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Physical v. Mental Mistakes: Distinguishing the Different to Improve Your Game

By Cass Kreitlow, 05/17/17, 5:45PM CDT

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Over the last month or so, our training staff has had the opportunity to work with several teams in the metro area and gotten a lot of kids better. We pride ourselves on our ability to develop players' ability to hit, throw and field a baseball. With that said, there a couple of things we have noticed running practices that hopefully can aid in your ability to develop on and off the baseball field.

What is a physical mistake?

Defining a physical mistake is key in understanding how to handle them properly. The best way to understand a physical mistake is to think of some examples: dropping a fly ball, misplaying a grounder, committing a throwing error, walking a batter, hitting a batter, swinging and missing at the plate, etc... These are all examples of things that might happen even when a player is mentally and physically prepared for a play and simply does not execute. 

What is a mental mistake?

When you think mental mistake, a large majority of them can be attributed to a lack of anticipation of a baseball play. From a coaching side of things, it is our job to educate players on how to play the game. In a game where the laws of numbers and averages play a big role, sound baseball players understand the risk reward of any given play. This skill can be practiced by consciously envisioning what might happen if the ball comes to you. Here are some examples:

  • Defensively
    • Situation: There is someone on 1st base with one out. The player is in CF.
      • Ball hit in the air to them for an easy out. The only decision the player has to make is to catch the ball and get it to the 2nd basemen in a reasonable amount of time.
      • Ball hit right at them on the ground. The baserunner is getting to 2nd base, the ball needs to be cutoff towards 3rd base. The CF should know to block the ball as there is not going to be a play where they need to throw the ball aggressively to third base unless there was a hit and run or a steal. This would change the situation but the decision is still throw the ball to the cutoff towards 3rd base. 
      • Ball hit to the left or right of them. If they can cut the ball off there will likely be a play at 3rd base where the CF needs to field the ball outside of their body and make a strong throw through the cutoff towards 3rd base. If the ball gets past them in the gap, there is a good chance there may be a play at the plate. Depending on the baserunner and their positioning, will determine if there is a play at 3rd or home.
  • Offensively
    • Situation: Every program has a different philosophy on players' approach at the plate. I'm going to use Hamline University's approach as an example, but recognize that there are several effective approaches offensively.
      • Get a fastball, particularly up in zone. 
      • Don't get out of the way of a pitch thrown at you, unless it's at your head. 
      • Anticipate a fastball away in 0-2 count
    • That's it. It is a simple approach that relies on fastball efficiency. A mental mistake in this approach would be watching an elevated fastball for a strike. Another mental mistake would be getting out of the way of a pitch that is throw below the neck. 
  • Pitching
    • Situation: Pitching is a little more complicated based on age level and talent so I will keep this simple.
    • I have never met a kid who wasn't trying to throw strikes. Not throwing strikes is typically not a mental mistake. There might be a player who is mentally not very tough who is not confident in their ability to throw strikes, but this is not a mistake. 
    • Fielding a bunt and not knowing where to throw the ball would be an example of a mental mistake. 
    • Missing signs from a catcher or coach would be an example of a mental mistake. 
    • Missing a pickoff from a middle infielder would be an example of a mental mistake. 

What is significant in distinguishing the difference between physical and mental mistakes?

Physical mistakes are bound to happen. Failure is inevitable in the game of baseball. Once a player can recognize that failure goes hand in hand with success, they can hopefully recognize that failure should not be something to be feared. Physical mistakes will happen less the more preparation players put in during practice. The kids that want to stay after practice to take extra grounders or extra batting practice are the ones that coaches love to help and who are less likely to make physical mistakes. At the end of the day, no player should feel bad about the lack of executing a physical play as that tends to spiral into more physical mistakes. Learn why they happen, forget about it, and move on.

Mental mistakes are most easily avoided by players who commit themselves to understanding the rules and risks of the game of baseball. For younger players, mental mistakes are going to happen as they grow and mature. It is much harder for a 10 year old to have the pre-pitch awareness of a 20 year old but it highlights the importance of how much practice time can be allocated to teaching the right way to play the game. If players are focused and giving 100% effort to develop into playing the game properly, mental mistakes will be few and far between. Once players have been taught where to throw the ball depending on the situation, the more they need to be held accountable by their coaches to execute the mental side of the game. 

So what?

I am trying to highlight how much time and effort can be allocated to the mental side of the game. I have said it many times before, but a H.S. baseball team can be extremely effective if you have a group of players that know how to play sound mental baseball. These teams will make physical mistakes but will make very few mental mistakes. Instead of getting super technical when it comes to hitting and throwing a baseball, players are often better off focusing on their INTENT (great article on the importance of intent) to throw hard and swing aggressively. For example, if players simply try to hit the ball hard in the air, or throw the ball hard every time they pick it up, whether it's on the mound or not, the mechanics of their swing and throw will inevitably develop from their intent. Quit spending so much time trying to swing like Ken Griffey Jr., and more time playing the game hard and minimizing mental mistakes.

-Cass