How To Master The Mental Game Of Pitching

  • Updated

Home Articles Mental Side of Pitching

Youth pitching program

Learn about my workout programs for pitchers

Build functional strength the right way. Explore my pitching workouts and throwing programs for players who work hard and don't make excuses.

Learn more


Yogi Berra quote image
The late Hall of Fame catcher Yogi Berra once said:

Baseball is ninety percent mental and the other half is physical.

I really love that quote.

I hope you'll agree with me in what I've observed throughout my career as a former pro pitcher in the Chicago Cubs organization:

A player can have all the baseball talent and physical ability in the world, but if he doesn't have the ability to focus on specific tasks with mental discipline, he'll really struggle in this game.

Pitchers and hitters alike must block out thinking about a thousand and one things up on the mound or at the plate in order to execute and perform.

In this article, learn how to develop pitching mental toughness (even when you don't have your 'best stuff' working).

Sign up for my daily pitching tips email newsletter
For exclusive tips and insights not found on the site.
Click here to subscribe

"It's a mental issue"

How many times have you heard these lines describing a struggling pitcher:

  • "It's a mental issue"
  • "He has the yips"
  • "He's lost the ability to throw strikes"
  • "It's all in his head"
  • "He's mentally weak"
  • "He's in a slump"
  • "He doesn't have a mental approach"

So what is the real cause of these mental pitching problems?

Mental discipline.

The Mental ABC's of Pitching book image image
In the book The Mental ABC’s of Pitching by a sports psychologist named H.A. Dorfman, the author writes:

"Self-discipline is a form of freedom. Freedom from laziness and lethargy, freedom from expectations and demands of others, freedom from weakness and fear — and doubt."

Read more here.

His assumption seems to be that you can't just urge someone to be disciplined; you have to build a structure of behavior and attitude. Behavior, then, shapes thought. If a pitcher disciplines his behavior, then he will also discipline his mind.

Dorfman builds that structure on the repetitiousness of baseball.

It's commonly said that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master any craft — three hours of practice every day for 10 years. Dorfman assumes that pitchers would have already put in those hours working one mechanics, throwing, doing pitching drills and repetitions.

He urges them to adopt their own pregame rituals. He notes that Hall of Fame pitcher Trevor Hoffman, the former San Diego Padres closer, walked from the clubhouse to the dugout every game in the fourth inning and moves to the bullpen in the seventh.

That's mental discipline.

As a pitcher enters a game, Dorfman continues, he should bring a relentlessly assertive mind-set.

This means a pitcher should do the following:

  • He should plan on attacking the strike zone early in the count and never let up.
  • He should not nibble at the corners of the strike zone or try to throw the ball around hitters but rather invite contact.
  • And even when the count is 0-2, he should not alter his emotional tone by wasting a pitch out of the strike zone.

Just as a bike is better balanced when it is going forward, a pitcher's mind is better balanced when it is unceasingly aggressive.

If a pitcher doesn't actually feel this way when he enters a game, Dorfman asks him to pretend. If your body impersonates an attitude long enough, then the mind begins to adopt it.

A powerful tool for developing pitching mental toughness

Visualization is a powerful tool for developing pitching mental toughness and the way a pitcher can approach the game; the power that you can get by simply visualizing yourself as a successful pitcher in real game situations.

The more I work with and read about successful pitchers, the more I am convinced that much of their success comes as a result of seeing themselves succeed. It's not an accident and it certainly isn't about having just the physical tools, or the dominating pitch.

In fact, the higher up you go in levels of baseball, you will find that there are a lot of pitchers who have the physical tools. But what makes those pitchers great is their ability to keep themselves in control even when the game isn't going their way...'s their ability to bounce back and not take themselves out of the game just because they get themselves in bad situations.

I am convinced more than ever that successful pitchers have a mental edge that allows them to battle back longer and even win when they don't really have their best stuff working for them.

Success as a pitcher is about consistency.

And to be consistent, you must be able to be effective even when you don't have everything working for you. There will be days when you just won't have your best stuff. And it's on those days that your mental toughness is what will carry you to a successful outcome.

Winning when you don't have your best stuff working

Even the best pitchers feel that only 25% of the time will they have what they would call their best or dominating stuff.

When they have it, nobody is going to beat them.

And then 50% of the time they will have good stuff which allows them to stay ahead and have a good chance to win.

But then there will be the other 25% of the time when not much is working for them.

But even then, your best pitchers will still stay in the game, battle back and still give their team a chance to win.

So remember as pitchers there will be times when you go out there and nobody will beat you, when you have your dominating stuff, but it's the mental toughness the other 75% of the time that makes successful pitchers so successful. It's during those times when their mental edge, their mental toughness is what will carry them.

And that's where the power of visualization comes in. It simply means the more we can visualize ourselves succeeding as pitchers, the more success we will have.

It's about making mental movies

You can think about visualization or what is sometimes referred to as guided imagery, as simply making movies in your mind.

