Baseball is a mental game as much as anything, which is a huge lesson Guardians pitcher Triston McKenzie learned last season.
The mental aspects of baseball are considered to be an important part of successful performance within the game. Thus, in order to help players reflect on the importance of the mental game, mental performance coaches will ask baseball players to explain their thoughts and feelings about when they are performing optimally. In contrast, they also ask players to reflect upon their thoughts and feelings that they have when they are not performing as well.
This type of guided discovery often leads athletes to become aware of the things that they can control, and not worry about things they do not have control of. Or as many elite athletes have talked about in the recent past, it can lead to a focused mantra such as focusing on the process.
One theory that guides the applied work of mental performance coaches when helping athletes learn to lessen pressure is referred to as reversal theory. Scholar John Kerr hypothesized that anxiety can affect an athlete’s performance based upon on how they interpret the stress.
Recently, Mandy Bell at MLB.com provided an excellent example of how an athlete’s perspective on interpreting stress and anxiety can relate to performance success. Bell explained that Guardians pitcher Triston McKenzie had a very successful rookie campaign in 2020; however, during his sophomore season, McKenzie’s performance began to decline.
McKenzie contrasted his mental approach while pitching successfully in the minors with his thoughts throughout the start of the 2021 MLB season.
McKenzie believed that how he interpreted his anxiety was extremely important. Earlier in the 2021 season, while pitching in the big leagues, McKenzie would have butterflies before the game and would interpret that negatively and get overly anxious. However, when pitching in the minors, later in the 2021 season, he believed he interpreted the butterflies differently. He viewed the butterflies more positively, as a meaning that he was ready to play the game.
After gaining confidence and returning from the minors, McKenzie pitched spectacularly, putting up a 3.65 ERA in his final ten starts of the season. Most importantly, McKenzie’s control improved greatly. In fact, between July 12 and September 23, McKenzie gave up only 12 walks. In contrast to the start of the season, McKenzie gave up 39 walks between April 25 and June 11.
To hear more about Triston McKenzie’s thoughts about the upcoming season, listen to the most recent Guardians Weekly podcast in which Jim Rosenhaus interviews the 24-year-old pitcher.