PART I Welcome to the Inner Game
Yogi Was Right
Ninety percent of the game is half mental. —Yogi Berra
You have to train your mind like you train your body.
When Yogi Berra became manager of the Yankees, a reporter asked if he
had enough experience to handle the job. "Sure," Berra said. "I've been
playing eighteen years, and you can observe a lot just by watching."
Closing his notebook, the writer walked away wearing the same look of
faint bewilderment that the waitress had after she asked Yogi if he
wanted his pizza cut into four slices or eight.
"Better make it four," Yogi decided. "I dunno if I can eat eight."
In working with elite athletes and professional sports teams, I often
begin my counseling sessions and presentations by quoting Yogi's wit and
wisdom. A favorite line, one certain to get a laugh, is Yogi's
mathematical observation that 90 percent of the game is half mental.
But let me ask a question. Have you ever thought seriously about that
famous Yogi-ism? How much of the game—your game—is
Maybe I can lead you to an answer. Let's begin with an exercise I
introduced to an international group of sports psychologists, Olympic
and professional athletes, coaches, musicians, dancers, astronauts,
doctors, lawyers, and fire chiefs in Ottawa, Canada. After completing
this exercise and answering the questions, I think you will discover
what the world's greatest athletes and the most successful people in
other walks of life know to be true—that once you reach a certain
level of competency, the mental skills become as important to
performance as the physical skills, if not more so.
Now, sit back. Relax. Begin to recall the sights and sounds and feelings
of you performing at your very best. In your mind's eye, imagine your
best day ever. Picture that time when you were at the top of your game,
when every move and decision you made was the right one, when it seemed
like every break went your way. Some athletes and performers describe
their best-day experience as "playing in the zone." I call those sweet
spots in time "white moments," which we will explore later.
Imagine you are watching your own highlights film. You feel no fear, no
anxieties, and no self-doubts. Everything is flowing and going your way.
Look around. Where are you? What time of day is it? What time of year?
What are you wearing? Who is with you? Who is watching? What do you
hear? Breathe in the air. If you are on a playing field, or a golf
course, can you smell the grass? Visualize that pleasurable experience.
Now, let that image slowly fade, and in its place recall your worst
performance. Think of the game, event, or experience when you felt weak
and ineffective, when nothing went your way no matter how hard you
tried. Now leave that memory behind. Fast-forward to the present.
With Yogi's quote in mind, compare yourself competing at your best and
at your worst. Then honestly answer these questions: What percentage of
the difference in those performances had to do with your physical
skills? What percentage was mental?
When working with a team of professional athletes, I have everyone in
the clubhouse stand. I ask if the mental part of their performance was
less than 10 percent. If so, I tell them to sit down. Those who think it
was less than 20 percent are asked to take a seat. "How about those of
you," I ask, "who think the mental game was less than 30 percent? Sit
down. How about less than 40 percent?"
At 50 percent, at least half the room is still standing. Would you be
If the answer is yes, this is my next question: If you believe the
difference between your best and worst performance was, as Yogi said, at
least 50 percent mental, then how much time do you spend on the mental
game? How many books about sports psychology have you read? How many
lessons have you taken from a "head" coach?
As you demonstrated in the exercise, the mind is like a VCR. It records
sights and sounds, and the tape plays continuously. The human body
treats every vivid thought and image as if it is real and happening now.
Everyone who has awakened from a nightmare knows this to be true.
Studies have proven that mental training will not only enhance
performance and improve productivity but also add to your enjoyment.
Whatever your age, whatever your game, you can learn how to use your
mind more constructively. You can learn how to stay focused. You can
learn to deal with adversity. Stay motivated during difficult times.
Avoid fatal distractions. You can learn how to follow your dreams and
live your life on purpose.
Achieving inner excellence is a process. Building mental muscle, like
building physical muscle, requires time and effort. The more you work on
the inside, the more it will show on the outside. First you must make a
commitment. As Yogi supposedly said, when you come to the fork in the
road, take it. By reading the first section, you are taking your first
Think of the book in your hands as your mind gym. Read the lessons, do
the exercises, and answer the questions. If you do, you will acquire the
skills needed to create the ideal mental state that will allow you to
rise to the next level and perform at your best by choice rather than
What you think affects how you feel and perform. Training your brain
is as important as training your body.
The mind messes up more shots than the body. —Tommy Bolt
The mind is a powerful thing and most people don't use it
properly. —Mark Mcgwire
Gene Stallings stood on the practice field, arms folded across his
chest. The Arizona Cardinals were at summer training camp in Flagstaff,
and every player could feel the stoic presence of the team's tall,
tough-minded head coach.
