MARCH 2018 - The Mental Side of Defense
Updated: May 10, 2018
Q: As a college baseball player, what position(s) did you play, and what were some of the mental challenges that you faced in the field throughout the season?
Playing shortstop at the collegiate level requires a lot of drill work. Not only do you have to work to hone your craft at your own position, but you have to learn, understand, and control the responsibilities of every other spot in the infield. This means long practices, tons of ground balls, fewer swings than most of your teammates, constantly studying situations, coverages, and shifts, and more. Here are a few key ways to handle such a demanding workload:
1. Take pride in your defense. No matter what kind of hitter you are, your defense is important to the team. If you’re playing a premium position in the middle of the field (SS, C, CF), then your defense is crucial to the team’s success. Therefore, you can’t be standing in the field during a game thinking about your last AB, or standing around during practice envisioning the next cage bomb you’re going to hit. You’ve got to knuckle down and take pride in your defensive craft. Challenge yourself to catch every ball that you can reach.
2. Develop a routine, and stick to it. College seasons, both fall and spring, can be mentally and physically grueling. The only way to be prepared for in-game situations throughout the season is to put in the time at practice and before games to hone your mental and physical skills. My infield coach at Pace would come out during every pre-game BP—without fail—and put me through our “pre-game drill,” which had me handling a series of different balls and feeding them to second and first base. At practice, the infielders had several other series of drills that we executed on a daily or weekly basis to stay sharp.
3. Think and anticipate. The middle of the field is not for guys who don’t want to think. It is crucial to understand the game situation, and monitor the way that situation evolves on a pitch-by-pitch basis. The difference of a ball or strike, out, runner on base, inning, or score can all significantly alter where I want to position myself, and what my priorities are when I receive the ball. These are all things that I need to have considered before the pitcher begins his motion. Once my pitcher does start his motion, my prep step routine needs to take over, and I need to put myself in an athletic position that allows me to move in any direction. As the pitch (hopefully I saw the signs and know which pitch is coming) crosses the plate and I see the batter begin his swing, clues such as timing, pitch location, and bat path can all give me an edge in anticipating where the ball may be hit.
4. Accept responsibility, but have a short memory. If you’re playing a premium defensive position, it is your responsibility to make sure the rest of the defense functions as it is supposed to. As a shortstop, this means communicating with your pitcher, and with your fellow infielders. It means moving guys who aren’t standing in the right spot. It means going after any groundball or pop-fly that you can make a play on. It means picking bad throws out of the dirt to convert a play and pick up a teammate. But it also means that, when things go wrong, you’re going to have to shoulder the responsibility. The key is to realize that mistakes are inevitable—with so many defensive responsibilities, things are bound to occasionally go wrong. But if you can wipe that from your mind and look towards the next play, there’s always something going on that you can do to help your team.
5. Control what you can control; push through the rest. At a premium position like shortstop, there are tons of things you can control—defensive positioning, coverages, pick-offs, relays, and plenty more. But, just as in life, there will always be things that are beyond your control. As an infielder in the northeast, this can be painfully apparent. To begin some seasons, you won’t get to take a single grounder outside until opening day, when you’re getting ready to face a talented southern team who has been outside for weeks. Before that, it’s ground balls on indoor turf if you’re lucky—or on gym floors if you’re not. And when you come back home from your opening weekend trip, who knows when you’ll get back out on the field. I played about half a dozen games in college where it was snowing during the game, and several others where the wind chill was in single digits. If you’re standing out at shortstop in those kinds of conditions feeling sorry for yourself, you’re not going to be ready to throw a frozen pill across the infield for an out. If you want to succeed, your only option is to control what you can control, and be mentally tough enough to deal with everything else.
- Brett Bittiger, D-I & D-II Shortstop, LVBA Coach/Instructor
I played third base, first base, and pitcher throughout my college career. As a college infielder, I think one of the most important things to focus on is your daily routine. As a third baseman, this meant going through my fielding series (short hops, footwork, glove work) on a daily basis. As a first baseman, this meant working my footwork around the bag and practicing picks at the bag. As a pitcher, this meant going through your PFP work. All of this prepares you to take live reps.
When practicing, try to get the most out of every rep. This is so when the game situation comes, your reactions and preparation take over. Your team takes BP on most days, and this is a perfect opportunity to get live reads. Get the most you can out of your team’s BP.
When it comes down to game situations, always be prepared. Number one, have an idea of the situation and be ready for the ball to be hit to you. One of the easiest ways to improve your range is to think that every ground ball is going to be a laser hit right at you. This creates anticipation and helps improve your reactions.
Last thing, be a team player. Don’t take bad at-bats out to the field with you. Have something that helps you flush your bad at-bats, so you can have a clear mind in the field. The same goes for mistakes that you make in the field. Errors happen, but you have to be able to work through adversity.
