You get better because you adapt to stress.
You lift weights that create microtears in your muscles and then they heal stronger than before.
You sit, clueless and scared, in the driver seat of a car for the first time with your heart pounding out of your chest as you struggle to master the clutch, the stick shift and the narrowing road while tuning out the yammering of your dad’s instructions in your ear.
One day, you get in the car and just drive away.
This is the basis of athletic training, of course. You push yourself to failure in practice so that your matches are easy when the pressure is on. Coaches continually tweak your training program to add new challenges and stresses for your body to adjust to. They can track your progress in your sprint times, amount of weight lifted, your VO2 max – there is a staggering number of parameters that can be analyzed.
But it’s harder to train and measure the mental side of sport.
In The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First , Jonah Keri, describes the unconventional training techniques of Joe Maddon, the manager of the Tampa Bay Rays.
Later in his career, Maddon latched on to newer devices, wielding them with the confidence and enthusiasm of a tech-savvy teenager. He became one of the earliest adopters of customized small-ball pitching machines. If hitters could track a tennis ball going up to 140 mph, the idea went, they’d have an easier time following a 90 mph baseball in game situations. He set the machines to lower heights so as to challenge hitters’ plane of vision. More challenging still, he began marking tennis balls with red and black marks. If hitters could call out “red” or “black” on high-speed pitches, they might gain a better approach to hitting that could yield better pitch selection, more favorable hitters’ counts, and more chances to drive the ball to all fields. Years later, star Rays third baseman Evan Longoria would prove to be a whiz at this exercise, amazing onlookers with his ability to call out pitches on their way to the plate. Did his incredible natural batting eye make Longoria a superstar hitter, or did the machines hone his pitch selection? Mostly the former – but Maddon liked to think a little of the latter too.
This technique is pushing the hitter’s brain to its limits, over and over. When the hitter is able to call out the right color dot for the pitch, Maddon adjusts the difficulty until the hitter struggles to succeed. He keeps pushing the athlete’s brain to adjust to the stress.
It’s a bit primitive but it sounds like lifting weights for the brain, doesn’t it?