BC118: Tim Corbin on Coaching The Mental Game

In this episode, Brian goes back to an interview from 2006 with one of the best college coaches in the country, head coach of the Vanderbilt Commodores Baseball team, Tim Corbin.  Tim has been the head coach at Vanderbilt since 2003 and won a National Championship in 2014.

You will learn about…

  • Corbin’s biggest takeaway from the time his team spent with Brian
  • The routines Corbin’s hitters and pitchers go through
  • The common terminology that has been established throughout the program and why that is important
  • How to handle the emotions of a game and season
  • Faking your feelings to generate positivity among your team

 

 

 

 

 

 

PODCAST TRANSCRIPTION

Corbin:  You can name John Wooden, Bill Parcells, Bobby Knight, Pete Carroll – they all have different personalities, and what makes them special is they kind of stick to their personality and adjust it at certain times for their kids.

Cain:  In this podcast we go all the way back to 2006 where I sat down with one of the greatest coaches in all of college athletics – Tim Corbin, the head baseball coach of the Vanderbilt Commodores.  Coach Corbin led Vanderbilt to the 2014 NCAA National Championship and has led Vanderbilt to be one of the premier, if not the premier, college baseball programs in America.

In this podcast Coach Corbin is going to talk about the mental game.  Again, as we go back to 2006 you get to hear a lot of what Coach Corbin was saying almost 10 years ago about the mental game, and get to compare and contrast that with now as you hear him more frequently on ESPN or hear him more frequently during the College World Series or in articles talking about the evolution of the mental game.  So let’s go back to 2006 and join one of my mentors, one of my good friends, and one of the top coaches in all of college athletics, Tim Corbin.

This is Brian Cain here with Tim Corbin, head baseball coach at Vanderbilt University.  Coach Corbin, thanks for taking the time out of your hectic schedule here in late January to sit down and talk with us a little bit about the mental game.  We’ve spent two weekends together here.  What are some of the things that stick out most to you as a coach that you think you can take from the presentations we’ve done and things we’ve talked about from the mental game that will help your guys and your team to be more successful?

Corbin:  Probably coping mechanisms once they get into the game itself.  I think particularly in a situation that I’m coaching I’m working with kids that I would think are highly motivated.  They are self-starters.  They are motivated to succeed both academically and athletically.  When you run into a situation where you get a coach who applies maybe a little bit more pressure to them, they have the pressure of succeeding in a classroom on the field and they want to play.  That pressure builds up and in doing so it affects their play in practice and in games and so on.

I think that one of the things that I’ve gained from us being together and from your work is the ability of your tools, to pass those on to the kids so that they can have some type of routine that they can go back to in order to gain maybe peace of mind and silence their mind to the point where they can compete and not have to worry about a lot of external factors that come into play.

Cain:  What your routine also does is it also gives them confidence.  Where does confidence come from in a game of failure?  In baseball, as a hitter if you succeed 70% of the time, you are pretty good.  In college, if 40% of the time you are having success, you’re real good.  I think where the routine comes into play is no matter if they’re 10-10 or 0-10, if they do their routine and it’s the same approach every single time, they’ll have the confidence that I know I’m doing the thing I work on every day and I’m giving myself the best chance for success.

Corbin:  I truly believe that, because there is a lot of – even though we’re playing at a high level of baseball here, there are some kids that are, I would say, highly skilled and then there are some kids that may not have those types of skills. They may not be the five-tool players but yet they are playing here.  I think those kids are playing here because they do have confidence.  I think when it gets right down to it any athlete – but in this particular venue here, the kids who play with the most confidence are the kids you are going to lean on and the kids you are going to lean on quite frankly at the end of the game when something is really important.

