You’re on the cusp of breaking history in your sport. The season is winding down. The pressure is building. The fans are eager to witness history. Suddenly the focus is taken off the game and placed onto how far you hit the ball. Every. Time. Up. Did the ball go over the fence? How many more now?
Aaron Judge - A season for the ages
Aaron Judge, who (at the time of writing this) has tied the single-season homerun record by a Yankee player with 61, is having a historic season. Besides being on the verge of breaking the single-season homerun record, he’s competing for the quadruple triple crown (yes, you read that right!). Even before this year alone, Judge has been one of the best players since his debut in 2017. He has all the physical tools of an elite athlete: incredible power, speed, and range in the field. Not to mention, he’s 6’8”. Besides being physically gifted, Judge also recognizes the importance of having a solid mindset and utilizes mental skills to give his game a subtle - but significant - edge. In an ESPN article from 2017, Judge discusses his view on the mental game and how it helps keep his mind sharp and focused on staying positive during at-bats.
"The mental game is what separates the good players from the great players," Judge said. "So anything I can do to get that mental edge to help me stay my best, I'm gonna try and do it."
Furthermore, Judge discussed a specific routine he does to keep himself composed at the plate. When the at-bat isn’t going his way and his mind starts to swarm with negative thoughts, He’ll pick up some dirt in between pitches as a reminder to not get caught up in this line of thinking:
"For me, it's just a way of slowing things down, taking an extra two or three seconds to grab some dirt," Judge said. "For me, all my negative thoughts that I have about, 'How did you miss that pitch? Why did you miss that pitch? You shouldn't have missed that pitch.' I just kind of sit there and kind of crush it up, and once I'm done doing that ... I just kind of toss it aside…. That's over with now. Start fresh and get back in the box and get back to your positive thoughts and get back to your approach.'"
The Dangers of Persistent Negative Thinking
Referring to the quote above, Judge is being incredibly self-aware. Although his initial negative thoughts were hard to avoid, he doesn’t continue to entertain the thoughts and ruminate over them. Doing so would add more fuel to the fire. Instead, he recognizes the thoughts aren’t helpful, crushes dirt as a symbol to stop paying attention to them, and redirects his focus to the next pitch. In sport psychology we call this a resetting routine.
Furthermore, there is research documenting the consequences of persistent negative thinking. In the video below, Mental conditioning expert Trevor Moawad discusses how our thoughts affect our reality. Moawad explains that negative thoughts are 4-7x more powerful than positive thoughts. Not only that, if you say negative thoughts out loud, they become 10x more powerful. As a result, negative thoughts that are spoken out loud become 40-70x more powerful!
Pretty crazy, right? We might think that saying negative thoughts aloud won’t impact us, but it’s quite the opposite. Verbalized negative thoughts are being reinforced and perpetuate the outcome, desperately trying to be avoided. The examples that Moawad provides of people who spoke their negative doubts/fears into existence could act as a cautionary tale the next time you find yourself stuck in a cycle of thinking about all the ways a performance could go wrong. It may not come naturally to counter a negative thought with a positive one, but with practice, it will become easier to implement. Below I give an example of how you can replace a negative thought with a more positive, productive one.
Stay Kind, Stay Positive
In Judge’s case, crushing the dirt between pitches symbolizes the crushing of his negative thinking. The initial thought cannot always be controlled, but the response can be. For instance, if you have a negative thought like “I’m not good enough to succeed,” you can replace it with a positive thought like “I will do my best to succeed, and I have trained countless hours for this moment” or “ Do your part - I control my effort.” A previous article on Steve Nash and the Imposter Syndrome discussed negative self-talk. Specifically, if you feel like an imposter, your self-talk will reflect that and precipitate those feelings into action. To counter this, these patterns of thought have to be recognized, challenged, and replaced with a more positive frame of mind, like the example stated above. And while positive thinking is the goal for whatever situations you find yourself in, on or off the court, it’s not always easy. This is understandable, especially in difficult times. In this case, it’s essential to be kind to yourself and understand that the situation (e.g., a tough loss against an opponent) will eventually pass. Dig deep, tough times are challenges and your response and self talk will determine how the resulting events impact your career that follows.
At the time of writing this, the Yankees have seven regular season games remaining. Whether or not Judge hits homer #62 is yet to be seen, but be on the lookout for him crushing dirt between pitches. When the pressure builds, a mental routine like Judge’s to keep yourself composed can make all the difference in coming through in the clutch. Negative, doubtful, self-talk will still arise at times, and this is ok, but it is vital that we have skills and strategies in place for navigating and reframing these moments. Positive thinking will not always guarantee success, but negative thinking will always lead to performance issues.