I spent most of my childhood playing for the Cincinnati Reds. Each time I came to the plate, we were playing the Yankees in the 7th game of the World Series, the bases were loaded, it was the bottom of the 9th with two outs and a full count. The pressure was enormous. Yet, somehow, I came through with a clutch grand slam to win it every time.
Pressure can be imagined, as I’ve described, or it can be very real. Pressure can build, shape, and solidify young players, or it can destroy them. I’ll assume for the moment that you, as coach and/or parent, would rather build your young player rather than destroy him.
First, let’s understand what kind of pressure we’re discussing. Pressure, for our purposes here, is the stress that comes with the need and desire to perform well as an individual or as a team in a given situation. It’s easy to find examples, such as the pressure to get a hit, make a pitch, get an out, etc. when your turn comes or the ball finds you. Pressure of this sort is not always negative. As I said, it can build or destroy. So, the idea in coaching and raising young ball players is not to completely remove pressure from them, as if that were possible, but to avoid the kind of response to pressure that can destroy them and teach the kind of response that can build them.
Let’s take a quick look first at how and why pressure can destroy.
1. Everyone, especially kids, are seeking validation and approval from the influencers in their lives. If they receive approval only when they succeed, pressure will eventually destroy them. They will eventually fail, feel greater pressure not just to succeed on the field but also to prove their worth, and the cycle will continue. In worst case scenarios, kids quit the game and never learn that true validation and approval for them as people can never come through their performance in any area of life.
2. They can read your body language better than you think they can. They see and hear your sighs. Your head shakes are not lost on them, and neither is the dropping of your shoulders. They sense your disappointment and will assume that you are disappointed in them and not just for them. If you assume otherwise, you mistake human nature. Unless you express it over and over and also seek to change your body language responses to their on-field failures, the kids you parent and/or coach will have pressure only intensify as they seek to improve your response.
3. They already feel lots of pressure, so adding any is unwise. Nearly every kid I’ve coached, even in practice, wants to do well. They feel as if they have something riding on their performance. Whether the pressure is internal or external, most kids feel lots of it. As a coach, you don’t have to conjure it up for them, you just have to teach them how to handle it.
I could go on, and I’m sure you could add to the list, but what about the kind of pressure that can build a kid? As I stated before, I don’t believe pressure, in and of itself, must destroy. There is a way, a very intentional way, a coach or parent can help build a child through the pressures he faces.
Here’s a way to begin teaching young players how to deal positively with pressure.
1. Raise practice expectations. This isn’t about manufacturing pressure, but about simulating some of what players will face in a game. It’s also about expecting more and more of them each practice. More focus, more effort, more hustle. If nothing is expected of them at practice, they will in no way be prepared for the high expectations of a game. Coach, get organized, work hard, stretch what your players believe they can do. They might just rise to the occasion.
2. Improve the pre-game routine. Never (no, never) should players at any level of baseball be allowed to go through a pre-game routine without direction from someone who knows how to prepare for a game. This isn’t about pet peeves of mine like warming up on the infield dirt (this should never be done either…respect the field, respect your hops, ugh), but about making sure that players get in the right frame of mind. As a coach, design a pre-game routine that gets them ready physically and mentally. You need to give direction to this. Don’t expect them to be ready simply because they’ve attempted to toss a ball back and forth. Also, very importantly, include some sort of visualization time for them, wherein they imagine the situations of pitching, catching, hitting, fielding, and running the bases.
3. Get back to basics when the pressure is on. If there’s any such thing as a “clutch” player, it’s only because that player is better as getting back to basics when the pressure mounts. Teach your players to control their breathing, to focus on the fundamentals, and to execute the smallest details when they begin to feel pressure and stress. Instead of being overwhelmed by the situation (game on the line or whatever), they will concentrate on getting into fielding position or getting a good pitch to hit. That’s how you learn to put yourself in a position to succeed in a pressure situation. No one succeeds under pressure simply by trying harder or believing he will come through. Clearly, a player needs to try and needs to believe, but first he must put a good swing on the ball. That way, when he comes to bat for the Reds, he’ll be ready.
Pressure can destroy or it can build. The 9-year-old guys I got to coach taught me more about that this year than I ever knew. Thanks again, guys. You’re the best.
This is the ninth and final post in a series called “Everything I Needed to Know I Learned from 9-Year-Old Baseball Players.” See the Game Notes page for the rest of the series.