In part two of my five-part interview series with Bob Tewksbury, the new director of player development for the Major League Baseball Players Association, as well as former major league pitcher and former mental skills coach for the Boston Red Sox, he discusses how “positive reframing” of situations lead to more success in life.
Can you give me an example about how the power of words can affect your performance as a major league pitcher?
Years ago I was on the mound in Minnesota and slugger Jim Thome came up to bat. I told myself “Don’t hang him the curveball,” knowing that if I did he would hit it out of the ballpark. Sure enough, I hung the curveball and Thome almost hit the top roof of the Metrodome. By listening to that voice in my head, I made sure that I would do the exact thing I was trying to avoid. That’s because the brain has difficulty processing negative contractions – so “don’t hang this pitch” is heard as “hang this pitch” – and then the body follows through on this action.
So how did you, as a major league pitcher, combat those negative thoughts when they popped up?
The first thing I would do was step off the mound and take a deep breath. Then I would reframe the negative thought “don’t hang the curveball” to a positive one “throw a curveball down in the zone.” Notice how I’m very specific about my goal. I’m focused on exactly where I want the ball to go, as opposed to where I don’t want it to go.
As a “mental skills” coach for the Red Sox, did you see players use reframing techniques?
David Ortiz will spit in his glove and slap his hands together. I think this is his way of resetting before each new at bat. By going through the same pre-swing routine, it sends a message to his mind that it’s one at-bat at a time, and that no at-bat is more significant than the other. Consistent behavior leads to consistent results.
As a pitcher, you go out and give up four runs in the first inning. How do you mentally recover so that you can pitch effectively the rest of the game?
The great pitchers, and I believe this is true for all people who achieve no matter what their profession, are able to make “one of those days” into a good day. The first step is to let go of your original goal (and the inner critic that ruminates on mistakes) and redefine success. For example, I might tell myself, “I’m going to make it to the sixth inning without giving up another run. I’m going to keep our team in the game.” Then I’m going to commit myself to only relevant thoughts.
What do you mean by relevant thoughts?
Any thought that’s related directly to the task at hand – throw strike one, get out the next batter – is relevant. Any thought about yourself is irrelevant. When thoughts are focused on yourself your emotions come into play; anger, frustration, self pity, to name a few. When these emotions come into play, the game tends to speed up.
When this happens, when emotions take over, how do you get a pitcher back on track?
I’ve told pitchers who were struggling during an inning to take a “tongue depressor” time out. Go out behind the mound, go down on one knee and clean out your spike with the tongue depressor. Take a moment to refocus. Let’s say the bases are loaded with one out. “What do I do about it? I need a ground ball double play. Okay, so throw a good low pitch on the outside.” It’s about being able to see your realistic choices and then acting on them.
Are there any other reframing methods that you used while pitching?
When negative thoughts would crop up on the pitcher’s mound, I would bang the side of my leg with my glove. This was my way of pressing the reset button. I’d then start fresh with a positive statement such as “throw a good low strike” or “get the lead-off hitter out.” Or I would swipe my foot across the mound like an eraser. Erase the pessimistic thought, replace it with an optimistic one. And my body would do the rest.
Okay, so from now on if I get stuck as a writer, I’m just going to press the Control-Alt-Delete button.
There you go. I think we would all benefit from using some mechanism that would act as a mental anchor, pulling us back to the task at hand before we let our thoughts and feelings dominate us. One of the things that separate a great ballplayer like Derek Jeter or David Ortiz from all others: it’s how they perceive and respond to events. There’s an appropriate amount of emotional response to a given situation. But how long the emotions stay with you is your choice.
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