Strikeouts and Pink Elephants

Whatever you do, do not think of a pink elephant. As you are reading this sentence, try very hard to NOT think of a pink elephant. Now, what are you thinking about? But I told you not to think of it!

Our brains are wired in such a way that attempting to completely suppress our thoughts is relatively impossible. Coined “Ironic Process Theory” by psychologist Daniel Wegner and analyzed by famed Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky; studies suggest our brain generates more processing power and engages more synapses in attempts to exert influence over suppressing our thoughts than it does generating a thought initially. Basically, one must first think of a pink elephant before you can actively try to not think about it – therefore – pink elephant is in your brain. (You’re still thinking about it aren’t you? Welp here you go hoss):


The understanding of this psychological process can transcend to the athletic arena. For example, we are told from an early baseball age, that the strikeout should be avoided at all costs. As a hitter, every time I took a strike or fouled a ball off, I knew I was one pitch closer to this pinnacle of athletic failure. In today’s game, you’ll hear one of the following when a player has two strikes:
“Two strike approach!”
“Choke up on the bat!”
“Expand the zone!”
“Get your foot down early”
“Widen out your stance”
(Sneak peak into our forthcoming post on baseball cliches!)

The above cues all place a hitter’s focus singularly on: not striking out. However, based on ironic process theory outlined above; when our focus is on “not striking out;” we are actually focusing squarely on striking out. We aren’t visualizing splitting gaps; we aren’t even visualizing solid contact; we are visualizing striking out. When we are already visualizing failure – how are we supposed to experience success?

Unfortunately, the above is just the beginning of the “pink elephant vicious cycle”:

1) We are told early on that striking out is the least productive thing we can do. So, when down in the count, we focus our attention on “not striking out.” Which, as outlined above, forces us to visualize ourselves striking out.

2) As coaches, we can’t just stand there and not say anything (since perception is reality), so we use cues to prevent striking out which leads to further visualization of striking out. (If the player does strike out, we shake our collective heads because we told him to choke up, we told him to just put the ball in play! Wasn’t he listening?)

3) Ultimately, the player at some point strikes out (because it is a part of the game). It is now time for the player’s embarrassed failure to be the moronic umpire’s time to shine:

4) In the dugout, before and during our next at bat – our focus intensifies and we focus harder on not striking out. We remember our coach’s cues: “just get the foot down early!”

5) In our next at bat, we take some lame swings in an attempt to simply make contact. Additionally, in the hopes of not striking out again, we either swing at pitches that we can’t do much with or focus intently on getting the perfect pitch.

6) Since we are taking mechanically poor swings with the hopes of making contact and swinging at subpar pitches or waiting for the unicorn pitch, we tend to fall behind in the count. This raises our anxiety and concentrates our focus on “not striking out.” Ironically, the harder we focus on not striking out, the more we visualize ourselves striking out!

7) With two strikes, we take a lame swing in an attempt to make some sort of contact.

8) We either strikeout, reigniting the vicious cycle, or we make poor contact which has the same end result… an out.

We are then benched for our lack of offensive production – but hey, at least we didn’t strike out!

As players, it is this constant cycle of negative visualization that we must break. We must redirect our focus on success centric; not failure centric. To that end, I am not celebrating a strikeout – although there are growth possibilities that come with it – just like I do not celebrate a swinging bunt base hit. As a coach, I recognize the anti-strikeout culture proclaiming: a strikeout does not contribute offensively at all. Runners are not moved, position players are not tested, etc. I don’t necessarily disagree. Statistically, I concede that there are more errors made and more base hits when a ball is hit in play than when a player strikes out. But that is a misleading argument and one that many times mistakes causation with correlation.

When we are focusing on “just making contact,” we reduce our swings (or “cut down”). Unfortunately, when we reduce our swings, we also shorten the time our barrels are on plane and we sacrifice solid contact for any contact. As we progress in this game, position players are better, have more range, better arms; and pitchers are more advanced. Under those conditions, “any” contact is less likely to produce basehits or balls that would produce an error. A quick look at batted ball velocity and base hit % will show you how insignificant weak balls put in play are. Further, a quick look at exit velocity and extra base hit % proves that strong contact is rewarded over the long term.

