Homecoming, 1995.


Your Downers Grove South Mustangs are playing the Proviso East Pirates, and it’s a sloppy football game. We are clearly the dominate team but playing down to their level. Somehow, Proviso East is still in the game when we should have put them away sooner. After a change of possession, the offense huddled on the sideline, fired up and ready to take advantage of our opportunity. Coach Mash calls for a toss sweep to our speedy tailback Dan Stringfellow. Right before heading onto the field, Coach Mash says:

“Dan, don’t drop the pitch!”

Don’t drop the pitch? What the hell kind of advice was that? That’s like reminding a baseball player not to strike out. Or telling a basketball player not to miss a free throw. Sure enough, the ball was snapped and as it was pitched to Dan, he dropped the football and Proviso East recovered the fumble. As I jogged back to the sideline, I thought, why the hell did he tell Dan to NOT drop the pitch? Dan has caught the ball hundreds of times in practice and in games. Why did he drop it now? Clearly, Dan knows he needs to catch the pitch, so why even put the thought in his head? Does Dan mentally need to know that dropping the pitch is an option right now? Absolutely not.

From what I have read about sports psychology, telling someone what not to do is very different from telling them what to do. In Dan’s case, the last part of the message his brain received was …drop the pitch and his body executed the plan perfectly. From a coaches perspective, he wants Dan to catch the ball, period. Coach Mash could have told Dan to catch the pitch, or protect the ball and that’s probably what would have happened.

In the 2006 World Series, the Detroit Tigers played awful defense while losing to the St. Louis Cardinals. Tiger pitchers made five errors (a World Series record), and in the deciding Game 5 with the Tigers up 2-1, Justin Verlander fielded a bunt and tried to nail the lead runner at third. He airmailed the throw into left field (leading to two runs) and ultimately took the loss. Said Verlander about the bunt, “I picked it up and said, ‘Don’t throw it away,’ instead of just throwing it. I got tentative.” Don’t throw it away sounds a lot like don’t drop the pitch. Like Dan, the last part of the message Verlander’s brain received was …throw it away.

While I do not know Justin Verlander personally, I’m sure he has successfully made that throw many times before. Why were he and Dan both unable to execute a physical act they were both capable of performing; an act they had successfully practiced?

Mental mistakes. My bet is that a negative thought crept into their heads at the worst possible time. Fear took over. Instead of focusing on making a play, they were focused on not screwing up. While it’s impossible to know for sure, had Verlander told himself to make a good throw and had Dan told himself to catch the ball, I bet they both probably would have.

While most teams practice for physical success, an equal amount of time should be allocated to mental success as well. There is a strong link to positive self-talk and performance. (Whether you tell yourself you’re great or you suck — you’re right.) Let’s rewire our brains and give ourselves positive messages and directions so we can play at our physical and mental peak. Start this paradigm shift of thinking right now!


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