Stallings is a protégé of the late Paul "Bear" Bryant. He
played for Bryant at Texas A&M and served seven seasons as an assistant
to the coaching legend at Alabama. Like Bryant, Stallings valued
practice time. He placed a premium on mental toughness and the work
habits of his players. Now here he stood, casting a long shadow, his
steely gaze fixed on a placekicker as he swung his right foot,
soccer-style, into and through the ball. When the field-goal attempt
sailed wildly wide of the mark—the kicker shanked the
ball—Stallings's face hardened like ready-mix cement. In disgust,
he turned his back and walked away, muttering under his breath.
Once Gene was out of earshot, I drew the kicker aside. "What happened?"
I asked. This was my first season as team counselor for the NFL club.
"Mack, I'm a great field goal kicker," the player said with
conviction. Then he thought of his coach and his glacial stare. He shook
his head. "But I just can't kick when Gene's watching me."
"Well, you know," I said, gently, unable to suppress a smile, "I think
he's going to be at all the games."
The kicker had plenty of leg, and distance was no problem. But he had
allowed himself to become self-conscious and coach-conscious rather than
task-conscious. His mind was on his boss. If the player expected better
results, he had to change his thought patterns. He needed to work on the
mental part of his game.
One key to achieving success in sports is learning how to focus on the
task and not let negative thoughts intrude. The mind can concentrate on
only one thing at a time. So, rather than suppress what you don't want
to happen, you must focus on what you do want to happen or on
some neutral thought. In working with placekickers, I use a distraction
technique. I ask them to create a word that, when said to themselves,
will block out all negative thought and help relieve tension. Al Del
Greco, a veteran kicker for the Tennessee Titans who played in Super
Bowl XXXIV, has his own word: "birdie." Al is a scratch golfer, perhaps
the best golfer in the National Football League. For him "birdie"
creates the feeling of success and reminds him of the fun he has on the
The brain is like a megacomputer that controls the body. Herbert Benson,
a Harvard cardiologist, found that having patients focus on their
breathing and repeating the word "one" lowered their blood pressure and
heart rate. Try it yourself.
The brain can do remarkable things but, unlike a computer, it doesn't
come with an instruction manual. Unfortunately, too often we pull up the
wrong "programs" at the wrong times.
This section begins with a profound quote from Tommy Bolt, the former
professional golfer. Terrible Tommy, he was called. Thunder Bolt. The
joke was that Bolt was bilingual—fluent in English and profanity.
His temper and club-throwing tantrums are part of golf's rich lore.
According to legend, after lipping out six putts in a row during one
tournament round, Bolt shook his fist at the heavens and shouted, "Why
don't You come down and fight like a man?!"
But Bolt understood the power of the mind and how the brain can sabotage
performance. When a weekend golfer arrives at a water hole what is the
second thing he does after fishing an old ball—a water
ball—out of his bag? Stepping to the tee he tells himself,
"Don't hit it in the water." What we've learned in psychology is
that actions follow our thoughts and images. If you say, "Don't hit it
in the water" and you're looking at the water, you have just programmed
your mind to send the ball to a watery grave. The law of dominant
thought says your mind is going to remember the most dominant thought.
Think water, remember water, and water likely is what you will get.
Rather than say "Don't hit it in the water," try another instruction,
like "Land the ball ten yards to the right of the pin." You get what
your mind sets. The mind works most effectively when you're telling it
what to do rather than what not to do.
When I was with the Chicago Cubs, a starting pitcher telephoned me from
Montreal. He had been rocked in his last outing. In an almost pleading
voice, he said he needed help. When I asked him to relate the
conversation he had with himself when he was alone on the mound,
struggling to find the plate, he ticked off a laundry list of negative
thoughts: "Don't hang your curve. Don't walk this guy. The ump won't
give me a call. If I don't get through the fifth inning I'm going to
lose my spot in the rotation."
I give athletes I work with a three-by-five card. On one side I have
them list their personal keys to success; on the other, their
performance keys to success. I asked the Cubs pitcher to tell me his
performance keys to success. "What are you doing when you're really on
"I'm locating my fastball," he replied. "I'm throwing first-pitch
strikes. I'm changing speed."
"So how do you do those things?" I asked.
"Good balance," he said. "Shoulder back. Drive through."
"Good," I told him. "In five days you start against the Mets in New
York. All I want you to do before the game is to focus on those three
In his next appearance, the pitcher threw a complete-game shutout. In
less than a week he couldn't have changed that much physically. His
turnaround is proof that by changing your thinking—and you
can choose how you think—you can change your performance.
Put another way, if you don't like the program you are watching, switch
Learn to use your mind or your mind will use you. Actions follow our
thoughts and images. Don't look where you don't want to go.
The Head Edge
The whole idea is to get an edge. Sometimes it takes just a little
extra something to get that edge, but you have to have it.