Further, if we are mechanically sound, the swings we take with 0 strikes or 1 strike would be the most mechanically efficient swings. So, if we change our swing on 2 strikes, are we not reducing the efficiency in which we swing? To me, mechanically sound swings coupled with an advanced plate approach is what generates base hits, run creation, errors, etc. But coincidentally enough, mechanical efficiency also helps limit strikeouts. So instead of focusing on choking up, getting down early; focus on being mechanically sound throughout the entire at bat. You may strike out; but ultimately you’ll produce more consistently hard contact – which should be the goal of every at bat.

In the end, this game is hard; and it only gets harder when we think about all the things that could go wrong. There are 1000s of pink elephants that we shouldn’t think about. But not thinking about them isn’t the foundation of success. Instead of spending our energy trying to NOT do something, let’s visualize: taking good swings, splitting gaps, making solid contact, mashing baseballs over scoreboards. If you strikeout, learn from it. Understand why you struck out; visualize yourself succeeding; and during your next AB look to put a ball in the gap instead of getting stuck in the pink elephant vicious cycle.

**(The above is an analysis on cues, approach, and baseball psychology. However, it is written with the assumption that poor mechanics is not the root cause of the strikeout. Many times anti-strikeout cues are simply pointless because mechanical flaws are behind the strikeout. If you want to revolutionize your mechanics and split gaps regularly, well check us out.)

Comments 2

  1. Nice read. Along those lines Jimmy Johnson used to tell his players “hold the ball”. He’d never say “don’t fumble “. He’d want them focused on what to do rather than what not to do.

  2. A couple of things from a pitching perspective: a lot of people think the strikeout is the least productive thing you can do, which is actually both logically and mathematicaly wrong. The least productive thing you can do is ground in to a double play (well I guess a triple play is less productive but that isn’t realistic to expect). So logically, hitting a weak ground ball that gets 2 outs is less productive than swinging aggressively, missing 3 pitches and getting 1 out… Mathematically (this goes away from the 2 strikes approach and more to the idea of throwing your hands and just making contact) – one of the goals in baseball is to try to get a starting pitchers pitch count up. So if you just throw your hands to make contact and your successful at making contact on your first swing but hit into a double play, guess what? I have thrown 1 pitch and gotten 2 outs. Pretty efficient as a pitcher. If you strike out, again I only get 1 out and I need to throw at least 3 pitcher, more likely 4 or 5. So striking out doesn’t seem so bad now. 5 pitches for 1 out or 1 pitch for 2 outs?
    Also, as a pitcher, I really love the idea of just trying to make contact and putting the ball on the ground because people ” might make errors.” Sure I guess to some people this makes sense. But again, logically and mathematically think about it. If I have the worst fielding infield of all time and they only make 60% of the plays, hell let’s say 50%. So half the plays they boot, half they make. If your goal as a coach/team is to “swing down and hit ground balls” because we might be more likely to make errors, than guess what? First pitch of the game, weak ground ball, error. Coach is thrilled, his plan worked. Second pitch, another weak ground ball, we make half the plays so guess what, mathematically, we should get the double play. .. 50 percent of the time it works everytime. So as a pitcher I’d rather face the team who tried to hit ground balls in hopes we’d fail, rather than the team who was aggressive and tried to hit every ball as hard as possible.
    Another thing from a pitcher’s perspective- the hitting cliches with regard to 2 strikes- I loved them as a pitcher. It’s like someone tipping there hand in poker. If a coach tells a hitter to “protect the plate” ( or any off shoot of that), as a pitcher I knew that hitter was going to swing at anything. I could probably just throw the a pitch to the first baseman and the hitter will swing.
    Last thing, if you write an article about ridiculous baseball coaching cliches, please include coaches telling pitchers to “bend their backs” when they throw.

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