A certain level of stress is needed for peak performance in sports. If one is functioning with too little stress, one might find the task at hand too unmotivating; however, excessive stress proves damaging to one's performance as well, provoking feelings of anxiety, and self-doubt. Also, stress in large quantities can inhibit motor control and judgement, and consume energy that could be better devoted to maintaining composure and technique ("www.rvermey/stresscn.html" 1-2). One sports psychologist, James E. Loehr, claims that, in fact, "at least 50 percent of the process of playing well is the result of mental and psychological factors" (Fixx 36). Therefore, every athlete must know certain techniques to stay calm and focused during times when stress levels may rise. Baseball, which involves performing the hardest task in all of sports (hitting the ball), is said to be approximately ninety percent mental. On any given day, a player, batting a measly .236, could hit a 98-mile per hour slider, from a pitcher with a 1.47 earned run average, 410 feet into the right field bleachers. Unlike any other action, hitting a baseball demands full concentration mentally and physically. However, only a select few players can perform under this desirable circumstance, and these players are generally the most consistent, and consequently the most productive. But, how can one achieve consistency in stress management? Several methods may be employed, but sports psychologists alike seem to refer to the same, presumably effective methods: controlled breathing in meditation, as well as in visualization, and relaxation music. All of which can be applied prior to one's at bat.
To best determine which of the stress management routines is most effective, I propose to measure one subjects heart rate before applying the respective technique, and after while the player is in the batter's box. The brain sends impulses directly to the heart, causing the heart to pump blood at the rate which the brain feels stressed (Kiryu 1). The lower the difference between the subject's heart rate will favor one of the five methods above. Also, accompanying the change in pulse rate will be an increase or decrease of body temperature. Thus, the use of various heart rate, as well as a temperature sensors prove necessary to capture exact measurements (though, counting one's own pulse might work just as well in a situation where a heart rate sensor is not accessible) (Reese 1).
Before walking up to the plate, one must be in a mental state which allows the player to perform at his best. The principle technique upon which all other methods are based for calming the body/mind, in return conserving valuable energy and preparing the player for his battle with the pitcher is controlled breathing. Commonly misused, breathing can be an athlete's greatest ally. During stressful activity the rate of respiration may be increased some twenty times, as the body takes in as much as five pints of air per breath (versus the normal one pint). However, during involuntary respiration, or normal breathing, a person has the capability to consciously override his breathing pattern (Rayner 62). By utilizing one's diaphragm much like an opera singer does before she belches out that deafening high note, the batter must perform what is known as 'belly breathing'. Nevertheless, most people instinctively breathe from their chests, or thoracicly, discarding over one third of their lung capacity. By breathing abdominally, one's lungs expand maximally, thus, allowing more oxygen to reach the brain (Reese 2-3). Other techniques, especially those with Eastern/Oriental origins use proper breathing as their starting off point. More specifically, one way to monitor 'belly-breathing,' which will be used to instruct the players for the experiment, is to place one hand on the stomach and the other on the chest and breathe so that only the hand on the stomach moves. Referring to Bob Reese's E-mail message, he recommends taking "ten breaths when you're two [places from hitting], three as you enter the on-deck circle and one before every swing/pitch" ("Message: 2"). When reducing the amount of breaths, one should still inhale slowly for ten seconds, hold the breathe for three, and then exhale for five (Reese 6). The entire process is deemed essential for peak performance.
If one is breathing effectively then one can conserve physical energy which can drive a player's body/mind through pain and fatigue barriers. By adding a psychological aspect, a player can even further increase his ability for not only focus, but enjoyment. Meditation and rational, positive thinking can help a player recover from a loss of focus in a distressing situation. Jay Howell, a former New York Yankee, expresses his confusion over slumps, a period of time when one player's performance is oddly lowered. "Everyone gets them, but practically nobody knows what to do about them. You finally leave a slump when you don't pay any attention to your body. You just throw [or hit] the ball" (Fixx 41). Meditation aims at submersing the mind into a state without ego or physical disruption to prevent such a slump. Either by concentrating on one's breathing, or by reciting self-encouraging words, meditation prepares the player to approach the game with a focused, and self-assured mind set. Those precious few minutes in the on-deck circle serve as the perfect opportunity to apply this ancient method; to settle down and focus on the task at hand. Ideally, every coach wants his players to give their undivided attention to the game; nevertheless, baseball provides its players with ample opportunities for joke-telling and mud-slinging. Understandably, many players play the game with a lack of passion and drive towards doing their best. But, simply by taking the time to kneel in the batter's box, and to concentrate on one's breathing (montra, etc.) a player can block out all previous distractions and concentrate on defeating the pitcher. Also, during meditation one can freely recognize petty irritations (the crowd, showing off, impressing a coach) and let them go as such. The athlete solely concentrates on achieving the flow of the action. This is called the Zen approach to stress.
Another method which involves breathing, however, now with preparatory thinking is visualization. In the quest to achieve consistency and confidence at the plate, visualization appears as the forerunner. The actual process of visualization aims at "modifying and strengthening pathways important to the co-ordination of your muscles" ("www.rvermey/imgintro.html" 1). The part of the brain which controls these processes is the cerebellum. Functioning similarly to a computer, the cerebellum "stores the patterns that are necessary for coordinated muscular activity" (Binney 75). Although one is not actually performing the actions, the recreation allows the player to experience, and or prepare, for the next at bat, lead-off, etc. Reese advised me "to 'see' [myself] 'picking' the pitches ([I'm] only going to swing at the good ones!)...see [myself] hitting the ball. [And] swing at the pitches being thrown to the batter before [me]" ("Message: 2"). Once again, the player can apply the method during his stay in the on-deck circle. What if the pitcher has a great curveball, breaking two to four feet at 73 miles per hour, and he struck you out looking during your previous at bat? What if he throws his tailing change low and outside, and with the next pitch busts you inside at the hands, will you
be ready? If visualization has been used properly, the batter has the percentages in his favor. He has already seen that fastball in his mind, and he has already extended his arms inside the ball and driven it down the line for a stand-up double. Several years ago, then Oakland A's centerfielder, Rickey Henderson, underwent a major arthroscopic surgery to repair torn ligaments in his leg. Returning to the lineup midway through the season, Henderson went on a hitting tear, which carried his team well into the post season. When asked about his tremendous comeback, Henderson simply explained that although he was physically incapable of playing, mentally, he never allowed a moment to pass without pondering some facet of the game.
The last of the three methods involves an outside influence upon the mind, that of music. By using relaxation tapes, stress can also be greatly reduced depending on the music's amplitude and frequency. As the auditory nerves take in sounds, they send impulses to the brain, where the brain reacts accordingly. A low hiss, for example a wave, would invoke a soothing reaction from the brain, whereas an airplane taking off has a high amplitude, which causes pain to the listener (Rayner 90). During meditation, a Buddhist monk emits a sound which helps to control his respective mental state. Listening attentively, one might hear a low hum coming from deep within his body. Although the sound, or Ohm, is self-generated, the bass in his voice vibrates throughout his whole body, and works just like a tape in that the resulting, low wavelengths subdue his mind. Seemingly, if the player listens to relaxing music, he should approach his at bat much calmer (with a lowered heart rate), mentally prepared for fluid, effective action.
In performing the experiment, the subjects will take place in a light, monitored jog in order to raise their heart rates. Then each of the players' heart rates and body temperatures will be measured and the listed techniques will be applied. After a realistic time in the on-deck-circle, the players will go up to the plate, and again have their heart rates and body temperatures measured. Except, now in the batter's box, they will proceed as if in a game situation, and the results of their at-bats' will be taken into account, as well.