Cain:  We’ve spent some time talking about the concept of signal lights and how green lights are confident thoughts – guys are playing well, things are going your way, you’re getting the result, positive self-talk.  Yellow lights/red lights – something goes wrong and you start that negative spiral.  What we’re trying to do is develop that awareness both in staff and in player that when the garbage starts to hit the fan and things start to spiral a little bit out of control, the game starts to speed up, that they have something to go to; and that is routine, that is focal point, that is deep breath – all those things.

What are some things that you’ve seen in your guys that when they start getting yellow lights or red lights – what are some things that you are seeing them do to deal with those to get back to green?

Corbin:  The first thing I believe is from a hitting perspective.  Just the hitters taking a routine into the box.  For instance, going from the on-deck circle and timing the pitcher and kind of getting an idea of what he is going to be before they step in the box.  Stepping in the box and really focusing in on something, whether it be their bat, whether it be the dirt, whether it be some type of object in which they can slow down their mind just a little bit so they can start just evaluating the baseball and just attacking the ball.

I think after that – once the at-bat is over – the routines about going back into the dugout, putting your bat back, putting your helmet back, if you’ve had a bad at-bat being able to flush that both physically and mentally and then get back to what is important now – and that is either playing defense, rooting for a teammate, or getting your mind ready for the next at-bat.

From a pitching perspective it’s typically the same thing, just without a bat.  Pitchers being able to focus in on something, an object on the ground or in their glove or somewhere in their area, and then stepping on the rubber and again focusing in on what is important now at that moment, and that is delivering the pitch and the best pitch you possibly can.  They make a bad pitch or there are some external factors – whether it’s crowd noise, noise, umpires, a bad call – the ability just to turn that off, back off the mound, get all of the necessary evils that are in your mind out of the way, then approach the mound with a calmness about you and a piece of mind, step back on the rubber and you’re ready to go.

So much like the hitter flushing their bat away when they get into the dugout – the pitcher doing the same thing, but his way of flushing is stepping off the mound, getting rid of it, then getting back on the mound again to pitch.

Cain:  This comes right from my time with George Horton where he’s always saying “the game knows.”  The game of baseball knows.  He’ll say, “the game knows that if you bring negative energy or you bring self-doubt or previous pitches that you’re holding onto into the batter’s box or onto the pitcher’s mound, it’s like actually trying to throw two baseballs at once.”  One of the things we’ll do is take two baseballs and tape them together.  If you see that pitcher holding onto a pitch that an umpire made a bad call on or a guy made an error or whatever, you go out and you give him the two baseballs and you say “hey, try to throw this thing because that is what you are doing.”

What the concept of the game knows is it’s exactly what you’re talking about.  It’s okay to be negative.  For us to tell these guys, “hey, man, things aren’t going your way but just be positive all the time” – yeah, right.  It’s not that easy. But for a guy like David Price who we see throw on the inner squad’s scrimmage the other day, the umpire misses a pitch, what does Dave do?  He gets off the mound, turns his back to home plate, walks onto the green grass because he knows “I’ve got to get back to green lights, I don’t take negative energy onto the mound, that is my sacred place.” He looks at the 0 in the middle of the 400 sign, puts all the negative stuff in there; when he is done, he takes a good breath (that is his focal point) and turns back up and walks onto the mound, positive body language, getting ready to pound the zone.

I think if nothing else, it gives those kids something to go to when the wheels start to fall off, when the game starts to speed up.  In previous years when you’ve coached him, what have you seen guys do when the garbage starts to hit the fan or the game starts to speed up?  What do they normally do?

Corbin:  Well, it just multiplies and seems to get worse before it gets better.  I think as a coach you think that you’re doing things to help your kids get through that but inevitably we’re not always going in that direction.  We may be working against them actually when we’re trying to help them.  By that I mean you’re trying to settle them down or there is some movement out of the dugout that implies that you are getting another pitcher ready because they’re failing or so on.  I just think I draw back to what I said initially – it gives them coping mechanisms.

