Updated: Mar 25, 2019
Back in 1999 our starting catcher injured his throwing hand during PE class. So, I got promoted that night from the bullpen to starting catcher, but something terrible happened. When I threw the ball back to the pitcher, I sailed it over his head. I felt a rush of adrenaline, embarrassment, and a voice in the back of my mind ask, “what the heck was that?” The next throw was in the dirt. I felt my shoulders tense up and it felt like someone had just loaded 200lbs on my catcher’s gear. The rest of the game it only got worse. The guys playing shortstop and second base literally alternated running back and forth after every pitch to back up a simple toss to the mound.
I was devastated.
I had never been that embarrassed in my entire athletic career. I was the starting QB on the football team that year. How was I able to throw a football to a wide receiver running a deep route at full speed with defenders trying to take my head off…but I couldn’t throw a baseball to a still target right in front of me? It felt like someone unplugged my arm from my brain and when I tried to throw a baseball (which I had been doing since t-ball as a kindergartener) it felt like I was learning to throw for the first time.
What was going on? What was wrong with me? This was obviously 100% mental because nothing happened to my arm, but MAN did it have an incredible physical power over my body. To make a long story short I rushed home that night, turned on the old dialup internet and went in search of answers. What happened? Why did it happen? How could I make sure it never happened again? The next few weeks drug on forever. I finally got things taken care of, but it took a while. It consumed my every thought. It was an anxiety that was with me from the moment I woke up until I finally fell asleep at night.
I still remember that season like it was yesterday. I had no idea what to do at the time or how to fix it. My coaches just kind of looked at me in bewilderment and who can blame them, they had probably never taught someone how to throw a baseball for the first time.
If I knew then what I know now it would have been completely different. If I had some of the tools and skills that I have now it would have been completely different, and this is a huge part of why I now do what I do.
After I “fixed” what was going on in my mind I made it my mission to make sure my younger brother never experienced a crippling, confidence-breakdown like that. It worked. Sam was nowhere near the best pitcher on his team that year, but he sure thought so. I quickly realized that these tools could help other players never have to go through what I did. When I graduated from college and started teaching and coaching full time it became my passion. I loved helping my quarterbacks prepare their mind to have an edge over their opponent. We started meeting at 6am in the offseason just so we could have time to coach the mental side of their game. As other athletes struggled with new obstacles in their mind they were often pointed in my direction and together we came up with a game plan to get back to “just playing.”
In 2013 our football team went to the state championship and to say that we struggled on that stage would be an understatement. We were not prepared mentally for that game in any way. After talking with our head coach Jake Gilbert at the end of that season we quickly determined that the mental training I was doing with my quarterbacks was needed for the entire team. It wasn’t only the quarterbacks who needed a plan to address confidence, focus, stress, anxiety, etc. it was EVERYONE. All human beings could benefit from those skills. We started making mental training an emphasis for our team that offseason and it paid off huge dividends. It was also that offseason (in a sports psychology class while completing my Master’s degree) that my eyes were opened to the world of neuropsychology…AND THAT CHANGED EVERYTHING
All of these mental skills and tools that I had seen FIRSTHAND work time after time, with athlete after athlete, actually could now be PROVED using functional MRI machines. Gone were the days of having to lay flat on your back and be slid into a machine, now we could examine the brains of humans completing all kinds of tasks up and about in the real world. Instead of me telling athletes, “you should do this activity because it worked for me and I think it will work for you” I could show them scientific proof! We could track reactions to stress and anxiety in both the mind and body that eliminated opinions and left us with cold hard facts.
SO, WHAT CAN WE DO WITH THIS KNOWLEDGE?
We don’t just have to tell athletes, if you do some breathing exercises it can help regular your heart rate variable (very immediate sign of stress). Now, we can hook them up to our portable ECG machine and add “stress” that shows up very clearly in their heart rate and/or rhythm. Then we can take them through exercises where we talk about the reaction that will occur in their mind, the different changes that will happen in their body, and ultimately, they practice taking back control of their stress reaction. It isn’t a guessing game, they can see the results right there on a computer screen.
In upcoming blogs, I will talk more about what we do with our athletes, this was simply to elaborate on why we do it. I feel like I have a cure for a disease and now I am rushing around with the vaccine saying, “please take this, you don’t have to struggle with stress and anxiety like that anymore…let me help you!”
I have worked with hundreds of athletes from little league players, to middle school, high school, NAIA-D1, all the way up to athletes living out their childhood dreams of getting paid to play professionally. The limit to who we can help is endless, because another thing we know from cognitive brain research is that a lot of systems in your body process pressure situations the same whether on a football field, in a classroom, or in the middle of a huge sales pitch. Our bodies have a reaction to stress and anxiety and when we learn how to handle it we can use it in any situation the rest of our lives.
So with that, let me formally introduce you to the Mental Training Plan. Our program is started as my attempt to help as many athletes as possible NEVER have to go through what I went through. To help them overcome their own obstacles, take back control of their mind and body, so they can get back to playing the sport that they love. After they get back to “just playing” is when things start to get really exciting. As they learn how to control their mind and body we can also start utilizing other areas of cognitive brain research to help athletes squeeze every possible ounce out of their preparation, and ultimately, gain an edge over their opponents.
If you are struggling with something, I would love to help.
If you need something, I would love to help.
Welcome to the Mental Training Plan.