A major league baseball player who was mired in a most unusual slump was referred to me. As a first year starting pitcher he was unable to make it through the 5th inning of his first five starts of the season. He rapidly developed an irrational belief that he would never again make it through the 5th inning.
Interestingly, he pitched extremely well during the first four innings of each game he started. After being unable to survive the 5thinning in his first two starts he began to worry. Specifically, he began to ”what-if” about not making it through this most troublesome inning. So, the five days he had to endure between starts became mentally excruciating.
He began obsessively engaging The Toxic Three zone blockers that guarantee poor performance. Variations and combinations of “What- if it happens again?,” ”What-if I get sent down to Triple A?,” ”Why am I playing like this?,” “I don’t belong in the big leagues, I’ll never make it, I’m a loser,” played over and over in his conscious, overthinking mind. Unbelievably, he explained that he would actually calculate his earned run average (ERA) rising during the 5thinning. He would do this after surrendering runs, prior to the next batter stepping up to the plate.
Now, I already understood that anyone who makes it to “the show,” the big leagues, is a world class athlete. Any major league baseball player is better than 99.9999% of the players in the world. So when he said to me at the outset of our session, “I don’t know what you think you can do, I already know I’ll never make it through the 5th inning,” I was prepared. I continued, “I have a question for you, but I don’t want you to answer it until later in the session. Here it is: What’s so special about the 5th inning? I promise we’ll come back to it.”
I proceeded to inquire about his personal history of success, his ability to support himself and his teammates when having a difficult time, and about his future memories of success. I was highlighting the Big Three techniques that create Peak Performance.
Personal History of Success: Why-ning (asking, “Why did I play so poorly”) is used as a positive trigger to magnify your personal history of success.
I was very curious about the road that brought him to the highest level of professional baseball. “So let’s put the stress and pressure aside for just a moment and talk about pure baseball.” I continued with the following questions, “When did you first realize you loved the game? Who were your primary supporters? What are your most meaningful memories of your life in baseball, from little league, and high school, on to the minor leagues?”
Over the next five minutes I learned a great deal about his passion for the game. He told me of “playing from the time I could barely walk with my brothers and dad; the smell of the glove oil I would use to break in a new mitt; the ping of the aluminum bat when I hit home runs; the sound of my mom’s voice cheering me on; the awesome feeling of getting drafted; the party we had when I signed my first contract,” and on and on he went.
The energy in the air was beginning to shift as he reconnected with and detailed his personal history of success in baseball. So I said, “Can you tell me about a time, from little league to the present, excluding your past five major league starts, that you did NOT make it through the 5thinning?” I fully anticipated that he would remember a few times when he was “off his game” and was taken out prior to the 5th inning. He looked up for a minute and reviewed his career as a pitcher and realized that he could not, amazingly, remember a single time he was removed from a game, on any level, before this season. I then said, “So what’s so special about the 5th inning? Don’t answer that yet.”
Extreme Self-Support: Self-criticizing is used as a positive trigger to become extremely self-supportive.
I then wondered aloud if he had a close friend on the team. Upon learning that he is extremely close with a fellow pitcher, I asked him how he would support his buddy if the roles were reversed, if he were pitching very well and his friend was convinced that he would never again see the light of the 6th inning. He emphatically responded that he would tell his friend, “You belong here! You destroy hitters! You are the man! I wish had the nasty stuff you have! I believe in you!”
I commented, “Imagine if you took 20% of the genuine, heartfelt support you have for your friend and applied it to yourself? And, by the way, would you ever advise another pitcher in a slump to beat himself down, to focus on future failure, and, in what universe would you recommend that he calculate his ERA going up while he was still in the game pitching?” I detected a slight smile and a nod of the head.
Future Memories of Success: What-ifing (What if I fail?) is used as a positive trigger to begin What-willing (What-will it be like when I succeed?).
I then posed a series of pointed questions, “What-will it be like when every pitch is the first pitch and every inning the first inning? Isn’t every pitch an opportunity to be extremely confident and intense? And, please help me understand what’s so special about the 5th inning? I noticed his smile became a bit wider and his head continued nodding in agreement.
He sat upright in his chair and said, “You know, you’re right, what’s the big deal about the 5thinning? It’s just another inning.” We then discussed the philosophy of allowing every pitch to simply be the next pitch, the first pitch. I went on, “Every pitch can be a positive trigger to trust your ability, to really zone-in, to be fierce and focused . . . and, by the way, my personal favorite technique is to imagine future memories of success. And you can do that on the mound, seeing and experiencing success right before throwing the pitch, believing that in just a split second you will be achieving your goal. And then you do it again, and again, and again.”
Peak Performance Zone: This guided zone exercise allows the Big Three (Personal History of Success, Extreme Self-Support, Future Memories of Success) to become your go-tools that enable intense focus and maximum achievement. Zone exercises in the office and at home serve to dismantle the symptoms that prevent you from accessing and maintaining your real time performance zone in your sport.
As he sat comfortably in his chair I continued, “Close your eyes and take 5 very slow, very deep breaths. A nice way to really absorb yourself is to stare at the inside of your eyes, experiencing the unique light, the colors . . . and I know that your conscious mind may have certain doubts about this process, this exercise, but I also know from my experience that your subconscious mind is already creating and generating sensations of comfort and confidence, visions of your best self really competing, succeeding, and believing in your talents, your abilities.
So, why not forget all about trying, and transport yourself back in time, like a bodiless mind, enjoying the process of reviewing your own personal history of playing ball . . . experiencing the sights and sounds of dominating on the mound, the sensations of lightness . . . the smell of the freshly cut grass, the powerfully calm confidence that flowed through you and remains within you.”
I continued guiding him back through his history of success for 5 minutes, helping him to reconnect with memories of not only playing great but of loving to play.
The final 10 minutes of the guided zone magnified the tools of extreme self-support and future memories of success.
The Outcome: The rookie pitcher went on to pitch four complete games throughout the remainder of the season. He routinely pitched beyond the fifth inning. The start after his zonefulness session he pitched seven innings, gave up two runs, and earned his first major league victory. He was quoted after the game, saying, “It’s really about my mental focus. I just tried to take one pitch at a time and do my very best.”