breath or hum a tune to herself. Humming a tune will help her relax and occupy her mind on the song and away from critical, analytical thinking. This will then allow her to trust herself and her abilities. Slumps can be one of the toughest adversities for athletes and coaches to overcome. Be patient as you try the previous suggestions to help your players bust out of slumps. Ineffective thinking is often the cause so help your players win the mental battle and they will unlock the talent inside of them.