Trying harder doesn’t guarantee better play

There’s no way to prove that trying harder can actually be a disadvantage in sports, but plenty of experts will tell you that it is, especially in baseball.

Every coach wants his or her players to give 100 percent effort, but there’s a fine line between giving a good effort and trying too hard.

In sports and in life, trying too hard really is pointless—and actually counterproductive.

Athletes generally perform best when they play hard and relaxed. If coaches could get every athlete to do that, their teams would perform better. The trouble is, it is hard, if not impossible, to get everyone to do that.

When baseball players go into a hitting slump, the tendency is to try making up for it by hitting a home run the next time and the next time, ad nauseam. A player who tries too hard, whether it’s to impress his parents, coach or whomever, typically is pressing.

Coaches like to see relaxed confidence. Players who relax and play their game will show off their skills at their best because they aren’t trying to do too much.

Even if his math wasn’t great, former legendary baseball player Yogi Berra had it right when he said, “Baseball is 90 percent mental and the other half is physical.”

Mentally tough athletes typically play their best. I came across an interesting statement that says it better than I can: “You cannot play good baseball by thinking about it!”

A player who tries too hard will press. Ironically, the harder you try, the worse you often play. I’m not sure that applies in every sport, although I believe it probably applies more often than not.

For example, a player who misses a free throw may think too much and try too hard the next time and the result often is a clanked shot. It is one thing to say, “Just relax and shoot the ball,” but much harder for a player to wipe the missed shot out of his or her mind.

To play your best, you have to be relaxed in what some call the “let it happen” mode. Ironically, there are two contradictory theories as to why athletes “choke” when it matters most: They become distracted and lose focus, or focus too hard.

So how does an athlete keep from trying too hard? It requires mental toughness. Athletes who play competitive sports quickly learn that they’ll never be perfect. In golf, you’ll make errant shots. In baseball, you will strike out and occasionally make errors. In football, you’ll miss a block or miss a tackle. In basketball, you’ll miss shots and make turnovers.

Some athletes have a knack of quickly bouncing back from errors, miscues, lousy calls and strikeouts.

Those who can’t let go of their failures have a tendency to carry extra baggage, and odds are they’ll consistently play below their potential.

I liked the title of an article, “Why ‘Trying Too Hard’ in Sports (or Life) Can Sabotage Your Success.”

In the article, Bob Tewksbury, a retired major league pitcher and former mental skills coach for the Boston Red Sox, summed it up well.

“The great players have great mental focus, but they are not uptight,” said Tewks­bury. “They are cued into every moment like a laser beam, but their breathing is natural. Because they believe in themselves, trust their abilities and know that you can cope with the demands of the situations as they arise, they can play the game with a certain calm. This calm is what allows them to make terrific split-second decisions as they happen on the field. Some­times you have to get out of the way mentally and let muscle memory take over.” He goes on to say that no matter what the task is in life, you can’t try to do more than you can.

Sounds simple, right? But most of us know by now that it isn’t.

Hillsboro resident Joe Klein­sasser is director of news and media relations at Wichita State University. You can reached him at Joe.Klein­sasser@wichita.edu.