BC 134. Dave Hilton | Mental Game Lessons from Playing & Coaching in Pro Baseball

Dave Hilton is the former #1 overall pick in the 1971 MLB Draft and has endless knowledge on the mental game.  He has seen it all in professional baseball and knows what the best do to get their mind right to perform. 


You will discover…

  • Dave’s 5 Categories for Mindset Skills.
  • What Mindfulness is and how to access it.
  • The best mental game tip you can teach a player or utilize as a player.
  • Signaling and how it can help you be in the present moment.
  • The similarities among the BEST in Major League Baseball.

To Learn More about Dave, Visit ArizonaSchoolOfBaseball.com


I know that I would have been 10 times a better player.  I would have been 10 times a better player.  I had some success at playing in the Major Leagues and championship success in Japan and some accolades in that, but I probably could have done 10 times better had I known these things.

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Cain:  Hey, how are you doing?  Brian Cain, your Peak Performance Coach here, and thanks for listening to another episode of the Peak Performance Podcast.  Today our guest is Dave Hilton.  He was a first round draft pick.  Actually went 1-1.  The first pick in the first round out of Rice University in 1971.  He played Major League Baseball with the San Diego Padres and got 12 years of playing experience in professional baseball, and then coached for 20 years in professional baseball and is currently running the Arizona Baseball School, where he works with college, high school, youth, and professional players on improving their game.  Dave won a World Series in Japan.  I’m excited to hear him talk about that as well as other aspects of the mental game and development as a baseball player.

In this podcast Dave is going to share his wisdom on the mental game and what it takes to succeed at the highest levels of baseball. To learn more about Dave Hilton, please visit www.ArizonaSchoolofBaseball.com.  Please welcome to the Peak Performance Podcast the first pick in the first round of the Major League Baseball draft in 1971, Dave Hilton.  Dave, thanks for joining us on the Peak Performance Podcast.

Hilton:  Thank you very much, Brian.  I’m very excited to talk with you and I love being here.

Cain:  Dave, if you would, could you give our listeners (which are predominately going to be coaches and athletes) and take them sort of through your career from where you grew up in high school to your experience in college baseball and then pro baseball and all the different places you got to play around the world to kind of where you are today leading the Arizona Baseball School. Take them on your journey.

Hilton:  Sure, Brian.  I’ll do it fairly quickly.  I loved playing baseball as a kid.  I grew up in small Texas towns.  My parents were teachers and school administrators.  They were very talented in what they did.  I discovered baseball in the sandlots there and on the school grounds.  We would play every sport in season – baseball, football, basketball – and it was quite different than how it is today.  We would meet at recess or after school (all the kids in the neighborhood), have our captains for that day, choose the teams, make the ground rules, and play till the games broke up. We would do that in the summer as well and it was very enjoyable.  We developed a lot of initiative and take-charge leadership skills learning the game inside out from a young age and all of that.

Then we moved to Houston.  My dad knew I wanted to be better in baseball so he took a job in Houston where there was more organizational aspects to it and I went to high school – Jesse H. Owens High School.  We had a very quality high school program there.  They’ve changed a bit. Then I went on with a scholarship to Rice and played ball quite a bit.  I wasn’t very big or necessarily that talented in high school but I did know a lot.  I used my mind quite well and played actually beyond my abilities there.  At Rice I gained 25 pounds and grew 3-4 inches, so even though I had made All-State a couple years in Texas, I didn’t get drafted and was very disappointed.  But I did get bigger and then scouts took some notice of me there, and I signed and went on to play.

Once I started playing at each different level, I realized there are adjustments to make, not just physically but mentally, learning you go through your own personal life changes and adjusting to being away and living at different places, the different things you encounter.  So I started developing ways to help me maneuver those passages and I end up going as far as I could take myself in the Major Leagues.  There were some things that I did not know at the time.  I came up after my second year with the Padres and I always had tremendous Double-A, Triple-A seasons.  At the big league level I found I didn’t have exactly what I needed there.