- Pat Kregeloh, D-II 3B/1B/P, LVBA Director of Baseball Operations
In terms of pure chances, more times than not, the three outfield positions have the least amount of action during any given baseball game. With that being said, I believe they can sometimes be the most mentally challenging. As an outfielder, you are the furthest away from home plate and the most isolated in terms of positioning. Along with being on your own small island, most college student sections are located in the outfield bleachers, and they are full of students doing anything and everything they can do to distract you.
During the season as an OF there will come a game in which you are struggling at the plate, possibly with a few strikeouts on the day, and the opposing student section will be laying into you making sure you remember those at-bats. In that moment you will have to block out the noise, both internal and external, in order to make a play for your team. If an infielder makes an error over the course of a game it may cost the team a base, maybe a run. But as an outfielder, an error or a misplay could cost the team two or three runs, and in all likelihood, the game.
Mentally, you need to be prepared every pitch of the game; you need to be reading the swings of every hitter 1 through 9 and positioning yourself accordingly to be able to run down a ball in the gap. You need to know the speed of the base runners and if your arm is capable of throwing a runner out, against the risk of giving up scoring position to the batter. You need to weigh the risk of leaving your feet for a ball to potentially make a catch or keep the double play in order for the team. You also need to do all of this for nine full innings even though your only play for the game may have been backing up first base a few times on ground balls. If you mentally check out for one pitch, because you focus on your bad at-bats, the weather conditions, the student section, schoolwork, girls, etc. that could be enough to misread a ball off the bat and cost your team the game.
Here are a couple of keys that I used in college to help me overcome the mental challenges of playing the outfield over a long season.
Know the situation before the ball is pitched. Tie game, up 2, down 1, know where you need to go with the ball when it is hit your way in every situation. It will slow the game down in the moment if you’ve already thought of every scenario.
Don’t bring your at-bats or any other distractions out to the field. The field is for defense, don’t make it more difficult by thinking about bad at-bats or anything else going on in your life. Stay focused on the task at hand.
Be confident in your skillset and the hard work you’ve put in. You are at this level for a reason, now just show everyone why.
Want the baseball. Want to be the one to make the winning play for your team, and be ready for that moment.
- Shane Siebler, D-I CF/RF, LVBA Coach/Instructor
Q: Few players make it into the professional ranks if they are defensive liabilities. That said, aside from physical tools, what are some of the things that separate exceptional defenders from league-average defenders at the professional level?
As Major League clubs search for ways to uncover undervalued players, defense has taken on a renewed emphasis. Obviously soft hands, quick, active feet, and a strong arm are physical tools needed to be a defensive stalwart. The following is a list of characteristics that don’t take physical gifts and that all special defenders display.
1. The exceptional defender knows where to go with the ball before it is hit to them. Ball contact and speed may alter the defender’s pre-pitch thought, but he should always have one. Possibly even more important is the desire that the defender “wants” every ball hit to him. He has the confidence that he can make any play.
2. Standout defenders know the batter’s and base runners’ foot speed and possess an excellent “internal clock,” meaning they instinctively know how much time they have to convert the play.
3. Plus defenders show tremendous “reliability,” catching and converting every single ball they touch. For a middle infielder who shows a defense-first profile, the goal must be to catch every ball.
4. Defenders can separate themselves by taking precise angles on balls off the bat. They instinctively know when to attack or lay back and never seem to get an “in-between” hop.
5. The very best defenders show ample “throwing utility,” mastery of releasing the baseball with carry and accuracy from different arm slots with body control, and the instincts to know when to throw from which slot.
6. Finally, they all have a tireless work ethic, and practice making “web gem” type plays without neglecting consistent “reliability.”
My advice for the young player is to find your best natural position, display a passion for becoming the best possible defender at that spot that you can possibly be. Make yourself indispensable so any coach/manager feels he needs you out on the field.
- Jeff Bittiger, Professional Scout (Oakland A’s), LVBA Baseball Ops Consultant
Q: As a catcher, what are some of the unique mental components of the position?
The first aspect that really defines the mental side of what a catcher does is being locked in every single pitch. No question about it, the same can be said about other positions as well, but it becomes paramount for the catcher to be locked in because you are the player that is undoubtedly going to touch the ball every single pitch. Because of this, people often take a catcher’s performance for granted. There is not going to be much recognition until you do something wrong, and that's when everyone is going to notice you. Therefore, being laser focused for the entirety of the game is a big key.
The second aspect is the leadership component of being a catcher. A lot of people equate the catcher to the quarterback of the team. I like to think of it as more of the middle linebacker. You are reading the current situation, and reacting to what is thrown at you. Whereas the quarter back has control of what is going to happen because they always have the ball in their hand, catchers must read the play and fall back on experience and training to make adjustments and calls. Leaders are forged through the experience of failure and success. As a catcher, you must draw on both of these experiences to help prepare you for future in-game situations.
