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Mudville: June 22, 2024 8:46 am PDT

Arrows Out

BY KEVIN KERNAN

Anyone who’s played baseball knows the game is as much mental as it is physical.

Failure is built into the game, and how you respond to that failure can make the difference between success or falling flat on your face. Last week here at The Story the subject was how Major League Baseball has gotten away from the tried and true methods of conditioning, including something as simple as running, as baseball continues to pay the price with injuries and millions of dollars sitting on the injured list.

The response from that column was overwhelming. So many baseball people reached out to say that column “nailed it’’ in so many ways.

This week here at The Story it’s time to take a different approach. It’s time to look at the mental challenges of the game, especially for the younger ballplayer.

Not just in baseball, but in softball as well. Softball is taking off at all levels and this week with the 2023 Women’s College World Series being played, now is the perfect time to reach out to softball players as well.

But as people often say these days when you hit them with a tough question, “That’s above my pay grade.’’

With that in mind, it was time to reach out for help with the mental game of baseball and softball and to talk to someone who has invested decades helping athletes succeed, from youth to high school to college to pro.

To address the mental approach of both baseball and softball there is no one better than Dr. Curt Ickes. He currently has four books out on the subject. After a number of conversations with Dr. Ickes it is clear that his understanding of the mental side of the game is off the charts – and again, this means so much to me, as he has decades of hands-on experience in helping athletes.

Dr. Ickes talks the talk and walks the walk.

He is a licensed psychologist and a professor emeritus at Ashland University in Ashland, Ohio who taught in the psychology department for more than 30 years. As his bio notes, he is trained in cognitive-behavioral techniques and he’s particularly interested in the study and application of the psychological factors that lead to optimal athletic performance. Working with Division II college athletes has been a blessing for Dr. Ickes, and his books are a treasure trove for both baseball and softball players.

The first book he wrote was back in 2010, and I wish I had discovered it back then. The title is Mental Toughness: Getting the Edge. There are also more recent books geared to younger readers: Win the Next Pitch: Essential Mental Skills for Young Baseball Players and You Got This! Mental Game Skills for Young Softball Players.

That book has been so successful that a new book entitled You Got This! 2 has just been published.

“Arrows-out players are gamers, not victims. They do not get caught up in whining and crying if things do not go well. Instead they accept the challenges with a sense of determination and resolve.’’

One of his central themes is something I deeply believe in, and in his book Mental Toughness he spells it out perfectly.

“Players need to play arrows-out baseball, not arrows in,’’ Dr. Ickes writes. “Arrows-out means the focus of energy is moving from you and not towards you. Arrows-out means taking charge. Playing arrows-out is a choice.”

And here is a sentence that really struck me, especially in the society that we live in today.

“Arrows-out players are gamers, not victims. They do not get caught up in whining and crying if things do not go well. Instead they accept the challenges with a sense of determination and resolve.’’

Do that and you lead the way; and this process works on every level, from youth baseball to high school to college to the pros.

In a way, it’s like the line from A League of Their Own:

“There’s no crying in baseball.’’

If there is crying, you have to find a way to move forward. Never forget it’s a game.

“As more and more players adopt an arrows-out attitude, the team attitude becomes arrows-out and the team becomes much more difficult to defeat,’’ Dr. Ickes says.

Think of it, that’s the definition of winning baseball and a good recipe for living life as well. Those Yankee teams that won championships in 1996, 1998, 1999, and 2000 played arrows-out baseball. In the postseason it’s arrows-out baseball that wins.

Don’t play the victim. Take an arrows-out approach and make your way to success on the baseball field, softball field, and the world in a positive manner.

Dr. Curt Ickes

There is much more, of course, in the books. For the young player, Dr. Ickes offers The Three T’s and these are simple and practical answers to becoming a more positive and better ballplayer.

“Take some deep breaths.” 

“Throw away the mistake.” 

“Tell yourself some positive things.”

Don’t just do these things in a game, practice them in practice, where you can actually pick up a handful of dirt and throw it away; that way the mistake is being tossed away mentally and physically. It’s basic and simple and that’s why I like it.

There is a tendency to make things, especially baseball, too hard these days in the over-analytical world. See the ball, hit the ball. Catch the ball, throw the ball. Throw strikes.

Don’t get bogged down in overthinking the game. There was a great photo last week of St. Louis Cardinals players sitting in the dugout. One player is watching the game, the others are all locked into their iPads, their own worlds. Where is the team communication? And the Cardinals are not alone in this approach. They can’t get out of their own way in the putrid NL Central. It’s there throughout baseball.

To me, a current player who exemplifies the arrows-out approach is Mookie Betts of the Dodgers, who destroyed the Yankees Friday night in Los Angeles. He is the perfect leadoff man because he has that arrows-out approach. The fact that the Red Sox could not keep Betts tells me all I need to know about the current Red Sox regime. You don’t let players like Mookie Betts get away, because he lifts up the other players.