In those days there were fairly quick windows of opportunity.  I ended up going to Japan and it was over in Japan that I did learn the remaining skills that I needed.  I was quite successful there being an MVP, winning a World Series, having a game-winning homer and actually utilizing the skills I teach now.  So it kind of came full circle for me.  I just love the players and people in baseball and coaching and passing on the knowledge and working in a collaborative way.  That’s where I am right now.

Cain:  Dave, would you talk a little bit about kind of some of the – predominantly with… Our podcast is about the mental game and there are a lot of baseball players and coaches that are going to be listening to this interview.  Would you talk about what you know now about the mental game of baseball and what that means?  What is the mental game?

Hilton:  Well, to me it’s an awareness of the mental skills that you need to take your physical potential into games and under pressure.  So in the process of playing and coaching I see often players have good days in their practice times and then on the field they may not have it.  They may get out of that ideal competitive mindset that they need.

So I kind of break it down into five categories of mindset skills.  One is knowing your ideal competitive mindsets.  Some guys like to get fired up, get excited, get real high energy, and others play better when they’re calm, cool, and collected, a little more reserved in that aspect.  So we’re looking at first what is your best mindset and then how do you stay in it.

Then it’s identifying yourself as a player, who you are, what your strategic intention is – in other words, are you a power pitcher, are you a control pitcher, are you a finesse pitcher, are you a line drive hitter, are you a power guy type of thing?

Then number three is clarifying your primary mechanical imperative.  There are a lot of things, there are 5-10 mechanical things you could be thinking about.  It usually doesn’t work so well that way.  You want to keep it simple.  But there is one usually for each guy that he can fall back on and remind himself of,  so clarifying that primary mechanical mechanic for himself.

Then there is realizing when to make a timely adjustment.  I like to do it in practice within 4-5 pitches in a game; that might be 1-2 pitches that you will make that timely adjustment for yourself.  (And there are techniques to do that.)

Then the fifth category is just staying positive, keeping the big picture in mind through the game and at the end of the game.  So we’ll do that.

Then we talk that out, put it into their own personal routine.  Of course this is over a few sessions, but we’ll put all those elements into their own personal pregame, endgame, and postgame routine.  I like to keep the routine very short, between 5-10 minutes.  Endgame within 10-20 seconds.  Tweak it as you go along.  But start with it and then build it and then put it into the best thing available for that player.

Cain:  Dave, would you talk a little bit about some of the kind of pregame routines that you’re talking about in terms of helping players show up at their best most consistently?

Hilton:  Yeah, so this is in the course of talking with a player, getting to know him, who he is, what his values are, what’s his personality traits, what other personality traits that he has, and how is he comfortable.  I want him to be comfortable doing it and it’s something natural and feels good to him.

So starting with that in mind, we’ll talk about what is mindfulness, what is guided meditation, what is autohypnosis, what is the relaxation, what’s prayerful, a prayerful meditation technique, kind of a brainwave entrainment thing.  Basically, I want it to be something they do without any technical help.  They’ll sit with themselves for 5-10 minutes before they take off for the game or it may be before the game starts at the clubhouse.  They get in their own little private space and utilize those techniques that we’ve taught (that we learned and taught) and then you just take that right into the game.

Cain:  Dave, could you talk a little bit more about meditation.  I know it’s something that a lot of players do.  Alan Jaeger, who is a friend of ours, talks a lot about meditation and mindfulness.  I think a lot of times baseball players and coaches either don’t know exactly what meditation and mindfulness are or they get confused or they think it’s harder than it really is.  Could you talk a little bit about mindfulness and meditation and maybe take us through an example.

