Picture Block

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Knowledge = Mental Edge

If you’re drafted as a baseball player, you’ve obviously got some talent. As you work your way through the system, though, you inevitably start discovering new strengths and new weaknesses. And, to me, this is the moment that separates great players from the rest. Great players draw on two things here, specifically: 1) an unshakeable confidence in their abilities; and 2) a knack for not only learning new things about those abilities but also for remembering and applying those lessons, which they do constantly. And as you might expect, # 2 is often one of the main sources of #1.

There’s so much tacit knowledge required to excel at a game like baseball, and you need to develop that knowledge as quickly as possible. As a pitcher, some of the most important learning comes from studying veteran pitchers and asking them about what they did and why they did it. Other ways to learn include talking with catchers who know how to get guys out (and also with batters, if they’re willing, to get them to say which pitchers they have trouble with and why). Greg Maddux was one of the best examples of this I’ve ever seen, and it’s not as common as you might imagine. I remember Ted Simmons, for instance, toward the end of his career, wondering why more young pitchers weren’t asking him about the things he didn’t like to see as a hitter so they could try them on opposing batters. And the same thing goes for hitters: you need to pay close attention to what others do that seems to work well, and then try to notice the details about your swing that are perhaps holding you back.

Once you develop this trove of knowledge you’ll need to work to maintain it. I always tell young high school and college players to study hard and learn how to think, since the intellectual skills they gain in the classroom will go a long way in helping them retain and apply what they learn on the baseball field. Throughout my career I saw a lot of talented players that really struggled with this mental aspect of the game. Despite their talent, their on-field instincts never really progressed, and they were unable to improve past a certain point.

To be sure, baseball is a game of split-second reactions and finely-tuned physical reflexes, which may seem contradictory to all this cerebral stuff I’m talking about here. But I think it’s also true that these instincts rely heavily on knowledge gained through previous experience. Take base running, for example, a skill that relies as much (if not more) on prior learning as it does on pure physical ability. If you’re naturally quick but don’t have a sense for situations (e.g., when to take a chance and when to stay put), then you’ll literally be going nowhere fast.

Not only will all this mental work help you move up as a young player, but it will also help compensate for diminishing physical abilities later in your career. In fact, I’d bet it’s the same as in many other careers—when you start losing your edge your best weapon is what you’ve got stored in your head. And, trust me, that hard-won knowledge can be a powerful asset. Just think of how many seasoned “older” players have been more effective in certain ways than their younger, more talented peers.

In short, the mental side of game isn’t just a matter of learning to relax, being confident, and trying to keep your focus—it’s about first doing the mental work that will allow these positive states to emerge on their own.


  1. Enjoyed the blog, Murph! I am a lifetime Braves fan, and one of my best memories when I was younger was getting a picture of you in the mail that you had signed for me... Still have it! I am a psychologist now, and some of the stuff that you talk about in this blog sounds like what Howard Gardner calls 'Bodily-Kinesthetic' Intelligence. He is a Harvard psychologist who believes that there is not just one type of IQ as we have thought of it in the past, but many different kinds. For example, he would say that watching Sportscenter will not make you a good athlete (obviously). You have to develop the muscle memory and motor skills to become a great athlete, or you have to have 'Bodily-Kinesthetic' IQ. He would also say that some people who are 'book smart' have no idea how to get along with people because it's a different type of IQ... So, the question is not 'if' you are smart, but 'how' you are smart... And people can be smart in different ways. Maybe too cerebral, but I thought you might be interested. Thanks for my picture.... Sorry I'm like 25 years late!!!

  2. A few good examples on the plus and minus side of the ledger:
    * A "veteran's" mental edge despite declining physical ability: Chipper Jones, Derek Jeter
    * Pure natural ability, but the mental game lags behind: Jeff Francouer (love him, but...), Andruw Jones

    Baseball's a funny game. So many guys say that as soon as they figure it out, they start losing their ability to execute on what they know. It's a very small window for many.

    But my favorite example of this are the guys (there are usually a few on each team) whose game is heavily mental, with physical skills usually fairly average. Usually these guys are backup catchers, people like David Ross. And it's no accident that those guys are often the ones who end up as managers after their playing days are done. (Will Rossy manage one day? Don't bet against it!)

  3. Love the comments! Thanks so much!