“Baseball is a mental game,’’ Dr. Ickes says. “It is a game that is played one pitch at a time. Helping young players stay calm and focused between pitches is critical to success. The most important pitch in any game is the next pitch. The goal is to mentally prepare in order to have the best chance to Win the Next Pitch! This book helps players do that.’’

Mookie Betts #50 of the Los Angeles Dodgers rounds the bases after hitting a home run in the sixth inning during the game between the New York Yankees and the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium on Friday, June 2, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

The book follows a young player named Jack who struggles mightily. He learns to deal with issues of anxiety and confidence through Matt, a new friend on the team. Matt helps to teach Jack to reset after failure, improve concentration, and increase confidence. And again, the beauty of all this is that these skills can be applied to any performance situation, not just baseball.

In my conversations with Derek Jeter through the years, I always felt that was the secret to his success. Jeter always looked forward to the next pitch, the next game, the next season. He never dwelled on the past and never languished in the world of failure. He knew how to move on quickly from mistakes and not make similar mistakes in the future.

Every play, every pitch was a personal challenge to him to get better. When I covered the NBA and players like Michael Jordan and Larry Bird, they had a similar approach. It was always about the next play, the next game, and if something bad happened it was over and done with quickly.

If you go to Dr. Ickes’ Facebook page you will see the incredible response his books are getting, especially now from the growing softball community.

In Win the Next Pitch different routines are taken up and when it comes to hitting, Dr. Ickes offers real answers on how to be ready for the next pitch – and although he approaches this from a mental standpoint, there is some basic baseball/softball reasoning behind his words that I saw in action with the late, great Tony Gwynn.

Dr. Ickes writes about a series of applications to be used to be set at the plate as a hitter. I want to look at one of those. Earlier he had mentioned a focal point on the bat a hitter can study to get set.

“Now, the last step is to move your eyes from the focal point right to the pitcher and stare at what is called ‘the release point.’ ’’

What struck me about that sentence is the conversations I had with Tony Gwynn back in the late 1980s. That is exactly what Gwynn would do without the terminology offered today by Dr. Ickes.

The one and only Tony Gwynn. (Photo by Andy Hayt/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

After getting set in the box, Gwynn would look directly at the logo on the pitcher’s hat and then shift over to the release point. He always told me he envisioned the release point in such a fashion that he would put an imaginary picture frame around the release point so essentially the pitcher’s hand would be in the center of the frame and in that way he would pick up everything he would need to see about the baseball, including spin rate and the identity of the pitch.

Again, back to basics.

See the ball, hit the ball. Relax, find the release point, and let the bat do the work. Eight batting titles were proof that Tony Gwynn was onto something, just as Ted Williams was onto something as a hitter. That’s why Gwynn and Williams had such great batting conversations.

They were from two much different baseball generations but they spoke the same hitting language.

I also found it interesting that Dr. Ickes, in describing the release point in You Got This, had his character Ava (and remember this is softball with an underhand motion, not overhand like baseball), say to look for “a little window off to the side of the pitcher’s leg where the pitcher lets go of the pitch.’’

It’s written in a simple way so young players can understand the process; but it really is no different than what one of the greatest hitters in baseball history did.

Coaches can offer the words “relax’’ or “be confident out there,’’ but these books help players to discover the tools to develop the mindset to play in the present and win the next pitch to build the confidence that you truly got this.

Baseball and softball have to be played one pitch at a time. Players have to reset – and that’s not an easy thing to do, especially with the parents on hand for every game and every pitch. I have one of the greatest parent stories of all time with what happened when my father was watching my older brother George playing in a Little League game, but this is not the time nor the place for that.

Someday soon, though.

All these books are available on Amazon.com and if you take the time to read the five-star customer reviews, they are eye-opening.

One parent explains that their 10-year-old daughter read the book in one day and exclaimed, “Mom, I thought softball was just the plays we make but most of it is in our heads.’’

Isn’t that the truth – and these books help in all facets of the game, not just hitting; and that is why they are best sellers on Amazon.

“The goal was to take what I have been teaching to college, high school, and professional players for the last 20 years, and teach it in a fun way,’’ Dr. Ickes explained.

Go to any game and you will hear all kinds of “helpful’’ comments, many from the parents, and Dr. Ickes offers this advice: “If you overthink, overanalyze there is paralysis by analysis and you are not going to react, it’s a reaction sport … We don’t want you thinking about where your hands are when the pitcher is about to deliver the pitch, we don’t want you thinking about your weight shift or your swing path. We want you to see the ball, hit the ball, we want you trusting your body, meaning the work you put in practice.”

“When you compete, we want you to just compete.’’

And that is how you win the next pitch. Arrows-out.

45+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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