One of the brightest minds in baseball, Zach Sorensen joins Brian on this episode of the Peak Performance Podcast to discuss the process of becoming successful in baseball. Zach was a 2nd round MLB draft pick out of Wichita State and went on to play a couple years in Major League Baseball for the Indians and Angels.
- Where Zach was first introduced to the mental game and when he realized the importance of it.
- How to become a true self-evaluator.
- A story of overcoming extreme adversity on the biggest stage of his life in the College World Series.
- A valuable lesson he learned from playing with Manny Ramirez.
- A great story about the significance of a drain behind 2nd base on Wichita State’s field.
- And more…
Follow Zach on Twitter @ZSorensenPhenom
Learn more about Phenom Sports at PhenomSports.com
Success is the result of doing your best to be your best. Success comes not always from the score. It doesn’t come from the outcome. It doesn’t come from how many hits you get each and every day. Success comes from the process.
Cain: This is Brian Cain, your Peak Performance coach, with the Peak Performance Podcast. Today our guest is Zach Sorensen. Zach was a three-time All-American baseball player for the Wichita State University Shockers, and he played in the Major Leagues with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and the Cleveland Indians. Sorensen is one of only a handful of people on Planet Earth who have played in the Major Leagues and have a degree in sports psychology.
In this podcast episode Sorensen is going to share his journey into the big leagues, the mindset that got him there, the mental game that might have kept him there longer, and now what he teaches for the professional players and amateur players that he works with on the mental game. You can learn more about Zach at his Twitter handle, which is @ZSorensenPhenom. Please welcome to the Peak Performance Podcast Zach Sorensen. Zach, thanks for being with us.
Sorensen: How are you doing, Brian? Thanks for having me.
Cain: Doing great. Glad you’re with us here. If you would, Zach, could you kind of give our listeners – and I want you to imagine that you’re speaking to baseball coaches and players, and there will be coaches from other sports and athletes from other sports listening to this, but let’s kind of target in on that baseball audience because you’ve got such a great story there — kind of give them your story from growing up in Salt Lake and getting all the way to the big leagues and how you ended up at Wichita State and your journey. Could you give us that story?
Sorensen: Yeah. Absolutely. For me, it was always baseball. I wanted to play in the big leagues. From a young boy, I used to remember sitting in front of the television, having my sister take a photo of me with the game in the background, visualizing myself playing in the big leagues. So much so that one night I couldn’t sleep, as I’m dreaming about being out there in the big league stadium on the big league team. I actually painted the field on my ceiling just so that I could constantly have that in my sights. That was my motivation to make it happen. I did a lot of things which were a little awkward and a little strange, but for me it was always just having that in my sights and being able to see myself as a Major League player. It was my motivation to make it happen.
I was drafted out of high school out of Utah (which at the time was not a very big strong baseball state) in the 16th round by the Orioles. I decided to turn it down because I felt like I needed to grow up a little bit. From there I lucked out and was able to go play at Wichita State University. An awesome experience, awesome opportunity for me to go out there and compete with one of the best programs in the country. So I was fortunate to be able to do that and to start for them. We were ranked #1 in the country a lot of the time I was there and then my junior year I had a big season, which allowed me to get drafted by the Indians in the second round.
What an awesome organization for me to be in — an organization that not only embraced development but also embraced the mental game. I think that’s probably where I was first introduced to the mental game, and I very quickly realized and recognized that that was the difference maker between players that were very good on paper and players that were very good on paper and lasted in the game a long time – if that makes sense.
So for me, I started to develop some of the routines and habits without much guidance as to what I was doing. I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know that I was doing some releasing and refocusing at the time but I was able to use those things to kind of keep me sharp, and I feel like that’s probably the main reason why I was able to make it to the big leagues.
Having said that, Brian, my lack of development in the mental game I feel like is what kept me from being there. We’ll get into that, I’m sure, as we talk today but the mental game was big time for me. As I finish my career and I hear myself talk about defense and talk about technique related to hitting, when I start talking mental game I get super excited.
Cain: Zach, what are the aspects of the mental game that – you talked about visualization when you were a kid and painting that baseball diamond on your ceiling. I’ve heard you speak a number of times and I never knew that. That’s outstanding. What are some of the other mental game things that you use maybe besides visualization that you feel like “if I had learned this earlier in my career” or “if I had developed it more in my career, I might have had a better chance at having a longer career” or things you saw other guys doing that helped them be successful?
Sorensen: I think one of the big things that I failed to learn early in my career that I did learn later, and I’ve especially learned since I’ve been listening to Brian Cain and Peak Performance, is the fact just buying into the process is such a big deal and understanding that you can get better even if you don’t go out – you are getting better even if you don’t go out and get a few hits that day. So baseball, it’s important to measure everything we talk about (that you talk about). That is a big part of our program. And everything is measured in baseball, but unfortunately the things that we do measure in baseball oftentimes just tell us about the things we don’t do well.
