Focus on the Present to Avoid a Slump
I begin my column with a five-part interview series with Bob Tewksbury, the newdirector of player development for the Major League Baseball Players Association. He helps players deal with the psychological demands of the game, on and off the field, and prepares them for their life after sports. He spent the previous nine years as the mental skills coach of the World Series champion Boston Red Sox. Before earning a Master’s in sports psychology and counseling at Boston University, he pitched 13-years in the major leagues, winning 110 games for six teams. He earned an All-Star nod and finished third in Cy Young voting in 1992, when he went 16-5 with a 2.16 ERA for the St. Louis Cardinals.
In part-one of my five part interview series, Tewksbury talks about mental slumps – how we fall prey to them and how to overcome them.
How do you define a slump?
From a baseball perspective, it’s a lack of results over a certain period of time. If a player collects only one hit in 23 at-bats he’s generally considered to be in a slump. Now if a salesperson got one successful call out of 23 cold calls, he might perceive that as doing well. In that way, slumps are based on each individual’s expectation of what they should be doing, or measured against what other people think they should be doing.
So slumps are linked to one’s personal expectations?
Yes. In baseball, you have no control of where the ball goes after it hits your bat. A player might go through a string of bad luck where the balls just aren’t falling in the gaps or the outfielder makes a great dive to rob him of a hit. But if the player only focuses on the numbers, his perception is that he’s slumping and that, in many ways, starts the slump.
Then what happens, after a player perceives he’s slumping?
Well, unfortunately, it’s common for a player to think, “If I’m not playing up to the standards that I hold myself to, then something must be wrong. Therefore I need to make a change.” So they make unnecessary changes – to their stance or their swing, for example. They start putting mental pressure on themselves to deliver results. “I have to get a hit now. If I don’t get a hit it will be awful. If I don’t get a hit, I’m going to lose my job. And if I lose my job I’m going to be sent down the minor leagues.” This fear-based thinking only compounds the problem. And brings you further away from your chances of success.
So I’m a major league ballplayer. I’m hitting a miserable .200 for the month where as I normally hit .280. And I don’t know what I’m doing wrong. I come to you for help. What would you tell me?
In 2012, I had a player in Triple-A minors who started the season 0-for-17. He was freaking out, asking himself, “When am I ever going to get a hit? I look at the scoreboard and I see my batting average is zero.” So I asked the player, “How many at-bats are you going to get over the course of the season?” He said, “500.” Then I asked, “In any previous season, have you ever had a span of 17 at bats where you only got one hit or no hits?” And he said, “Yes.” I asked him, “And what did you end up hitting that year?” He said, “.320.” “Okay,” I told him. “So your dry spell just happens to becoming at the beginning of the season.” By making this subtle shift in his perspective, he got 14 hits over his next ten games.
Have you ever been through a slump during your pitching career?
Oh, yeah. In 1994, I won my first seven starts. And then I lost six of my next seven games. And over that time I didn’t pitch well. For me, I was going into my free agent year and I got off to this great start and I started thinking, “Am I really this good? Can I sustain this? If I can win 20 games, I’m going to get a huge contract.” I started thinking ahead to things that were out of my control and I lost focus. And then I got my butt kicked a few times and came back to earth. And I put pressure on myself to pick it back up. The next thing you know, I don’t win a game for a month.
So, in a strange way, success can also lead to a slump?
Absolutely. It’s something I’ve seen in the major leagues, both as a ballplayer, as well as a mental skills coach. If a ballplayer hits .300, knocks in 30 home runs and drives in 100 RBIs one year, he may wonder, “Can I do that again? Am I that good?” And instead of going out and performing and letting the numbers take care of themselves, he puts too much pressure on himself to replicate his success.
So it doesn’t matter if it’s fear of success or fear of failure, they are both detrimental to peak performance?
Yes, because they pull your mind away from the present, whether it’s, “Am I really this good? Can I keep this up?” or “If I keep hitting.180 I’m going to be released and I’ll have to get trained at another job.” The bottom line is that both are distracting and take you away from performance. As soon as you start worrying about possible outcomes and future events, really ask yourself, is that a controllable or an uncontrollable? And then refocus on the task. See the ball. Get down on time. Finish your swing.
So how did you finally get out of your slump?
I had to get back to the basics. I stopped worrying about my ERA, which had climbed from 3.50 to 4.50. I stopped worrying about my number of wins. I stopped worrying about the money. In his book Inner Game of Tennis, Tim Gallwey talks about how athletes perform at their best when they “play with abandon” and by this he means letting go of attachment to consequences, good or bad. Once I changed my perspective to one of just going out and having fun and not concentrating on the stuff that was beyond my control, it freed me up to play all out and perform at my best. I think this principle holds true for any endeavor, be it academics, creative arts, sports and so on.