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Softball pitchers exercise psychologically, not just physically

Wednesday, May 07, 2014
by Mark McGee

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Lipscomb pitching coach Megan Rhodes Smith stands in centerfield with five softball players appearing to take a nap an hour before game time.

Just what they are doing as they lie prone in the grass has prompted questions from early arrivals to the ball park around the Atlantic Sun Conference. No, they aren’t napping. Wrong, they aren’t meditating either.

What they are doing is visualizing what they will do in the game. Smith, who has a master’s in sports psychology, initiated the program this season.

Her five pitchers on the Lipscomb staff– Ashley Anderson, Tanner Sanders, Heather Parker, McCarley Thomas and Taylor Neuhart - believe in it too. This week they will not only be visualizing what pitches they will throw and what the results might be. They will also be visualizing what it will be like to win the Atlantic Sun Conference Tournament Championship at Draper Diamond at Smith Stadium on the Lipscomb campus.

The tournament starts today at 3 p.m. when No. 3 Stetson faces No. 6 Florida Gulf Coast. The winner will play the No.2-seeded Lady Bisons Thursday at 10 a.m. The Lady Bisons and USC Upstate, the No.1 seed, drew first round byes.

Anderson thrives

The pitcher who has benefited the most from the visualization exercises is Anderson, a senior left-hander. She is 19-4 this season with a 1.44 earned run average and 117 strikeouts. All are career season bests for her.

“You practically go through every one of your pitches,” Anderson said. “Visualizing being on the mound really helps because you feel like you have already done it.

“For me, personally, I don’t feel as nervous. That is kind of my mentality. I just go through it and chill now. It is less stress for me.”

The visualization process goes through thoughts like what it feels like to get three outs and what to do in a bunt situation.

“She will say something like,`you have just given up a big hit’,” Anderson said. “She will tell us to visualize what we are going to do to get the next batter out. We can walk through what pitches we will throw in certain situations.”

Anderson points to the visualization process as the key to her success this season.

“I think it has made all of the difference,” Anderson said. “When you give up a hit, you can just check in with yourself and say now I know how to deal with that and get the next batter out.

“You have to internalize it and say, `I can do this. I have done it a million times’. It is a tool everybody can benefit from.”

The thinking pitcher

Parker, a senior right-hander, is 9-3 this season. She didn’t need any convincing about visualization. Known as a thinking person’s kind of pitcher in the circle she had been using visualization most of her career.

“I’ve always been a very visual pitcher,” Parker said. “I see a pitch. I see exactly what I want it to do. And that is something she has really concentrated on, especially with me.

“She wants me to make sure that before and after every single pitch that I have a goal in mind. It is not so much how I want it to happen, but what I want it to look like. I had to make an adjustment to my approach. From my standpoint I would look at how I wanted to do it instead of seeing it and just letting my body do what it already knew how to do.”

The mental approach to the game is important to Parker and she has especially enjoyed that aspect of the pregame sessions.

“As a human your brain only knows what you tell it to do,” Parker said. “So if you are constantly visualizing these things happen then your body doesn’t really know the difference between the physical action and you, yourself, thinking it.”

Parker added that Smith’s process expanded on what she had been doing previously in her career in terms of visualization.

“Coach Smith has given me a reason to do things rather than just doing it,” Parker said. “I love thinking through situations before a game.

“In my own version I was visualizing how I wanted things to happen and how I should be whenever I threw a certain pitch. She has expanded on it. She has taken what I was doing in terms of visualization to a different level.”

Like Anderson, Parker agrees that the pregame visualization exercises are a relaxing way to prepare.

“We find a place in the grass to lie down,” Parker said. “She just tells us to take a deep breath, not only to calm us down but to help get us in game mode.

“We block out everything from that day that we can’t control. We really get focused on how we want to feel and what our approach is going to be to that game. Everything she is doing is with a purpose. It has really helped us as a pitching staff to develop our mental game.”

The process

The process is not an easy one to explain. There are volumes of scientific studies on visualization, but Smith personally knows visualization works. She used it as a standout pitcher at the University of Tennessee under the direction of the athletic department’s sports psychologist.

There are many steps in the process but Smith puts it into a simpler nutshell with five steps.

“You see yourself doing something and you feel it in your body,” Smith said. “You are going to be activating the same muscles and the same parts of your brain as if you actually did the action. You just don’t actually move.”

Smith refers to the first four steps as “free” practice. The fifth step is the actual physical process.

 “Confidence is so important,” Smith said. “Preparation really feeds into confidence. If you feel prepared then you will feel like you are ready to go. That is one way you physically feel more ready as well as mentally.

“You get out of it what you put into it. I just tell them to have a great feeling.”

Smith talks to the players in a calming voice during the visualization sessions. The pregame sessions usually last no more than 10 minutes.

“I am trying to feed them a message about the day, but in such a way that they are relaxed,” Smith said. “We are not going to let in the `what ifs’ or who the other team is. We are not letting in the outside things we can’t control. Usually the message is what you are every day is what I want from you today.

“There are some days I will mix the message up a little bit. If they look like they are worn down or tired I will try to infuse some energy into it and have them breath in energy and things like that.”

Anderson, Parker and Sanders, a right-hander, are all expected to see playing time in the tournament. In a tournament situation every pitch and every play can be crucial. Smith plans to deal with those aspects in the visualization exercises, but she doesn’t expect to make any major changes in how she has dealt with the pitchers all season.

“If I think it is going to be a game where there is going to be a lot of tension, or if it looks like it might be a close game, maybe I will try to keep the tone calmer and more stable,” Smith said. “There are times when a game is going to get exciting, but you want to be smooth and steady. You don’t want to be riding a rollercoaster.

“I am just asking them to throw strikes. I am not asking them to win the game by themselves.”