Imagine This Scenario: A little league pitcher is on the mound who seems to be struggling. After his second walk in a row, he hears the words "Come on buddy, throw strikes" from his coach. He gets behind 2-0 on the next batter and his teammates begin to grumble the words, "Don't walk this guy." Two pitches later, he has walked the bases loaded and the tension within the bleachers is palpable. The tension within his own dugout is beyond palpable. The most important bit of tension that seems to be lost here is what's going on inside this young pitcher's brain. His thoughts are 100% fear-based at the moment.
"Don't mess up!"
"Don't let the team down ."
"I HAVE to throw a strike."
With all the pressure on his shoulders, he fearfully aims 4 more pitches that miss the strike zone. As he hangs his head in defeat and walks off the field, the world says goodbye to yet another pitching prospect because "Pitching is not fun."
Here are some facts: Baseball Players don't perform well ‘in the moment’ when given an ultimatum. Players perform better when their mind is at ease. Their mind is at ease when their thoughts are in a specific and positive place, as opposed to a place of fear. We all know in the above scenario that this young pitcher isn't trying to walk batters. We also know the pitcher’s coach and teammates aren't trying to sabotage him, yet every time he hears the words "throw strikes" his confidence takes a hit. When a pitcher's confidence takes a hit, they begin to aim the ball. The word aim should not reside in a pitcher's dictionary.
Aim = Afraid = Bad Performance.
So what could have righted this ship? Without getting too technical, the coach might have noticed an issue with the pitcher's tempo, stride, release point, or follow through. Possibly the pitcher was using all arms and no legs. Instead of stating the obvious "throw strikes," sharing a positive and specific thought such as "smooth tempo" or "reach to the target" gives the player a much better chance to succeed. Here are some examples of "fear based " vs. "confidence based" comments:
"Don't be afraid of a ground ball"
"You have to make contact"
"We have to win this game"
"See the ball touch your glove."
"Pay attention to the ball."
"Treat every pitch with focus and joy."
Obviously, this scenario doesn't just come up with young pitchers. If a hitter is in a slump, and the coach can provide an uplifting and specific thought like, "focus on seeing impact," that should get the hitter back on track much quicker than reminding them of how bad they are doing with a "don't strike out," or "just put the ball in play" comment. When a catcher can't seem to throw the ball back to the pitcher, challenging him to focus on his legs as he releases the ball could put that "yip" to bed.
In a nutshell, little leaguers don't respond well when told "not" to do something. Their brain immediately obsesses on that thing they are "not" supposed to do. If the player has a positive thought during the moment of action, then his brain doesn't have time to think about all the negative things that could happen.