Know the Power of Mental Imagery

Pitching 1,807 innings against the most feared hitters on the planet, including Ken Griffey Jr., Barry Bonds, and Cal Ripken Jr., is no easy feat. It takes as much mental fortitude as it does physical strength. Former All-Star righty Bob Tewksbury knows this first hand, hurling all those pitches over his 13 years on a major league pitching mound.

But Tewksbury knows about the mental side of the game for another reason; after he retired, he earned a Master's degree in sports psychology and counseling from Boston University. After which he spent nine seasons as a “mental skills coach” with the Boston Red Sox, who won the World Series last fall.

Tewksbury now finds himself the director of player development for the Major League Baseball Players Association, giving players the psychological ability to succeed in a game where the pressure to perform is intense. But for Tewksbury, it’s just as important that he gives players the mental tools to succeed in life, not just during but after their career.

In the final installment of our five-part interview series, Tewksbury imparts some life lessons learned from pitching over a decade in the big leagues. 

1. Know the power of mental imagery

Back when I was a kid, I read Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking and articles by William Arthur Ward, who said, “If you can imagine it, you can achieve it. If you can dream it, you can become it.” So driving down to my first major league spring training in my two-tone brown 1978 Mercury Zephyr, I created in my mind an image of the best thing that could happen to me at the conclusion of spring training. And that was to walk into New York Yankees manager Lou Piniella’s office and he would tell me I had made the team.

On the 1,500-mile drive from my home in Concord, New Hampshire to the training camp in Pompano, Florida, I relived this best-case scenario moment in my mind over and over again. By the time I reached a stop light in Pompano, my eyes welled up with tears. My body was responding to the image of my dream coming true, as if it had already happened.

Throughout that entire spring training, every night before I pitched I would go out on the beach with my Walkman on. Surrounded by ocean and sky and sand, I’d imagine throwing all my pitches – fastball, change-up, curveball, to right handers, to left handers. During that spring, I ended up pitching 20 consecutive scoreless innings.

About a week before camp ended the clubhouse guy tapped me on the shoulder and told me that Lou wanted to see me. I walked into his office. I was literally walking into the image that I had already seen in my mind a hundred times before. He told me I had made the team.

2. Don't let negative self-talk undermine you in critical situations

It was the 1992 All-Star Game. I came into pitch in the top of the fifth inning. My first inning went well. I retired Joe Carter, home run king Mark McGwire, and future Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. “Whew!” I thought as I sat in the dugout feeling happy about my outing and thinking I was done for the night. I was wrong.

In the top of the sixth inning, with the American League leading 6-0, I gave up doubles to Ken Griffey Jr. and Robin Ventura, and then a home run to Ruben Sierra. After surrendering four runs, I was pulled for John Smoltz, but the damage had been done.

The damage started in the dugout after the first inning when my self-talk focused on the relief of having pitched a 1-2-3 inning and being done for the night. When I took the mound in my second inning of work, the negative self-talk went into overdrive. The game sped up on me as my emotions spun out of control. My outing became a mess. I started imagining what the millions of people watching on TV were thinking about me. I felt embarrassed. But it was a valuable learning experience: How you talk to yourself determines how you feel and how you feel affects how you perform.

3. Use a positive anchor statement to refocus and get back in the groove

On days between starts, a pitcher will get work in by pitching in the bullpen or “on the side.” You might throw around 40 pitches on the side and there’s no umpire, no hitter, nobody in the stands. You don’t have to think about anything. It’s a chance to get into a nice rhythm with your pitches and, generally speaking, it feels easy.

When I was in an actual game and got behind the batter in the count, say, 3-0, and had to throw a strike, I would tell myself, “Just like on the side.” My mind would flash back to my bullpen session between starts. How did it feel to throw a strike then? Easy. Why? Because there was no pressure. I was just playing a game of catch. (At the end of the day, isn’t that what pitching is—an advanced game of catch?) In any event, when I said, “just like on the side," I relaxed and my body knew what to do.

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