Rewind to 1996.

A promising young 20-year old baseball player is starting at shortstop for an American League team, after two seasons of splitting time between the major and the minor leagues. Here is what he later revealed about his preparation, for what would be his breakout season and what some consider to be the best season ever by a shortstop:

“…early in the 1996 season I visualized winning the American League Most Valuable Player award and holding it above my head. I visioned winning the batting title and holding up that tropy, too. I visioned a .380 batting avesrage. In my mind I could see the number, flashing and blinking on exit signs… .380… .380… .380.

That year I missed winning the MVP by three votes and won the batting title. Playing the game was the easy part. The real work was in the preparation.

Some nights when I go to bed I will tell myself, maybe 150 times, “I hit the ball solid. I hit the ball solid. What do I do for a living? I hit the ball solid.” I see the results from my mind’s eye out. I see myself from the fans’ perspective. From the manager’s view in the dugout. I picture myself on the field from different angles. I believe a champion wins in his mind first, then he plays the game, not the other way around.”

(from Mind Gym, by Gary Mack & David Casstevens)

Who is this player?

The preparation of great performers

This young shortstop is none other than 14-time All Star and 3-time American League MVP Alex Rodriguez.

We look at top athletes and great performers like Rodriguez or Tiger Woods who consistently rise to the occasion when the stakes are the highest, and tend to attribute this to their physical gifts. To assume that they are “natural” performers.

Sure, we know they must also work their tails off and train incredibly hard to get to that level. We see this kind of physical effort glorified in Nike and Gatorade commercials all the time.

But for some reason, we don’t think as much about how hard they must work on their mental game. I have yet to see an Under Armour commercial depicting an athlete engaged in visualization or more effective self-talk.

Yet, as you can see from Alex Rodriguez’s story above, top athletes absolutely emphasize mental training in their preparation. After all, as Yogi Berra once said, “90% of the game is half mental.”

Mental training as a differentiating factor

In 1988, psychologists Steven Ungerleider and Jacqueline Golding surveyed 1200 track and field athletes who had qualified for the US Olympic trials. The athletes completed comprehensive 240-question questionnaires, to help the researchers identify the key factors separating those who made the Olympic team, from those who did not.

As it turns out, there was very little separating the Olympians from the non-Olympians. It wasn’t strategy, sleep, nutrition, or how hard they trained. The differentiating factor was mental preparation.

The eventual Olympians were doing more mental practice and training in the final stages of their preparation than their colleagues who did not make the team.

The limits of physical practice

It is easy to underemphasize the mental game. I think there are two reasons for this.

For one, the benefits of our mental training is most apparent only in performance settings.

Meanwhile, on a day to day basis we get more instant gratification from physical practice and training. We work on a tricky passage, it gets cleaner, and we feel good about our use of time. We spend 10 minutes visualizing or engaged in practice to improve our focus, and while we may feel a difference, the payoff only really comes weeks or months down the road on the day of the big audition or performance.

So, we end up spending more and more time on ever tinier physical details, forgetting (that is, until a few days before our performance when we start freaking out) about the mental performance skills that may end up being the difference between a peak performance and a subpar performance when the big day arrives.

Secondly, you don’t typically hear top performers talk as much about what they do to hone their mental skills. They are often asked for tips and insights into how they practice, about their instruments and equipment, and how they have developed their exceptional technique. But rarely will you hear questions about how they have strengthened their mind. How they have developed the ability to quiet the inner dialogue, to stay focused on task-relevant details, to manage their energy and direct it appropriately, to bounce back from setbacks and criticism, and so on. All of which takes just as much work as getting in the right number of wiggles as you transition smoothly out of a little trill in a Mozart concerto.

I think we tend to assume that top performers don’t get nervous like we do. That they just get on stage and are naturally cool as a cucumber. Of course, the truth is that the cucumbers are either lying to you, or are oddball exceptions to the rule.

Insights from a great performer

Thankfully, some top performers are very open about what they do to prepare mentally and don’t keep this part of their training secret, as if it were the Colonel’s fried chicken recipe.

Watch this 32-minute video of singer Joyce DiDonato answering questions following a master class at The Juilliard School (thanks for the tip, Janis and Corey!).

It’s full of helpful and inspiring insights into the work she has done to become the performer she is today – from managing the voice in her head, to dealing with mistakes, to enjoying her performances, to balancing her career with having a life.

Even if it means practicing a half hour less today, sit down with a pen and pad of paper and scribble down some notes and next actions. It’ll be worth it!

You may also enjoy DiDonato’s video blog, where she shares many more insights on different aspects of her performance preparation and career.

Next actions

We all know that insight is great, but action is what causes change to happen. What was your favorite takeaway from the video, and what one action are you going to incorporate into your practice/performing today based on what you learned? Share below in the comments.