As a player, I feel like at times I would look at my batting average or I would look at my numbers and compare them to other players, and that would be tough to see at times. It wasn’t until I later realized that it’s not always about the outcome, but the process is where you can become stronger or you can strengthen yourself and also motivate yourself to be better where you can really turn yourself into the best player that you can be.
Cain: What are some of those things that you would measure? Everybody talks about batting average and home runs. We know from a mental game standpoint that you can have a quality at-bat that doesn’t end up in a base hit and your batting average actually goes down but you helped the team win. I think when you’re talking with young players, that’s really hard for them to grasp, that they can actually do something productive to help the team when their stats go in the wrong direction.
What are the things that you measure, Zach, or what are the things that you now teach the players you work with at the professional and amateur levels to measure to give them a better understanding of the process?
Sorensen: I think one of the most important things that players need to understand is how to be a true self-evaluator. The reason why I say that is because you need to understand exactly where you’re at in your walk, in your career, what your strengths are, what your weaknesses are, what your limitations are. From there you can develop a game plan (which is, Brian, that’s your MVP Process) on how I can become better at where I’m at.
So I can measure it. If one of my goals (for lack of better terms) or one of my visions is to become a solid strong base runner that can steal bases and really help my team score runs, then I develop my principles and my action items that are going to help me to do that. Now I break that down and I can say, “Okay, I measure my 60-yard dash time as a baseball player.” I know where that’s at at the beginning of the summer. I put my plan in place based on jump rope and running 60-yard dashes daily and I set up this whole routine on where I can go with that, and then you can measure again each week or again at the end of the summer. What you’ll find out is it’s almost impossible to not get better if you have this plan in place.
So although my goal is to be a base stealer, I don’t have to just measure my stolen bases compared to other players. I can measure my speed. I can measure my home to first. I can measure all things and break it down smaller from there.
Other than that, Brian, you’re measuring your quality at-bats every single day. You’re measuring the way you attack a ground ball left to right every single day. When a person becomes a true self-evaluator, what they understand is you pick apart your game in ways that are so detailed that you’re going to recognize that you’re getting better each and every day. Even if you don’t get a hit, even if you don’t make that play, you’re going to understand that you never would have got to that ground ball six weeks ago if you hadn’t put this plan in play. So those are the measurements I think that are going to continue to propel you and motivate you forward even if you don’t get the hit that day.
Cain: One of the things I’ve heard you talk a lot about, Zach, is making adversity your advantage. One of the things that I remember in your career at Wichita State — you guys were in the College World Series, you’re dealing with some adversity, and you come up with a clutch hit for the Shockers. Would you talk a little bit about that story (because I think it’s so awesome) and then also this concept of making adversity your advantage?
Sorensen: Yeah. Oftentimes when you talk about mental conditioning we talk about failure. It’s such a big thing — failure in sports, failure in life — and how you respond to failure is a big deal. We often use the line that failure is only feedback. I even like to take it further than that and say failure is feedback and failure is also fuel to make you better.
So I’m playing in the College World Series in the championship game in the regionals. We were playing on a turf infield. The turf was wet. Pregame the ball skipped up on my hand, hits my finger and blows it up and I’m bleeding everywhere and whatever. So you kind of get through the game, you battle it, and all is good. After the game (as you know), just like Brian Cain is feeling a little bit this morning after waking up from a big IRONMAN, you get a little bit sore day two, day three, and now I get to go play on the biggest stage up to that point in my career at the College World Series and I’m having a hard time gripping the bat. You do a couple things. You either say that this is going to limit me and I’m not going to be able to face a right-handed pitcher because I can’t grip the bat left-handed, or you find a way to turn that into your advantage. It actually made me more aggressive as a player. I was able to get a big hit for my team in that series.
A few years later I remember being with the Angels in spring training. I tore my groin and I was going to be out eight weeks. This was a tough time because we were a couple days away from making that Major League team. I felt like I had a really good shot and then I got injured. I remember I was sent down to extended spring training, to rehab. I had the opportunity to be around some young players who I felt like were great players but maybe they hadn’t developed the mental conditioning that they needed to be their best.
We’re in a ball game, the three hold hitters… The big strong guy, he’s got power, he’s got speed, he’s got everything that you look for as a scout and he gets in that game and he’s facing the starting pitcher. Strike one, fastball right down the middle. He takes the pitch like we oftentimes do and then he shakes his head up and down like — I don’t know what he’s saying to himself — “I’ve got him, I’ve got him timed.” Maybe he’s saying “I should have swung it.” I don’t know what his self-talk was. Second pitch was the breaking ball that was bounced in the dirt. He got fooled on it. He swings and misses. He’s down 0-2 now. Third pitch. Split-finger fastball. Falls off the table. He takes a nasty swing at it. Strike three.
