The ever-eloquent New York Yankee catcher Yogi Berra once said, “Baseball is 90 percent mental. The other half is physical.”
Despite the iconic baseball player’s quirkiness, this quote crystalizes one of the key considerations in the success of an athletic team or individual: the mind.
In perhaps no other sport is this more evident than baseball.
“There’s just so much time to think in baseball, more than basketball or other sports,” said baseball head coach Mike Littlewood. “What makes baseball so special is that you’ve got to be especially tough mentally, thick-skinned and just have patience.”
The sheer volume of games played and the sport’s emphasis on statistics make it inevitable for teams and players to go on hot and cold streaks. A batter can go hitless over weeks of play, and a team can win 10 games in a row. The psychological side of baseball has contributed to the BYU Cougars baseball team soaring in a six-game winning streak and then languishing in an eight-game losing slump.
In his time as a professional player and a coach, Littlewood learned that the mental aspect of baseball often decides the fate on both offense and defense. He explained that when a player is in the batter’s box, the baseball can either look like a beach ball or a tiny pill, depending on how confident and relaxed the player is. The way a player is “seeing the ball” has an impact on their performance.
Dillon Robinson, junior third baseman and one of the Cougars’ hot-hitting position players this season, knows how it feels to see the ball well.
“I feel like I just have a lot of confidence in myself and the preparation I’ve had helps me to trust my abilities to take over,” Robinson said. “Once you start hitting better and better, the game slows down for you.”
Both players and coaches agree that success and putting a streak together come down to one thing: confidence. A lack of confidence can cause a pitcher to blow a lead in the late innings of a game or cause a hitter to struggle for weeks at the plate. Though sometimes difficult to reacquire when lost, confidence is determined at an individual and team level.
“I think there is a dynamic where confidence and success go hand in hand,” Littlewood said. “Athletics are so contagious —everything we do is contagious.”
There was plenty of contagious confidence in the Cougars’ six-game winning streak from Feb. 27 to March 7. One of the players who has played well this season and during the streak was senior first baseman Brock Whitney, who assembled a nine-game hitting streak and logged an average of .470 in a streak in a two-week span that included the team’s winning streak.
“Baseball is a lot of one-on-one battles,” Whitney said. “To win that battle you go in having confidence — knowing that you’re better than the other guy.”
The mental aspect of baseball, however, goes beyond just batters and pitchers. According to Littlewood, for each and every pitch, middle infielders and catchers have to be mentally prepared to know where the ball is hit, and where it needs to go. A lack of concentration can lead to a fielding error that could shake confidence at an individual and team level, and cause difficulties on offense.
“When I step into the box, it’s like a battle,” Whitney said. “I think baseball is a game of confidence and whoever is more confident is usually going to win”
There is an old adage in baseball claiming any baseball team can win against any other team on any given day. Though the Cougars have had their ups and downs this season on the ball diamond, they have shown tenacity in rebounding from slumps that can be demoralizing and have bounced back to perform well.
With almost half a season of games left to play, the Cougars have plenty of time left to improve their mental approach and swing their way into important streaks.