Hilton:  Sure.  It can be positive self-talk.  It can be just mental imagery in your mind of what you’re doing, what you want to do well.  You do need to take some moments to relax, get yourself very calm.  I used to do this – when I learned this over in Japan, I started out doing it for an hour a day and then pretty regularly I could do it in a half hour if I needed to.  I think in the nowadays time and culture I like to teach a player to do it quickly.  So you can do it very quickly where you put yourself in a kind of, I call it a “deliberate calm” situation.

It’s funny.  A couple of years ago there was an article and now it’s a movie directed by Clint Eastwood.  The name of it is Sully.  In that article – it was kind of in the papers, kind of under the radar – but I was reading about he had developed this ability to go into a deliberately calm state at will.  Whenever there was a pressure, he used that as a trigger to go into that.  Part of it was his personality but part of it was the background and training to go into that deliberately calm state.  I like to teach the players different techniques to do it.  So again, relaxing, deliberately relaxing your body, your mind, and the muscles.  Choosing the words and the visual images that you want to put into your mind.

It’s like if you go to Disneyland, you say, “What ride did you like at Disneyland?”  “Well, I like Magic Mountain.”  “Can you remember what it’s like to be there?”  “Yeah.  Yeah I liked that.”  Well, you choose what you want to put into your mind deliberately and you spend some moments with that. I had been incorporating what you want to do baseball-wise into that conversation.  You kind of pack it all in there for their routine.  Of course this is over time to let them absorb it all.

Cain:  Dave, you talked also about kind of the endgame routine being much shorter.  What are some of those endgame routines that you get players to do or that you used yourself?

Hilton:  I found what works the most excellently of all is a verbal cue word.  So there are hitters swinging and either in BP it’s obviously more swings than in a game, but you feel your shoulder pull, you feel your head off the ball, you feel you’re collapsing – whatever the mechanical thing is, you know that you’re out of sync on your swing on a particular pitch or a round.

I like to have them experiment in the cage.  We’re in the cage and then they’ll pick out a word or they may look out onto the fence, which is telling them they want to stay through the ball.  They don’t want to pull off the ball; they want to stay through it with both upper and lower body, stay balanced through the ball.  Or they may – if a word works the best – so they might say “line drive,” they might say “stay through it,” they might say “center field.”  Amazingly – try that out – amazingly, that worked extremely well to get a hitter out of his swing rut.

I’ve done this quite a bit with all ages of players.  It really works.  They’ll be pulling off the ball 4-5 times in a row.  I’ll have them pause, take a breath and use that, and within 1-2 swings they’ll be right back in their swing again.

Cain:  How much do you talk with players about breathing pitch to pitch?

Hilton:  Breathing is big.  I love what you did out here with the things that you taught where breathing is really big and different styles of breathing.  That’s big.  I have them run their setup and their stance starting out – again, I do physical all day long and incorporate the mental with it but incorporating the breathing into everything.  So I’m real big on that.  I have found I like holding the breath technique works well as a separate technique.  I like that.

Cain:  Is there anything else from a mental game standpoint that you talk about with the routine? You’ve mentioned kind of the verbal cue.  You’ve mentioned creating sort of that deliberate calm state through the breath or through a form of meditation.  Is there anything else that you use, maybe an imagery or anything else maybe from a physical standpoint, to help you kind of lock in the mental?

Hilton:  Yeah, I’ve got into tapping.  There is a technique that is called EFT and tapping techniques or touch-and-breathe.  It’s a form of that without the physical percussion of it, but you just touch yourself on a particular part of your body.  I call it “signaling.”  I use the term “signaling” for it. Young people and everyone can be self-conscious so I really don’t have them do it on the field but we’ll have them do it before they go to the field – a tapping technique that they’re comfortable with or a touch-and-breathe if that is more comfortable.  It’s really tremendous in terms of dissolving negative states of mind, changing memories that you’re holding on to, or negative beliefs.  It can really dissolve those very quickly.  Then allow the positive state that you want to be in to take over.