So he’s walking back to the dugout, he’s hitting his helmet, he probably tosses his bat. Obviously, the batting gloves are gone because they’re no good. And maybe a few choice words. But he goes and sits on the bench and, like I said, a lot of players scatter when that happens. Being me, as I was a little bit further along in my career, I went and sat right next to him, looked over at him, and I said, “Great at-bat.” He looks and me and says, “What are you talking about? That was embarrassing.” I said, “No, that was a great at-bat.” So here we have some adversity. It was. It was a terrible at-bat. But how can you spin that around? I think the great players are the ones that can quickly spin that at-bat into an advantage.
So here’s what I told him. I said, “This is the starting pitcher in a game. He’s going to try to throw 5-6 innings, he’s going to throw 5-6 innings. You’re going to face him how many times?” This hitter looks at me and says, “I’ll face him two more times for a total of three.” I said, “Absolutely — two more at-bats against this guy. You’ve seen his fastball, you’ve seen his curveball, you’ve seen his split-finger.” I said, “There’s nothing he can throw to you that you haven’t already seen; you’re more prepared now than you ever possibly could be and he has no chance of getting you out.”
So here’s how you see how you can kind of spin this. You turn some adversity. Now you act as though you have the advantage and you walk up to the plate next time saying, “He can’t fool me. I’ve got this guy. Here we go.”
Cain: I love that. Another thing you talk about with making adversity your advantage and kind of just taking a different perspective on things is a story of one of the greatest players (at least of our generation) in Manny Ramirez and watching him break down video. Can you tell that story and what you learned from that experience with Manny?
Sorensen: Yeah. I had the pleasure of being around Manny a lot and I learned a lot from that guy. He is one of the best hitters to ever play the game. I really feel like it. His attention to detail and his professionalism as a hitter is second to none. During that time in my career I was in Double-A, maybe in Triple-A, and I really got into video analysis. It was great. We all do video analysis so we go have Dad or our coaches video us, and after the game we take that video back to our hotel room or to the house and we analyze it. We pick apart our swing and we figure out the things that we could do better. I was really big into this and I felt like it really helped me. Like I said, I pick apart my swing. Maybe my barrel was dropping too far out on my front side, my balance transfer wasn’t where I wanted, or whatever it was. Oftentimes it was a pretty good sizeable list.
So anyway I bumped into Manny and I’m talking to him. Like I said, I was really big into visual training at this time and video analysis, so I said, “Manny, do you do a video analysis?” He said he does. I said, “Awesome. How often do you do it?” He says, “I do it every single day.” I’m like, “Wow, that is amazing to me. Is there any way I can come watch one of your video analysis sessions?” He allowed me to do so. So the next day I showed up. I told him I’d be a fly on the wall. I wouldn’t bug him, wouldn’t ask him any questions; I just wanted to watch the master do it.
He walks into the video room, puts his headphones on, and he’s got his favorite Latin song just jamming through the headphones. I can hear it clearly. He puts on his video, he pushes play, and for the next 3-½ to 4 minutes while his favorite song played I watch Manny hit 18 home runs, 32 doubles. He was hitting balls all over the ballpark and it was awesome. I got excited. I got fired up. Then he takes his headphones off, sets them down, and walks out of the room.
So I grabbed him. I said, “Manny, hold on a second. I promised you I wouldn’t ask you a question; I only have about 15 questions for you.” I said, “Manny, awesome. You’re a great hitter and you can hit home runs and doubles — good job — but what about the at-bat yesterday, your second at-bat when you got fooled and you struck out? Let’s look at that video. Let’s analyze what happened in that at-bat.” He looked at me and he says, “Why would I want to watch that at-bat?” He says, “I want to watch me doing the things that I want to do, I want to watch me taking the good swing, I want to have that repetition in my mind of me taking the approach and the swing that I want to take tonight in the ball game.” I’m like, yeah, I can see that. I understand that. I said, “But do you ever look at your swing?” He says, “Well, there is a time to look at that but not before I go into a game.” Then he says, “Zach, I have one question for you. Who is more prepared to play tonight, you” — now remember, I struck out like 17 times in my video — “or me?” Manny is like, “These guys have no chance of getting me out tonight.” He put his big smile on his face and he walked out of the room. So what an awesome lesson to me.
You talk about this, Brian. You say everything happens twice, first in your mind and then in the game. So why are we constantly watching ourselves struggle or fail? Are we going to benefit as much or more from watching ourselves succeed? I think definitely. Especially just prior to going out to play in a game. Routines are such an important part of the game, and honestly, Brian, I wish I would have even been more entrenched into being more routine oriented. I’ve learned this as I’ve studied underneath you and with you, just the importance of routine.
