What the Toronto Blue Jays can do mentally as they face elimination

With the Toronto Blue Jays facing post-season elimination, sports psychology experts say there are ways players, at least mentally, can rise to the occasion.

Some players thrive on the stress, but for most it's best not to think about big picture

Toronto Blue Jays manager John Gibbons (centre) stands with his players on the mound after relieving pitcher Mark Lowe late in the 14-2 rout on Tuesday. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

Nine more innings — just 27 outs — and the Toronto Blue Jays' storybook season could come to an end.

It's a tough spot to be in as an athlete: trying to conjure up your best performance while staring down defeat.

But with the Jays down three games to one against the Kansas City Royals in baseball's American League Championship Series, sports psychology experts say the trick for players, at least mentally, is to avoid the temptation to try to make any big adjustments. It's best to stick to their usual routines and not alter too much.

"As a sports psychologist, I would ask the players, 'What do you currently do to prepare?' And for many of them it's listening to music, or it might be visualization, but whatever it is, I would encourage them to keep doing it," said Paul Dennis, who lectures at the University of Toronto and was the player development coach for the Toronto Maple Leafs for 20 years.

The exact pre-game routine can and should vary from player to player, depending on their temperament, Dennis said. Really intense athletes might listen to some heavy metal from Metallica, for example, while the more laid-back team members could go with the more soothing tones of Tchaikovsky or Kenny G.

One of the more eccentric pre-performance routines he recalls was that of former Leafs forward Jason Blake, who used to blast Air Supply's soft-rock ballad All Out of Love in the dressing room.

"He would dance around the locker room singing the lyrics, and the players would pick up rolls of tape and throw it at him because they hated it," Dennis said, noting it worked because it got players pumped up in a sport that thrives on intensity.

Narrow focus

During a high-stakes game, the key, several experts agreed, is for players to treat it as they would any other match.

Don't get too worked up about it, don't think about the fact they're on the brink — just think about the basic, habitual steps of the game: tweaking their batting stance, keeping their eye on the next pitch.

That's because athletes' success or failure rides to a great degree on their preparation. Allen Fox, a former tennis champion and coach turned sports psychologist, cited legendary U.S. college basketball coach John Wooden's mantra that games are won and lost mostly in practice.

Toronto Blue Jays' centre-fielder Kevin Pillar sits in the outfield after making a catch during the eighth inning of Game 4, which was already well in hand for Kansas City. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

"When you play, you can't think your way through the mechanics of the action. It's all habit and reaction. It happens very quickly and it's done in practice, so what you're trying to do is get into a good emotional state so that the habits can function," said Fox, who has coached past members of Canada's Davis Cup team and who won tennis's Canadian Championships in 1966.

Too much thinking about the bigger picture, or even about an error or bad at-bat in the previous innings, short-circuits the ability to let a player's training and good habits shine through, the logic goes.

"They become more self-aware, and so instead of watching the path of the ball and swinging, which they've done thousands and thousands of times, they get away from that and start thinking too much and they're no longer automatic," Dennis said. "It's like being an expert in baseball and your brain is taking you back to being a novice now."

Ray Karesky, an Arizona-based psychologist who has worked with the Blue Jays and other Major League teams, said it's about looking ahead and not behind, regardless of how many games or runs the team might be down.

"Getting up to bat is still getting up to bat. A 95-mile-per-hour fastball is still a 95-mile-per-hour fastball. They've got to focus on that and not the context," Karesky said.

"They've already shown they can come back. It's not magic."

Confidence is key

Fox said any players who might lack confidence and get nerves during a big game should definitely try to maintain a narrow focus and think only about the next pitch or at-bat.

But some other athletes have self-confidence in spades and thrive on the energy of being in a clutch game or moment.

"Some people think they're going to do well to start with, and so for them, actually thinking about the big situation is actually helpful," he said.

He gave the example of Michael Jordan, a clutch player in any basketball game, but particularly so in the last 10 seconds of the final contest of the 1998 NBA Finals. "He needed to make the shot to win the NBA championship. And it was so obvious he was going to make it. He knew, he felt great, no fear, in it went.

"So for him, the big situation, thinking about it was a good one. He was stimulated."

Dejected Toronto Blue Jays fans look on during ninth inning Tuesday, with Kansas City going up 3-1 in the AL series. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)
How that applies to the Blue Jays depends on a few factors. Research shows that elite athletes tend to get most stressed out by the unexpected.

In Toronto's case, the team hasn't been to the post-season in 22 years, so there's a lot of potential for unforeseen, and therefore nerve-racking, incidents and emotions to arise, said Katherine Tamminen, a sports psychology expert and assistant professor at the University of Toronto's faculty of kinesiology and physical education.

Jays players might approach those unknowns as a threat or as a challenge — in the former case, thinking about what could go wrong, which would tend to undermine their performance; in the latter, rising to the occasion and overcoming any hurdles. "Confidence often makes the difference," Tamminen said.  

But where can that confidence come from for a team on the verge of playoff elimination? The Jays' own recent experience, for one, she said: They were down by a run with just 2½ innings left in the decisive Game 5 of the American League Divisional Series against the Texas Rangers, and came back to win in spectacular fashion.

Another source is the team's camaraderie and how it takes players' minds off the series score.

"They said, 'Even when we were down, we were all still laughing and joking. It seemed we were winning,' " Tamminen said of the Jays' ALDS experience. "That team bonding is very import for keeping the team together and not blaming one another in the face of adversity."

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