Pitching Coach Jim Clem on his Top 3 Pitcher Hang-Ups
Transcription of interview conducted by Lindsey Wilson, Positive Performance Training
Lindsey: Well, speaking of learning I know I am and many of our clients are really interested in diving into pitching in particular. So if you would, take us into the mind state of a typical pitcher. What are their hang-ups, what things do they struggle with? And maybe even what personality characteristics do you typically see in a pitcher? I know it's really hard to classify every one.
Jim: Typically, I'd say just pitchers of all ages, they just need more work and preparation. And I don't think they totally understand necessarily what that entails, so I'll talk to them, I'll have, you know, I have different talks that I have with them each day. But I want to make sure that they understand that there's really four parts to understanding themselves and being successful as athletic individuals as well as a person in life in general. But I break it down into four parts, and there's the physical, which obviously, you know, I think is almost over-coached. There's so much information out there that I think on the physical side of things athletes today they're getting better training than they've ever gotten. So just being in shape and learning your craft and continuing to grow physically is I think a very, very important piece, but it's just one piece. Mental preparation, which I understand is obviously what you are helping people with and your training is extensive and what a great resource for people and teams to have and it's so under-trained that to know that there's people and an agency out there like Positive Performance Thinking that's right here in our own area that can help train people in ways that most people don't have the, they still don't have the ability to do it. They don't have the training, they don't have the understanding. They just aren't ready to take that on. They're a little, I think, intimidated by it. So it's a huge piece of the training of the athletes, so, and then in that comes emotional training and also spiritual recognition. You know, sometimes, they're all lumped into one thing. But I think if you separate them out, you can actually kind of pinpoint little things that you can do to have that overall mental toughness and understanding of how to succeed in any given situation and so I think that fear of failure and lack of confidence are probably right at the top of the list for pitcher hang-ups.
Jim: I think that with fear of failure, you know, it's just one of those things that, it comes back to believing in yourself and having a belief system that will allow you to be successful and I really believe you can train yourself. You know, there's so much out there on fear you know, and what spikes cortisol and what [inaudible 0:18:19] I think really I think, you know it's what you're trying to get is catecholamines to spike and we can talk about that later, but understanding what they are and recognizing when they're setting in and how to use them to your advantage and all of that is very, very important. So I'm just going to kind of take you through a couple of other hang-ups real quick. I think the mind, the game gets too fast for many of the pitchers. You know, their mind and their heart will race. I don't think they know how to slow it down. I don't think they know how to gain control of that and actually use it to their advantage. A lot of pitchers don't have a plan, so they really haven't learned the mental side of pitching, how to attack hitters and how to prepare not only, you know, one pitch at a time, but in between innings. Taking that further before the game, after the game, practice, that plan should be very well mapped out so that there's a routine that they can get into and that routine will help them be successful in all the other areas. Routine, I just believe routine is so important. So we'll talk, yeah, let's talk about routine and then just in general, the things that bother them that are out of their control. I think that umpire calls and errors that are made behind it and opposition and fan comments, all of those things can clutter your mind and cause you to get away from what you're really trying to be focused on.
Lindsey: Yeah. Great list.
Jim: Yeah, so the personality characteristics of successful pitchers I think are determined to be physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually balanced, and have a really great competitive nature about them. those are the characteristics of successful pitchers, in my opinion.
Lindsey: Mm-hmm. Okay.
Lindsey: So go into maybe a situation, you know, in the game where these things are coming up, these hang-up, and let's go into this fight or flight response, the cortisol and the catecholamines, and let's talk through what actually happens. What should happen, what typically does happen, and some of the, the tools that you teach your pitchers. Let's pretend I'm a pitcher. What would you tell me if I were in the game and I'm feeling the game's going too fast, I just screwed up and so my confidence is down. My girlfriend's in the stands, so I got a fear of failure. You know what I mean? What's going on?
Jim: Okay, so just understanding what fear is first, and I think that's you know, it's a source of energy that will completely dominate your mind if you don't take control of it. It's thought processes that are next to impossible to control. Fear will take over your movements, they'll make you react slower, and you'll have less power and quickness when you actually do need to respond athletically. And it just, you know, it just releases cortisol and it just slows down everything in your system. I find that a lot of anger does that. And I think that negative self-talk does that. You know, I, you know, you hear people say just on the fear thing for a minute, you know, you got to flush it. You know, you got to let it go, you got to go, you know, go ahead and scream and let it out and I'm like, you know, okay, that's true, you do need to let it out, but why not get control of that before it sets in? You know, why have to have that moment where that takes over, even if it's a brief period of time, it's longer than what your goal is. You just want to eliminate the fear. And so to do that, you know, you want those catecholamines to set in and those come really from your emotional and mental toughness spots, you know. Those will spike those catecholamines to become more prevalent, and it's all in your mind. It's how you control your mind to simply relax and I think use of imagery and visualization is very, very important. Just thinking in pictures rather than words. Because at that moment in time when you're competing, you know, you really can't have long conversations, you know, you can have a quick moment to relax. You got to get into that, you know, into the breathing, and the visualization and positive words, thoughts that will allow you to just, you know, stay in control of your mind and your emotions. It's a huge piece of pitching. If I had a person who I saw was going the wrong direction, you know, you can read it very easily, you can see them breathing quickly, I'll see a lack of deep breaths. You know, we tell them, because we practice breathing. We'll breathe between pitches. And we'll breathe right as we're taking the sign, just after we take the sign before we'll make our next pitch and so the breathing, if it becomes short breaths, and you know, I can see them, you know, their body language is becoming—if not negative, kind of tense. You can read that, and so I have certain signals from the bench, where I can get their attention. And if I can't get—typically, I’ll, you know, I'll go through the catcher who would have the pitcher look over at me, I have a sign for that. You know, and it'll just definitely be, you know, he's taking a deep breath for them to get back to the realization that oh, yeah, you know, I'm feeling tense here. You know, you can't run out to the mound every time you sense something. So, you've got to have little triggers that can kind of bounce back into to knowing how to get control of the situation again and, typically, it's the training they do themselves in our practice sessions that will carry over into the game. But if they do get into a game, when I see they're getting away from it, they just haven't quite mastered it yet, then I'll have a signal from the catcher to have them look over at me an I'll give them, you know, I have these little signals to the pitcher that will be a reference to whatever it is I think they need to focus on at the moment. It's, you know, the human behavior, there's just nothing bigger than confidence. I really think increased confidence just comes from having self-compassion, and internal happiness. I mean, that's first and foremost. And, once you have those couple of things, you can relay your mind and your heart, and you can continue to be in control of every situation that happens to come up. So cats (and we call them cats), what the athletes will be able to know them as and you want to spike those cats, you want to be a disciplined thinker who's in control of your own mind and I think you'll find that any time you look up something on cats you're going to find that it's the positive response to whatever it is that, you know, it's the opposite of fear, right?