The most important part of a player's body is above his
shoulders. —Ty Cobb
Moments before his last at-bat of the 1998 season, baseball's new Man of
Steel sat in the shadows of the St. Louis dugout with his eyes closed.
Mark McGwire wasn't napping. The man with the broad shoulders and Popeye
forearms, who had already hit one home run that late September
afternoon, was deep in thought—mentally rehearsing.
"It's hard work, mentally and physically," the Cardinals slugger once
said of the art of hitting. "Everybody looks at my body, but I use my
mind more than my arms."
By the time McGwire stepped into the batter's box he was focused,
relaxed, and ready. When Montreal relief pitcher Carl Pavano turned
loose a 95-mph fastball, Big Mac's mind and body worked as one. A
ripping swing. A cork-popping sound. Away it went, a streaking line
drive. The ball landed in the left-field stands for home run number
seventy—proving to the last skeptic that Big Mac's sixty- nine
others that season weren't flukes.
McGwire hit five home runs in the last forty-four hours of the season
and waved good-bye to Sammy Sosa, with whom he had formed a mutual
admiration club and competed in a dinger derby unlike anything baseball
had ever seen.
Sports psychology has been called the science of success because it
studies what successful people do. What we have found—and what
McGwire and other great athletes validate—is the value of mental
rehearsal and imagery.
Here is how Carl Yastrzemski described his use of imagery: "The night
before a game, I visualize the pitcher and the pitches I'm going to see
the next day. I hit the ball right on the button. I know what it's going
to feel like. I hit the pitches where I want to."
The power of visualization and mental rehearsal has been demonstrated in
dozens of research studies. If you take twenty athletes of equal ability
and give ten mental training they will outperform the ten who received
no mental training every time. This is what we call the head edge.
One interesting study involved college basketball players. For three
months, one group shot free throws for one hour each day. Another group
spent an hour each day thinking about shooting free throws. The third
group shot baskets thirty minutes a day and spent thirty minutes
visualizing the ball going through the hoop from the foul line. Which
group, at the end of the study, do you think improved its free-throw
shooting the most? The third group did. The imagery had as much impact
on accuracy as shooting baskets.
In another case study, cited in Foundations of Sport and Exercise
Psychology, a sports psychologist worked with the United States
Olympic ski team. He divided the team into two groups equally matched
for ski-racing ability. One group received imagery training; the other
served as a control group. The coach quickly realized that the skiers
practicing imagery were improving more rapidly than those in the control
group. He called off the experiment and insisted that all his skiers be
given the opportunity to train using imagery.
As a kid growing up in an immigrant neighborhood in Queens, New York, I
played on a soccer team in the Polish American Youth League. One
Saturday we went to Randalls Island for a clinic. I sat in wonder in the
presence of Pelé, the greatest soccer player in the world.
I still remember what he said: enthusiasm and the mental edge are the
keys to winning. Pelé described his routine, which was the same for
every game he played. An hour before he stepped onto the field,
Pelé went into the locker room, picked up two towels, and retreated
to a private corner. Stretching out, he placed one towel under the back
of his head, like a pillow. He covered his eyes with the other. Then he
began to roll his mental camera. In his mind's eye he saw himself as a
youngster playing soccer on the beaches of Brazil. He could feel the
gentle breeze. He could smell the salt air. He remembered how much fun
he had and how much he loved the game.
Pele then hit the fast-forward button of his mental video. He began
recalling his greatest moments in the World Cup and reliving that
winning feeling. Then he let those images fade and began rehearsing for
the upcoming game. He pictured his opponents. He saw himself dribbling
through defenders, heading shots, and scoring goals. After a half-hour
in solitude, alone with his thoughts and the slide show of positive
images, Pele did his stretching exercises. When he trotted into the
stadium, washed in cheers, he knew he was physically and mentally
An exercise for this section is called the mind gym. When I was with the
Cubs, the team acquired Bob Tewksbury from the Yankees. At the time Bob
wasn't a dominating big-league pitcher. He didn't have a great fastball,
relying instead on location and changes in speed. In working together, I
asked Bob to create his own mind gym, an imaginary retreat where he
could go before games to reflect and mentally prepare. His vivid
imagination created an elaborate studio. Bob's mind gym featured a
bubble-like structure—an energy machine with a ticker tape that
flashed positive affirmations, and a state-of-the-art sound system. From
his mind-gym bed Bob could stretch out and watch a highlights tape of
himself on a big-screen TV mounted overhead. Tewskbury later bloomed
into an All-Star with the Cardinals.
Excerpted from "Mind Gym : An Athlete's Guide to Inner Excellence" by Gary Mack. Copyright © 0 by Gary Mack. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.