Let me tell you a quick story about another player, Darin Erstad. Darin Erstad played first base for us with the Angels. He was a great player. He also played for Nebraska’s football team so we can call him a Bulldog or whatever you want. This guy was the most routine-oriented guy I have ever played with. In fact, every single night we have a 7:05 game and it was 6:32 PM — because I looked and I paid attention to this. At 6:32 PM he showed up behind me standing over the garbage can. What I had recognized and noticed is probably five minutes prior to that he went into the kitchen, he got himself one piece of bread, he painted peanut butter on a piece of bread, he put jam or jelly on half of it, folded this peanut butter and jelly sandwich in half, walked over to the garbage can, took one bite out of it, and then threw that PB&J in the garbage can and took on out to the field.
I remember asking myself, “This is a little bit strange, it’s a little bit odd.” Then I asked myself, “I wonder if on nights when he’s a little bit hungrier than he is on other nights he’ll take two bites?” I think you know the answer to that question — never. Never did he take two bites of that PB&J. So you are creatures — habits mean everything and your routine gets you ready. I used to ask myself, “Well, why is he doing that? What is he doing?” Just like you guys know, he knows exactly how much time he has until he’s ready for that first pitch of the game. He’s working that inner clock he has in his mind and his body that’s getting him ready for that game every night.
For me, I was a big morning person. A lot of baseball players play late at night, they get home late, they sleep until mid-morning or later. I was the guy that I had to get up early. I set my alarm every single morning at the same time. I would get up. I would go get myself some breakfast. That was important to me; otherwise, I used to lose a lot of weight during the 162-game season or whatever. Then I’d hit the gym and hit it hard. Back in that time, strength and conditioning was still pretty new and it wasn’t sure if that was going to tighten players up and hurt baseball players, but for me I needed to do that because I felt different. Have you ever heard that before, Brian? I felt different in uniform when I’d go get a good pump on. For me it was as much strength and endurance throughout a long season as it was mental and how I felt that day.
So a couple other routines I used to do. This goes to kind of talking about release and refocus, Brian. This is something I did in college and I didn’t even know what I was doing. I played on a turf infield and grass outfield at Wichita State. Right behind my turf infield were drains for the water to run off. Obviously, the rain was collected and it allowed us to play a lot of games when otherwise we’d get rained out. What I also realized is that was not just a drain but to me that looked like a jail. Whenever I made an error, it wasn’t me that made the error — it was the little gremlin or the little man in my glove who made the error. So after I would make that error, I would walk over to the jail and I would take the little man out of my glove and I would put him in jail.
Obviously, what I’m doing there is part of the release and that’s my physical action on the release. I would have loved to have known the things that you’ve taught me in the release and refocus but I did do a little bit of it there. So you have these routines. You have them for every single moment, whether it’s after they call your name to walk to the plate or it’s stepping in and out of the box or batting gloves. It’s all very routine oriented just to keep your mind right and to keep your internal clock on time.
I think success — and it’s an awesome thing that I’m loving to study right now — success is the result of doing your best to be your best. Success comes not always from the score. It doesn’t come from the outcome. It doesn’t come from how many hits you get each and every day. Success comes from the process. If you can be ahead of the game and preparing your process and buy into your process and stick to your process, I guarantee you that your success will be a result. It may not be that you’re going to play in the big leagues, it may not be that you’re going to get the ballot into the Hall of Fame, but you’re going to be very satisfied with your success as long as you have a true process in place based on true values and then you get after it and work hard. Oftentimes we work hard. We all like to work hard. We get after it. But sometimes we have no direction in which way we go. We work hard so we can get the hit. We work hard so that we can strike everybody out but that’s not always the success that is set up for us or for our team.
If I could go back, I would really focus on embracing the process. Along with the process, we have things that you teach like the release and refocus. Is that part of the process? Absolutely. Am I going to be a better player if I release and refocus each and every day? Absolutely. That’s part of my process. Am I going to be a better player if I understand failure and understand that failure is an opportunity for me to learn? Absolutely. Instead of having this closed mindset, instead of a growth mindset, if I have that growth mindset, I can learn that any time I make a mistake that’s just an opportunity for me to get better. That’s all part of the process.
So I would really bear down in focusing on each and every day getting done and winning each day. Not winning the season. Not winning the week, the at-bat, or even the game — but if I can win each day, I’m going to be my very best and I’m going to be happy with the success I get.
I’m at www.PhenomSports.com. We’ve got our website up at www.PhenomSports.com. I’ve been super blessed to be able to learn from you, Brian. It’s an absolute honor to be in your life and I appreciate all you’ve done for me in mentoring me and being an accountability partner for me, and I’m super excited for what’s coming our way.
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