Jim: Yeah, it's what you're trying to get to become, you know, I think just to become in control of this being in the moment and you won't feel fear, I mean, that's the number-one thing is to release your players from fear. Um, and so that's all it comes back to that and trust is a big one, it's right at the top of the list, the most important thing. You got to trust yourself, you got to trust your coach. That relationship between your coach and your players is, I think is the one that is the biggest. It's important to have that with your teammates, as well. But trust is I think is built over time, but it, too, comes from having a routine that players can see that you are a person that they an trust.
Lindsey: A couple things really reach, stick out to me that you mentioned. One is awareness, and the other is relaxation. I mean, the ability to even have the awareness that you're feeling tight, I mean, how long does it take? Do pitchers come to you at like, you're at the Bells now. Do pitchers come to you with that awareness already and they're college-age, right? do they have that awareness already? Of even knowing what relaxation is, and if so, are the—you know, relaxation's kind of a dirty word in sports. It's like, you know, it's like, you don't care about winning. You're not supposed to be relaxing. This is not fun. So those two kind of word—
Jim: you're right.
Lindsey: That kind of sticks out to me. Do they have that awareness, and if so, are they willing to really relax through that, that pitch?
Jim: Okay, so it starts, I think it starts by talking about it. So that they can, in that conversation, you know, I'll talk with them as a group first. And talk to them about what relaxation is and the importance of it, and how it relaxes the mind and it also allows you to be in control of, you know, maximum performance comes from having a relaxed muscle. I mean, it's just going to happen. You're going to have a quick twitch, you're going to have fluidity. You're going to have high-performance possibilities with being relaxed, and so if you are tense, you're going to feel almost like rigor mortis is setting in. I mean, honestly. Trying to throw a baseball by squeezing the ball and you know, which happens to a lot of people who get tense, they'll actually squeeze the baseball. And it's just not going to come out of their hand as fast. Your wrist muscles, your finger muscles, your arm muscles. Everything tightens up. You lose, you know, you lose all sorts of control, as well as speed and so that—we do talk about breathing and in depth. I just think breathing is so important. You know, how to brea—you know, we want to breathe. These are very common things that I find that probably less than half of them have learned so it needs to be taught, you know, again and again and again. And practice, you know, slowly inhale through your nose, hold for a count of four, and then exhale through your mouth. You know, and exhale, counting to six.
Jim: Now those long deep breaths, and that's where it starts, you know, and then the visualization, you know, I just think people have a hard time quieting their mind long enough to stay focused and so breathing and counting those breaths, doing those breaths I think's important, but in visualization is I'm sure you find, you know, you just got to—you got to go to a relaxing environment and I think it's a detailed exercise. I think it's one that you not only visualize the place, but you try to sense it as well. You know, a calm, quiet place where you can breathe and you can visualize whatever it is that's going to calm you down, whether it's the grandparents' home or on top of a mountain, or you know, but whatever that thing is that makes you feel happy inside, you know, you want to sense it in every possible way and the visualization comes from describing the picture that you're visualizing and all of a sudden, you know, that calmness will come over you again and then you want to stay there by breathing. And the nice thing about pitchers are is they've got time between pitches to do that to themselves. And I find they either can relax and go to the next pitch or they'll tense up because there's more time in between and the pitchers who tense up have a, you know, don't have the skills to relax and so it's not about practicing pitching anymore, it's about practicing how to relax.
Jim: You know, you're right, it is kind of uh, in a male sport, it may not be very macho to talk about relaxing.
Jim: But it's not, but when I tell them, and I have some interesting stories growing up, 'cause I grew up in an era where it was, being tough was, being a man and being tough were kind of simultaneous with not backing down to confrontation and being able to defend yourself physically. I mean, that was an era that we grew up in. You know, that's not how you're—you know, that's not allowed today to be taught as a coach. We've come so much further, but at the same time, I think it's important to recognize that you can be a really hard-nosed competitor and still be a very relaxed, calm person. they are one and the same, but sometimes, we don't, you know, we have to train ourselves to know that. And I—yeah, it's so important to breathe and visualize. And then the progressive muscle relaxation, um, you know, starting with your toes and working up to your head. You know, that's important, and if you aren't relaxing, you're not competing well. It's just the way it works.
Jim: Pitchers are really, you know, I find it in hitters, too. But in pitchers, it's especially I think important to know how to breathe between pitches. That's how you stay calm.
Lindsey: So that goes back to your routines, I imagine. I imagine with your routines, you're not talking about what shoe they tie first. I know in baseball and softball, it can be a little superstitious.
Jim: Uh-huh, yeah.