The third aspect would be mental toughness. You are playing a position where you will get hit, often and hard. It is not everyone's first reaction to want to stand in there and take a pitch off the chest in a blocking position. Most people are going to want to get out of the way of the ball. In this position, you must fight all inclinations to get out of the way, and you have to put your body on the line for the good of the team. Fighting your natural fight or flight response is not an easy thing to do, but it must be achieved in order to be successful at this position. You have to have the mental toughness to get hit and get right back up and do it again.
Catching is not a position for the faint of heart. It is an absolute dog fight for the duration of the game. You are going to be tired, your legs are going to be on fire, but you endure the pain and carry on for the love of the game. One of my favorite quotes is, "God gave you the body to endure just about anything, it is the mind you have to convince." Once you commit and buy in to this phrase, most everything else is gravy.
- Jason Okken, LVBA Coach/Instructor
Q: What kind of mental abilities and mindsets are necessary to succeed as a defender? What are some of the key concepts that we teach our fielders to think?
Playing defense and teaching a mental approach to defense is difficult mainly because everybody is hyper focused on offense. There's a thought in players’ heads that offense is more valuable, and in many cases these ideas keep players from succeeding and being the best defender that they can be.
From a practice perspective we are extremely focused and are constantly preaching about never taking a rep off, and being disciplined enough to take every rep with a purpose. We work to develop the mental toughness and focus it takes to catch every ball in practice and to make every throw.
The guys who practice it the most, catch the most balls, do the most drills, and work on their craft the most inevitably will become the best defenders. We teach our guys to take pride in it and to be unselfish. We teach them not to let offensive struggles affect their defensive efforts. Good fundamental defenders, guys who take pride in it, can play for a long time because they're harder and harder to find. Working on defense may not be as fun as swinging the bat, but it is extremely valuable, and we want our guys to understand that.
- Dylan Dando, LVBA Owner/Director
The simplest mental aspect of playing defense is wanting the ball. The reality is that the ball will find you—if you’re standing out there hoping that it doesn’t, you’re setting yourself up to fail. I always thought that on the days where I felt the worst—my arm was sore, my legs felt heavy, it was freezing cold—I had to want the ball even more than usual. There’s really no other option.
Beyond that, playing defense is mentally challenging because it requires an ability to stay laser-focused for long periods of time, and during periods of relative inactivity. Consider this: a long at-bat generally ranges from about 7-12 pitches, and you (as a hitter) are directly involved in every one of them. However, long innings in the field can last 25-35 pitches, and you (as a fielder) may go several innings at a time without being directly involved in any of them. In this way, the best defenders are usually the guys who have the ability to lock in for every single pitch, who can go several innings without any action, and still be ready to make a play when the ball inevitably finds them. This does not involve simply paying attention—it requires you to know what the game situation is, how that situation evolves on a pitch-by-pitch (not just out-by-out) basis, and to know where you are going with the ball before it is even hit to you. This is a crucial concept that we try to instill in our defenders.
Most young players suffer from a lack of interest in defense. They stand in the field thinking about their last at-bat; they go through the motions during defensive drill work, anxious to get into the batting cage. This is a really good way to hurt your overall value as a player. We try to help our players understand that guys who can play defense are a valuable commodity, and there is always something they can do on defense to help their team.
- Brett Bittiger, LVBA Coach/Instructor
To be a successful defender, your mindset needs to be one of complete confidence in your ability to catch any and every ball that comes your way. In addition to having the confidence, you need to have the desire to want the ball to be hit to you. Also, there are so many opportunities to touch the baseball as a defender that you have to understand that you will, at some point, make errors. Given this, a successful defender quickly forgets about the past and moves on to the next play, again wanting another opportunity to make a play for his team.
We teach our players that it's important to put in the time and effort in the physical preparation to be a successful defender, so they can gain as much confidence as possible in their ability to make plays. Without putting in the time and effort, players do not get the repetitions they need to be as confident as possible. Doubt begins to creep in because they have not had enough repetitions where the skill becomes a natural instinct. In addition, if a player misses or makes an error in fielding a ball in practice, we want them to have the mindset to not run to the back of the line to wait their turn for the next ground ball, but rather, jump right back in there and catch the next one. This training quickly erases the memory of the previous miss or error, it creates a good feeling of immediate success which, in turn, increases their confidence.
- Mike Hercik, LVBA Instructor, Allentown Railers Asst. Coach
When I’m working with our guys there are two main concepts that I want them to understand and make part of every pitch.
The first is your pre-pitch routine. Recognize the speed of the runner, identify what our pitch approach is, and understand the situation. Then, use that information to prepare where you should position yourself, and have a good idea of what to do when the ball is hit.
The other concept is that whether you make a great play or a costly error, your body language can’t change. We must remain mentally neutral so that we can control the speed of the game. If we allow the game to get too fast, that is when we make errors. We can’t ever get too high or too low. If we stay even-keeled, we can slow the game down.
- Dan Albert, LVBA Coach/Instructor
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