I work with all types of fears in sports. A big one I see often is the fear of getting hit by the ball. Almost always I see this in baseball boys from the age of 9 to 12. For those of us who do not play baseball, this makes sense right? A really hardball is being thrown right at your face, yeah no thanks! For parents and coaches, this can be extremely frustrating as most of these young boys have been playing baseball for a few years now and never had any problems and have probably been hit more than a dozen times already. So why is this time different?
First the Brain on Fear!
Developmentally speaking this is a prime time for fears and worries. Between these ages, kids have very concrete thinking yet their minds have very vivid imaginations. They are now understanding the world around them better. That death is real and getting hurt is also a real possibility. They can and will imagine getting hit, going to the hospital, or even worse things. They have realized that pitchers are throwing harder, less accurate and it could really hurt. In actuality, their brain is functioning perfectly! A baseball coming in hot is scary and does pose a harmful risk. Yet, sometimes those vivid imaginations run too wild and cause major disruptions in the athlete’s ability to play and focus on what they can control.
Often, after an athlete has developed a significant fear of getting hit it isn’t because the last time they got hit was terrible even though it still really hurt. Rather because of their ability to understand that it could have been a whole lot worse and their imagination creates a whole dramatic story. Therefore the next at-bat poses a real possibility that the things they imagine might just happen.
Fear and Anxiety
As the athlete continues to think about the last time they got hit and what the next time could look like they are creating stronger fear memories and anxiety making it harder to stand in the box. For a lot of my little sluggers the anxiety that has been sparked is the main culprit. When the amygdala senses fear, the cerebral cortex (area of the brain that is for reasoning and judgment) becomes impaired. This makes it really hard to think clearly and logically. On top of that our brain is signaled to pay more attention to possible threats AKA little Tommy throwing wild heat! Unable to think clearly and focusing on getting hit their body is probably acting up as well. Increased heart rate, a sick feeling, extra sweaty, and probably shakey. With all that is going on in the game, in their head and body it is hard not to be scared. I also see common behavioral responses such as their stride leg stepping away, not swinging at all (frozen), big jerk reactions if the ball comes anywhere close, and swinging really late. So how can we help!?
Here are 4 tips to help you and your Athlete overcome this fear.
Tip #1 Get the Whole Story
I have my athletes tell me what exactly they think could, might, and will happen if they get hit. Most of the time parents and coaches just leave it at my kids scared of getting hit. While yes, that’s it there is almost always a more in-depth and specific fear in there. It may sound like this: I am afraid I’ll get hit in the nose, it will break and blood will be everywhere. Then I’ll have to go to the hospital, my mom will cry and I won’t able to play anymore. Getting the whole story and all the what-ifs out is important! Then we acknowledge and validate those fears with no BUTS! Instead, take it with concern and allow space to problem solve game plan, and present facts.
Tip #2 Use the Imagination for Good!
As I mentioned above at this age their imaginations are big and powerful. They are currently using that power to play out fears. They also have the ability to do the opposite with a little help. I know you as a parent and coach have told your athlete just go up there and imagine getting a hit right? That’s wonderful but let’s help them go one step further. We want to give the athlete a base image or moment where they were successful. Have them think of a time they went up there against a hard pitcher and got a hit. Ask them to recreate everything they remember. This is the base image because it happened, it is proof of success and they can now build off of it. Once they get used to recreating that moment I want them to start collecting more and more moments to recreate that were good. This can be a simple hit off the tee that was right up the middle or solid contact made during BP that felt good. As the athlete starts collecting these great images then we can start shifting them into visualizing the upcoming game. I want them to use their collections to form their most confident self, seeing themselves handling fear and getting a great hit. What the mind creates the body acts out!
Tip #3 Give your Brain a New Job!
When fear is in control the athlete is thinking about getting hit not getting a hit lol. The hitter needs to give their brain and body a new job. The simpler the better. Help them create a new routine that involves prepared self-talk, a calming skill, and a focus point. I like to have them use and repeat as many times as needed to fight off the fear and slow the nerves down. Start this routine about 4 batters out or the whole time! Remember you have to choose your brain’s job or the fear will.
Tip #4 Courage over Confidence.
Something I hear often is the coach or parents have the athlete stand in the box while they throw tennis balls at them or dress them out in catcher’s gear and throw real baseballs at them. While I understand the logic behind this courage tactic the brain is too smart. Your athlete knows this is not real, that these exercises do not represent the actual moment. It might even be reinforcing their fear. Teaching courage as a skill can be more beneficial than the above method. Courage is knowing it is scary, knowing something could happen but stepping in any way! Cultivating a courageous approach with your athlete teaches them to accept fear and do it anyway. It stimulates problem-solving, and confidence from their ability to feel fear, feel nerves, and know that they can still survive hard moments. They are already being courageous each and every time they step in, if we can help them acknowledge that with the skills above they are one swing away from blasting fear out of the park!