If you compare the New York Mets from last season to the team they are trotting out now, the most significant aspect of the turnaround has been an offensive resurgence. Last year, the Mets would be hard-pressed to produce more than a few runs each game. Now it’s almost surprising if they don’t score more than 5 runs a night. Last season, the Mets were towards the bottom half of teams in batting average when it came to hitting with runners in scoring position. Now, they have the 5th highest average in that category this season.
While the Mets did make key acquisitions in the offseason, a turnaround this great requires a multifaceted approach to improving performance. One key aspect of this change is how Mets’ players have turned to the mental side of performance to improve their offensive game. Various players, including Pete Alonso and Brandon Nimmo, have reaped the benefits of incorporating these skills into their arsenal of performance techniques. These approaches, which I’ll discuss below in more detail, include Meditation, Self-Talk, and Visualization.
Alonso: Meditation and The Home Run Derby
Pete Alonso has been having an MVP-caliber year. In just his third year in the league, Alonso has become a force to be reckoned with at the plate. He has cemented himself in home run derby history by winning back-to-back titles in 2020 and 2021. Although he didn’t “three-pete” by winning this year's derby, his approach to competing in the event is one of the best in the history of the league. If you were watching the derby last month (or the years prior), you may have noticed cameras in the clubhouse showing Alonso not only deadlifting between rounds but also centering himself with a practice of meditation. The video shows Alonso taking deep breaths, inhaling through his nose, and exhaling out of his mouth demonstrating a clear mental performance routine.
In an article on Mindfulness, we discussed the practice of becoming aware of the breath and noticing the sensations of each inhalation and exhalation. From a performance perspective, focusing on the breath in this way allows you to center your attention to the present moment, relax your body, and quiet your mental chatter.
Nevertheless, as athletes it can be easy to get caught up in past mistakes or expectations for the future, but in reality, the only moment you have control over is now: the present. For Pete Alonso, practicing meditation in the midst of the chaos and pressure surrounding the home run derby kept his mind focused and composed when it came time to hit.
Nimmo: Imagery, Self-Talk, and Intention Setting
Pete Alonso hasn’t been the only Met to incorporate mental skills into his game. Brandon Nimmo, an outfielder for the Mets, has learned about visualization and breathing techniques from working with mental skills coaches. Imagery is an extremely powerful skill. When I tell you to think of the ocean your mind goes to the image of the ocean, maybe either incorporating other senses like the sounds or smells you would experience standing on the beach. This is because our mind processes visually through images and not words. This is why watching film has been such an effective learning technique for coaches and athletes over the past few decades. It’s much easier to learn tendencies watching a team play rather than reading a report on them. This is the same for training our minds. If we train our mind using images similar to ones we are going to experience on the field and even visualize outcomes the way you desire them to happen increases the likelihood of performing successfully. The key to this technique, though, is visualizing the particular as specifically as possible (remember to incorporate all of your senses and as vivid details as possible such as the fans in the crowd). When Nimmo steps up to the plate, he keeps his approach simple, but goal-specific. In a NY Times article discussing the Mets' success so far this season, Nimmo stated his mindset at the plate is the following:
“This is what I want to do: I want to hit a line drive up the middle.” He said it allowed him to reset after every pitch, rather than letting his mind race with the moment.
When Nimmo tells himself what he wants to accomplish at the plate, he gives his mind an anchor to focus on. This is helpful because, depending on the moment, whether it’s the top of the 1st or the bottom of the 9th, the level of pressure may feel different even though the actual performance is exactly the same (a pitcher is throwing a ball towards a batter). As the level of pressure rises, so can the level of anxiety. Having a clear intention in mind and verbalizing it to yourself as you perform can help you feel more level-headed in pressure-induced situations.
Furthermore, Nimmo’s use of self-talk in the batter’s box helps activate his mental imagery. He’s not only telling himself what he wants to accomplish but visualizing the movements as well. This is extremely powerful because it gives our mind a blue-print of what it actually looks and feels like to perform the desired movement. The mind thrives off habits, and this includes the way we think. With time, this approach will become second nature and help promote a greater sense of grounding, calm and clarity, increasing the likelihood an athlete will be able to play in flow state.
The Mets certainly have their sights set on a World Series ring this year. The talent is there, but as the anecdotes of players like Alonzo and Nimmo suggest, there is more that goes into optimal performance than just physical capability. The body and mind are interconnected. Just as the body is trained day in and day out, so should be the mind. Meditation, self-talk, and visualization are all ways of focusing the mind (and body) on what’s in front of you, helping you perform at your best. And like anything, with enough practice, situations which seemed stressful or difficult begin to seem manageable, difficulties appear challenging instead of threatening and certain aspects of performance become easy depending on the context.