Wednesday, February 9, 2011

COLLEGE to PRO: Slumping

After years of trying to fight it, I've recently given in to the idea that slumps are simply a part of baseball. There's no avoiding them and they hit you when you least expect them- no one is immune.

I've seen guys follow career days with 0 for 20 stretches. It's amazing- and it happens overnight. How can you go from being so relaxed and confident, to literally feeling helpless in the batter's box? Yesterday you couldn't miss the barrel, every ball was hit hard- today, you'll take a foul tip to reassure you that your bat doesn't have a hole in it.

But that's baseball- it's a game of failure, and even Hall of Famers made an out more than half the time. It's a player's mental toughness- his ability to bounce back from failure- that will dictate how his career goes. And in the minors, the mentally weak do not last long.

In college, when the occasional slump reared its ugly head, I always had enough on my plate to distract me from whatever lack of success I was experiencing at the moment. Go to any college in the country and you'll find your fair share of distractions- most of these can hurt your game, but sometimes in baseball, a distraction is just what you need.

Whether it's a party, a dinner with friends, a movie with that cute girl you finally asked out, or even homework or an exam- there is always something going on in college that can help take your mind off of baseball. And when you're struggling, sometimes that's exactly what you need- a break. An escape.

After every home game my senior year, I either went directly to the weight room for a light lift or headed upstairs to our basketball team's practice court and shot around for a while- nothing too heavy or strenuous, more of a mental exercise. Win or lose, baseball was done for the day, and there was nothing I could do to change what I had done in that day's game. I would blow off some steam for a half hour or so, shower up, and then focus my sights on tomorrow's game.

"You're only as good as your next at-bat." I've always liked that saying- it's written on the inside of my locker, a reminder to stay even keeled- not overly confident when things are going well, not too down on myself when I'm struggling.

In pro-ball, however, you are engulfed by seven months of pure baseball. Your teammates become your family, and your days are filled with baseball activities. There's no more class in the morning, no more mingling in the dining halls, no more Monday and Thursday off days- it's baseball, and it's all the time.

I remember going through my first slump in Rookie Ball. I had hit a home run in my first professional game, and continued on to hit safely in the next twelve games. Pro-ball was easy- until it became hard. The competition didn't change, however, and I was convinced that my swing hadn't changed either- but my stats, they sure changed.

After playing two weeks of carefree baseball and tearing it up, I hit my first speed bump in professional baseball- and I panicked. I was desperate to get back in my groove.

I took 200 swings in the cages before BP, I analyzed video with our hitting coach, I watched YouTube clips of Big Leaguers' swings, I read Science of Hitting by Ted Williams, all I could think about was baseball- what else could I do? I started pressing, eager to get that next hit- I swung at pitches out of the zone and started guessing. I was lost. Was I gonna get released already? I needed a distraction.

But everything in the minors revolves around baseball. My daily routine was all baseball, which is great if things are going well- but it can drive you crazy if you're struggling. Sometimes you don't need those extra swings or that change in your swing mechanics- most of the time, it's mental.

Minor League Baseball isn't just a filtering system for the most talented players, it also weeds out those who are not mentally tough enough to make it. I've seen a lot of players with extraordinary talent fall by the wayside because they didn't know how to handle adversity.

You hear in the minors about ending slumps with crazy nights of endless drinking, and you may have even heard a "slump buster" story or two, but those aren't long term solutions- and they'll likely get you in trouble more often than not.

For me, I go back to college- I find a distraction: a good book, a phone call home, or, my newest distraction, writing a blog. Every baseball player needs a hobby, because as much as you love the game, sometimes it just doesn't love you back.

Baseball's a game of preparation and instincts, so as Crash Davis famously suggests: "Don't think. It can only hurt the ball club."

Minor League University may be the distraction I need to get me to the Bigs this year.

Book Shoutout: Mind Gym by Gary Mack - A necessity for any ballplayer's travel bag.

Team-Issued Gear

1 comment:

  1. Good story, I can relate it to my relationship to the game of golf. Back in the old days it was easy. I was young and would see my teacher and practice my way out of slumps for the most part. Now nearing 60, I don't have a teacher and can't just beat balls til the sun disappears. I've learned (after 40+ years) that the best cure for my slumps is to go back and tune the very basics of the game. I start with my grip, take a look at address, ball position and posture, then do some basic tempo drills and walla I'm halfway home. Sounds pretty simple but it takes a few days and I always find a few bad habits in the process.