This is a great question. Your question asks something commonly overlooked by athletes: mental preparation. Sure, one common thread you'll find about good athletes is that you'll see hitters spend countless hours on a tee perfecting their swing or pitchers throwing the same pitch over and over again just to increase movement by half a centimeter. And, while physical preparation is so easily understood as a necessity amongst the softball community, most athletes forget to practice mentally. If you don't practice mental toughness, how would you expect to be mentally tough in the toughest games of the season? Bobby Knight once said, “Mental toughness is to physical as four is to one.” The difference between a good athlete and a championship athlete is one who understands this idea. You have to “live” the mental game-mold your brain into that of a championship athlete. I firmly believe that some are born with the ability to be more mentally tough than others just as some or born with more athletic ability. However, despite ones natural abilities, we all know that hard work can still win out-both in physical and mental preparation.
I know that I would not have been successful without the lessons I learned in mental toughness throughout my career. It's important to note that everyone prepares differently, but there are two things that played a key role in my mental toughness preparation: visualization and physically pushing myself beyond my limits.
Often underrated, visualization can be the difference in a good game or a bad game. I got in the habit of visualizing at two different times: bedtime, and pre-game. Visualization prior to bedtime is my constant. Mental toughness is the hardest to maintain when you're tired or fatigued. I always tried to “force” myself into focus at nighttime when I was tired. I found that trying to work towards keeping focus without adrenaline or while tired was the hardest to do, so my preparation often began in the worst-case scenario. I visualized pitching in a game, but instead of focusing on the outcome, I'd focus on my surroundings. I'd visualize the sound of the fans and the smell of the freshly cut grass. I'd picture which uniforms we'd be wearing and how fired up our opponents were. I'd focus on every detail of the game-and then work to block it out. If I didn't mentally prepare for these moments, it would be difficult to block out the noise and intimidation factors of the game when I was actually there. And, focusing on blocking out these distractions while fatigued and sleepy meant that blocking them out when I was high on adrenaline and at my peak alertness would be a breeze. I visualized this almost every evening. I got to the point where I wouldn't even have to think about my surroundings when I walked onto a field-1 had already blocked out the distractions and was more mentally prepared even before the game had begun.
By removing the distractions prior to game time, I was able to visualize something different at game time. This is where I'd focus on my performance and outcome. I'd visualize a couple innings of pitching. My goal would be to visualize myself pinpointing my pitch placement and movement every pitch. Instead of getting a called strike, I'd visualize myself throwing the “perfect pitch” -a pitch placed so perfectly with the best movement that the batter would swing and miss every time. I'd watch batter after batter swing and miss at the pitch I decided to throw. This prepared my mind to not only think about a series of pitches for each batter, but my mind was now prepared for success. Failure was not an option.
And if you still aren't sold on visualization as mental preparation, consider this. Prior to every game, I'd visualize my “perfect pitch” scenario. Every once and a while, however, I found that no matter what I did, I couldn't visualize myself throwing a pitch past a batter; instead, all my mind would see would be the ball hitting the bat. What were the outcomes of those games where my mind couldn't see the batters swing and miss? A loss every time. Your mind tells your body what to do-if mentally you can't see yourself succeed, you will not succeed. If you find yourself in a situation where you can't visualize success, step back, take a deep breath, and give your mind a break for a couple of minutes. Then try again until you see success.
Visualization is the easy part of mental toughness preparation. The other key component of mental toughness is to push yourself physically. Pushing yourself beyond what you thought you were physically capable of doing molds your brain to believe that you are capable of more! I can't think of a scenario much better to describe this than one of Michigan Softball's conditioning days. Our team was split into teams of classes-freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors. We had a series of conditioning events where time or repetitions would be tallied. One event was the wall-sit. The time we lasted on the wall sit would be removed from the total time tallied from all the other events. The winning team would have the lowest time tallied.
The seniors, the first in rotation for the wall sit, lasted, on average, around 2.5 minutes. The next class, the freshmen, lasted a bit longer, around 4 minutes. The sophomores-even a bit longer, around 5 or 6 minutes. My class, the junior class, got together prior to the wall sit and agreed to try to push our wall sit to negate our mile time. In other words, our goal was to average around 7.5 minutes on the wall sit. Most of us made it, but that wasn't what was amazing about the test. Our catcher sat for a total of 11 minutes and 32 seconds!
Where the seniors felt mentally that a 2.5 minute wall sit was difficult, and that it wasn't possible to overcome the pain and burning, our catcher took note and overcame that physical pain by blocking it out mentally-by having a goal greater than the pain of a wall sit! Not one single player thought anyone would be capable of sustaining that length of time. It was our “aha” moment for the 2005 National Championship Season-just because you're tired, fatigued, and mentally drained, you have to trust and believe that there is more in your tank-you have to go beyond what your brain thinks you're capable of-and as long as you continually push that limit and believe you can do more, you will be more successful than you ever imagined!