I often wondered, why is it that teams in all sports play better at home than on the road? Baseball has one explanation: the difference in ballpark dimensions, however it doesn’t explain why it happens in other sports, or why ballpark advantages don’t seem to benefit teams playing away as much when they logically should (good hitting team playing in a “hitter’s park” or a good pitching team playing in a “pitcher’s park”). The difference is almost certainly psychological. Players just have a different mentality depending on whether they play home or away. This also implies that a change to their mentality could improve their performance on the field.
Imagine being a professional baseball player and playing in a game at home late in the season for a team that already clinched the top seed in the playoffs. The result of your at bat doesn’t really affect much at all, in fact even your own stats aren’t in danger of being affected by this game (you’re already the frontrunner for the MVP). Now imagine playing on the road, for a team that’s tied for first in the division in the last game of the season. Your team is playing against a team that you’re tied with and this is a crucial at bat: you’re down by one at the top of the ninth inning with runners on second and third and two outs. A base hit will tie the game and might even win it, an out is the end of the season (you’re not in contention for a Wild Card spot). In each case you’re facing the same pitcher. How do you feel in each case? Chances are your at bat will be affected by your mindset.
As someone who plays the game (though not professionally), I know very well how psychology affects a player’s mindset. Whenever I play, I notice that my performance is different based on how I feel. When I’m confident and relaxed I do well, if I’m not I have terrible at bats. What helped me is taking a Zen-type calm approach to every at-bat regardless of the situation. It works well for me but would that same approach work for professionals? Unlike them, I’m not playing for millions of dollars, in front of large crowds and under the scrutiny of the media. It’s likely that my approach isn’t enough and that more has to be done to help players. I also have always played in parks that are in my city and without jeering crowds heckling me during key at-bats.
I strongly believe that the next important area for teams to look at in order to achieve a competitive advantage is by helping players with the psychological aspects of their performance. This could lead to a few more wins on the road or an improved playoff performance by a player, both could be crucial in a tight playoff race or series. Wouldn’t this be worth the investment for every single aspect? I’m under the impression that teams already do psychological analyses of players, but do they take it as far as what I’m suggesting? Do they try to improve their mindset before at-bats?
Psychology is a major part of the game. It’s what separates “clutch performers” from those who consistently struggle in pressure situations. How many times have we heard that a particular player “always delivers in the clutch”? What about how a particular player is “always a bust in the playoffs”? Unfortunately there are no statistics to check how players perform in clutch situations and how players do in situations with runners in scoring position are affected by short sample sizes among other factors. We all know that there are players who perform well during the season, only to suddenly struggle in the playoffs. Do you remember when Alex Rodriguez was great in the regular season but suddenly turned into a AA player in the playoffs? I believe that it was entirely due to the psychological aspects of his game. Interestingly, he was so good in the 2009 playoffs that it seemed that it was again coming from the mental aspect of his game. He was so motivated to do well, that his confidence carried him to one of the all-time great postseason performances that any player has ever had.
I feel that the players’ mental states are often overlooked and seen as “their business” and as if it’s not relevant to their performance on the field. Could this be the key to solving the “yips”? Is it possible that some players are better or worse than they really are based on their mentality?
I strongly believe that the next area of concern for teams should be helping players with their mentality. How about virtual training simulators where players have batting cage or pitching training while facing imaginary boos, cheers and while put into critical and non-critical situations? Teams could even turn this into friendly competitions between players to see who does better. Presumably this would help them improve on the road and in clutch situations.
What do you think? Let me know on Twitter at @NeilfromNYC or in the comments.