Cain:  The tapping technique, the EFT, I’ve heard Tom Hanson talk about (who coauthored Heads-Up Baseball).  I’ve heard Dr. Greg Warburton out of Oregon State talk about when he had Jorge Reyes with the Beavers.  I think it was 2006-2007 when they won back-to-back World Series.  You’d see him doing that in the dugout.  Is that something that you teach to all players, or is it something that you share specifically with players that are looking for that or maybe players that had the yips?  How do you teach that?

Hilton:  Well, I always make it a choice.  I like to expose them to it.  Again, almost everything I do in the mental part is a one-on-one so I’ll explain it to them what’s behind it.  Basically, the overriding/overarching principle is it’s the mind-body communication skill.  So you want to do something in your mind.  You want to hit the ball hard.  You want to make your pitch.  You want to make the play.  If your body is not cooperating, it gets in a mechanical rut, gets off, gets wild, so you could say your mind and body are not in sync.  You’re not communicating well within yourself. That’s how I explain it.  It helps.  It’s a communication technique between your mind and your body.

You’re going to feel less self-conscious just doing this in the privacy of your own home but if you can do it – and I’ll do it with them and get comfortable with it and do it lightly in a way that is easy for them.  If after that it’s “No, Dave,” they just don’t like that or “I don’t like that part,” we’ll do something else.  We’ll just kind of touch in a certain way that is not tapping or we’ll just breathe and visualize.  Actually, you can visualize the tapping where you’re not even doing it but you’re just seeing yourself do it.  That scientifically has been shown to work as well so I’ll do that with them.

Cain:  Excellent.  Dave, in all your time of playing in pro baseball and coaching in professional baseball over 30 years, are there any common characteristics that you saw in professional baseball players that they all had that you then try to teach to the younger players that you work with now in your school – because you know that hey, this is a characteristic I saw in the US, I saw it in Japan, and I see it in most baseball players.  Is there anything that’s consistent across the board?

Hilton:  Oh, sure.  You’ve got to love the game.  You’ve got to love to play and not get too caught up in all the hype and the hoopla around it and where am I going to be next year and what does this guy think of me and all of the normal human things.  You’ve really got to love to play.  You’ve just got to love to play the game; whether you’re in a back lot or on Wrigley Field, you’ve got to love to play.  And then you’ve got to put the energy and the work into it.  You’ve got to work at it. You’ve got to try to get better every day, take pride in what you do, and work to excel in it.  Then you’ve got to bounce back.  You’ve got to stay positive.  You’ve got to learn to ride the waves and get up off the mat and get back at it again.  I would say those three things.

Cain:  Awesome.  Dave, is there anything as we bring this podcast to a close – and again, thank you for sharing all your experience and your energy and your passion for the game and for coaching – what is it that you know now as you look back over the course of your career, what is you know now that you wish you knew when you were still playing?

Hilton:  Well, I wish I knew these skills that I’m teaching now.  I wish very strongly that I knew this back then.  That’s why I do it, because I know that I would have been 10 times a better player.  I would have been 10 times a better player.  I had some success playing in the Major Leagues and championship success in Japan and some accolades in that, but I probably could have done 10 times better had I known these things.

Cain:  If you had to summarize it into the one thing that you think would have helped you the most – because you gave us so many great nuggets here in terms of the mental game and different things – what would you say would be the #1 if you had to strip it down to one thing?

Hilton:  You have to have the skill to put your mind and body in sync with what you want to do. You have to have that intrapersonal communication skill, I call it.  Whatever technique you use, you have to be at one with yourself.  You have to know who you are and how to be yourself and how to talk to yourself in the way that gets the best out of yourself.  I just call it an “intrapersonal communication skill” applied to what you’re doing if that makes sense.

Cain:  It sure does.  Dave, I appreciate you being a guest on the podcast here.  Thank you for taking the time. Again, for people that want to follow up and get more from Dave, please check out www.ArizonaSchoolofBaseball.com.  Dave Hilton, thank you for being on the podcast.

Hilton:  Thank you very much, Brian.

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