ASHLAND, OH – “I believe a great mental game is what separates the elite baseball players from the rest,” according to Dr. Curt Ickes, clinical and sport psychologist and Ashland University associate professor of psychology.
“The problem is most players do not spend enough time working on their mental skills and the result is inconsistent performance, prolonged slumps, eroding self-confidence, and high levels of anxiety, especially in the clutch,” Ickes said. “Mental toughness is critical, especially when physical talent is equal. The player with the best mental game has the best chance of success.”
Ickes, who has worked with high school and college baseball and softball athletes as well as professional baseball players to help them develop a great mental game, writes about his experiences and insight in his new book titled “Mental Toughness: Getting the Edge.”
Ickes teaches a class titled “Sport Psychology: Enhancing Athletic Performance” at Ashland University in Ashland, Ohio, and he believes this often times overlooked aspect of sports is getting more recognition these days.
“More and more University psychology degree programs are teaching courses with an emphasis on the mental aspect of sports,” he said. “Athletes and coaches are increasingly realizing how the mental game is tied to overall performance on the field.”
Ickes explains that his goal when working with baseball and softball players is to “win the instant of performance.” The “instant of performance,” according to Dr. Ickes, is the brief period of time that begins when a pitcher and a batter are both ready to perform and ends when the pitch reaches home plate.
“What players are feeling, thinking and doing during this two-to-five second period is critical. I train athletes to use a number of key mental game skills to mimic being ‘in the zone’ during the instant of performance,” he said. “Through training and repetition, players feel, think and do only those things that will give them the best chance for success on the most important pitch: this one.”
“At this instant of performance, the athlete should be; one, feeling relaxed, confident and excited to perform; two, thinking of nothing and in a state of no self consciousness; and three, completely trusting in his or her physical ability,” Ickes said.
“In order to excel at getting into this state, players need to learn and practice actual skills related to the mental game…there are no gimmicks, no secrets, no short-cuts,” he said. “These mental game skills include goal setting, motivation, confidence building, relaxation, visualization and learning to bounce back quickly from failure.”
Ickes said his work through the years has allowed him to develop a blueprint for developing a mentally tough personality and putting this mental toughness in action during game situations.
Ickes, who has taught these skills to players in youth leagues through the minor league level, said these mental game skills apply to players across all age groups. “It’s important to note that these mental skills are not limited to just the college player or the minor league player. These are actual exercises and activities that can help even youth players improve their actual game performance,” he said.
Dr. Ickes uses his proven cognitive-behavioral techniques in working with players to help them achieve this optimal mental state and he has seen much success.
John Schaly, head baseball coach at Ashland University, said he believes in the mental game.
“There is no question in my mind our 2008 Ashland University team would not have had the success it did (40 wins and playing in the World Series beating the two-time defending national champion) without the help of Dr. Ickes,” he said. “He has done great things with our players in all phases of the mental game, which is so vital in our sport. He is truly a major part of the success we have had here at AU.”
During the 2009 season, he worked with the Ashland University baseball team, which was ranked No. 1 in Midwest Region, Division II; The College of Wooster baseball team, which was national runner-up in Division ; and The Lake Erie Crushers baseball team, the 2009 Frontier League Champions.
Ickes said his 160-page book outlines these training sessions. The first section of the book, titled “Building a Mentally Tough Personality,” includes chapters titled The Mental Game; You Are the Project; Are You For Yourself or Against Yourself?; Playing Arrows-Out; Understanding Failure; The Heckler in Your Head; To Think or Not to Think…; Improving Concentration; Controlling Emotions; Visualization: If You See It, You Will Believe; and The Confidence Hurdle.
The second section of the book, “Mental Toughness in Action,” includes chapters titled Performance: The Most Important Pitch and Other Core Beliefs; Winning the Instant of Performance; Heard in the Dugout: Player Comments; and Troubleshooting the Mental Game.
The book is available in the Ashland University Bookstore or online at www.ashlandbookstore.com and is also available at amazon.com. Ickes also is working on a softball version of this book and it will be available next spring.