You might want to try to think about your mind as an iPhone camera and you having the ability to direct and produce your own videos of yourself pitching successfully in every possible situation.

Use past successes to create more success now

So it's important that you go back and reflect on earlier successful games you have had.

Maybe if you are just starting out, you can't think of a successful game.

But maybe there was a successful inning you had or maybe you pitched great against just one hitter.

It doesn't matter.

Just reflect back on the great feeling you had during those times.

Remember there is very little difference in pitching between the worst performance and the best performance. It usually comes down to our mental approach. How we talk to ourselves about it. Our attitudes.

And that's why so many successful pitchers say that pitching is really 80% mental.

So all of these visualization sessions we have are simply about taking mental movies or snapshots that we can use as models. So on game days we can reflect and see ourselves in those situations when we make the big pitch, get the big strikeout, throw the double play ground ball that gets us to walk off that mound a winner.

Focus is about concentrating on the task at hand

What does focus mean to pitchers?

For most pitchers I speak to, the answer I receive is that it is something they bring with them on game day.

When the ball gets placed in their hand, they try to eliminate all distractions that would detract from their performance. The fan heckling in the stands, the opposing dug-out chatter, or anything else that could detract his focus away from the game.

But does it make sense to have this focus only on game day?

No way.

Focus is something a pitcher should strive for and work on improving every day.

A large part of focus is the consistency to concentrate on the task at hand. This focus doesn't need to only be during competition, it can be every time a pitcher is working to improve his game. When a pitcher regularly incorporates a high level of focus in what they are doing, it becomes easier to find it when needed.

  • When a pitcher puts focus on between start bullpen sessions, they will soon find it easier to flip the switch when they need to on game day.
  • When a pitcher puts focus on watching the game as a student, as opposed to a fan, they will begin to understand the game.
  • When a pitcher puts focus on their daily activities such as PFPs, they will find they will become even more routine during a game situation.

Challenge yourself to have the focus you bring on game day, to all your regular work you do. By doing this, you will be making yourself a better pitcher.

Eliminating distractions while pitching

Have you ever wondered what is wrong with the lion tamer that goes into the ring during the circus?

You certainly got to be a little crazy to do this, but you can't help but think he is really crazy when you see what item he chooses to defend himself with—a four-legged stool.


Is this some kind of cruel joke on this poor guy?

If I were him, I would go in there with either a bazooka, or a ladder to climb myself the heck out of there.

But it turns out that the four-legged stool is actually a very effective tool.

When the lion sees the chair, it becomes frozen because it tries to focus on all four legs of the stool at once. This causes the lion to become very confused and unable to attack. At that point, they're as harmless as a house cat.

I think this relates great to pitchers.

I often write about the importance of pitchers eliminating distractions on game day, so they can focus solely on doing their job—executing pitches.

Think of pitchers that will get frozen in the moment.

Even though they may possess all the talent in the world, they will become thrown off by distractions that are outside of their control. The fielder that kicks the inning ending double play, the fan heckling him in the stands, or the umpire that he thinks is squeezing the strike zone on him.

These are factors that a pitcher can't control, so why dwell on them?

Don't become the distracted lion, instead, sharpen your focus to only the task at hand. This will assure you give 100% mentally to every pitch.

One pitch at a time, one hitter at a time

As a pitcher, having the ability to focus on one pitch and one hitter at a time is like having another dominating pitch and yet much more powerful.

So I encourage you to begin spending regular time making mental movies with you starring as the successful pitcher.

Use those sessions not just as a way of seeing yourself being successful but also see yourself working through tough situations.

See yourself making the constant adjustments that good pitching is all about.

You just aren't going to be dominating every time you pitch no matter how well you prepare yourself. But if you continue practicing making adjustments in real game situations you can still be effective enough to win.

Make it a part of your regular routine each week like throwing a bullpen, doing long toss or your conditioning.

Don't wait until just before the big game to do this. Do a little every day. It only takes 10 minutes.

Learn more about my workout programs for pitchers

Youth pitching program

One of the big misconceptions in baseball is that playing the game keeps you in shape to pitch. I wish that was true. It's not.

To get to the next level, preparation is everything. Big league pitchers spend far more time preparing to pitch than actually pitching.

If you believe adding velocity could be critical to your success, check out my conditioning and throwing programs for baseball pitchers of all ages.

Learn more

What do you think?

Now it's time to hear from you:

Are there any pitching mental toughness tips that I missed?

Or maybe you have an idea of how I can make this article even better.

Either way, leave a comment and let me know.


READ THIS NEXT: 7 Ways To Improve Pitching Command

Sign up for my daily pitching tips

Get exclusive tips and insights on mechanics, velocity, arm care and more, delivered to your inbox every Monday through Saturday morning.


(Seriously, pitchers, coaches and parents are loving these tips. Don't miss out, sign up now!)

Reviews of Steven Ellis' pitching tips