The other thing that you spoke about that relates to that is carrying the bricks.  When you carry extra bricks, not only maybe after practice or after a game, you can certainly carry those bricks during a game or during a moment as well and that is something – whether it’s two balls you’re thinking about, the last ball that you threw, that is just another brick that is on your mind.

I think relinquishing bricks – unloading them before you get back into the batter’s box, before you take a position to field the next ground ball, before you get back on the mound to throw your next pitch – those are the things that I’ve probably been yearning for as a coach to teach my kids but not knowing or not being able to apply my own methods to that.  I think that is the greatest benefit for these kids is to get that information and start to work with it and hopefully (well, it will) it will benefit their performance.

Cain:  Two more questions.  First one, talk about the terminology.  We’ve thrown around signal lights, we’ve thrown around bricks, we’ve thrown around focal points, routines.  What benefit is it to have (and whether it comes from the coach or it comes from a guy like myself who comes in and tries to lay that foundation, either way), what is the benefit of having that common terminology so that now a kid isn’t a mental midget – he is a guy that has no self-awareness of when he gets into yellow lights and the game speeds up and he has nothing to go to.  He is not aware of when the game speeds up.  So he can work on that.  What is the benefit or what have you seen with the players – since we’ve been doing this now for almost 10 days or so.  What are some of the benefits you’ve seen with that terminology?

Corbin:  The reason it works is because it’s not common terminology.  It’s not terminology that they’ve heard before and it’s not applied towards their practice or workouts.  When they hear it now, it applies to a vision that you’ve given them or they’ve seen and therefore they can put it back into play.

The relation would be terminology that we use in baseball.  For instance, for us the word “fire” means that a runner is taking off behind them.  So they react differently than just stepping off the rubber to check a runner.  Then they know that someone is running behind them so they have to act a little bit differently.  Your terminology is based towards the mental game, and because it’s not common and because I haven’t used it before, it applies to something that you’ve taught them that they can apply at that moment to what they are doing.  Like anything else, it’s new for them so they can use it and it’s worthy.

Cain:  Awesome.  Last question.  Of all the coaches listening to this interview, if you could remove their skullcap and plant one thought or one idea into their head to help them be a more successful coach, whether it’s a mental game or a practice organization (anything you want), what is the one idea that you would give to these coaches that if you knew they would take away and use they would be more successful?  What would it be?

Corbin:  Well, there is something that I am going to strive to do as a coach myself and it’s a never-ending battle, and I think a lot of coaches probably go through it – to what degree is all individualistic.  I think as being a head coach or a leader of any type of organization it’s important to know – and I think we all do know – that your players will take on the personality of a coach.  Thus, if your personality is calm or Type A (for instance), they will in turn start to take that on.  I think what I’ve wanted to do as a coach, and am still learning to do and will continue to do, is try not to bring my feelings of pressure (whether they’re physical or verbal) into the team because I don’t need for my team to know the burden of anything that I am thinking about.

I think a lot of it is play-acting.  I think you’ve got to act a lot as a coach.  Sometimes when you’re feeling bad, you’ve got to put on the show as if everything is okay and you’re fine.  And vice-versa too.  You can’t get so happy that you go above the other line there where the kids sense that and they say, “wow, we can tell when he is really over the top and we can tell when he is really underneath.”  You need to ride a line that is somewhat even.

In saying that, you can’t be fake either.  You can name John Wooden, Bill Parcells, Bobby Knight, Pete Carroll – they all have different personalities, and what makes them special is they kind of stick to their personality and adjust it certain times for their kids.  I think we’re in a time where you have to adjust to your kids because it’s a lot different than it was 10-20 years ago.  How you approach these kids I think in order to be successful depends upon a lot of your mood and the energy that you give them.

Cain:  I think there are a couple things you said there that I want to make sure people understand.  You mentioned how the team will take on the personality of the leader or of the head coach.  I say red lights and green lights are contagious.  Whatever you’re feeling – if it’s a big game and you’re a little tight, the team is going to follow.  If it’s a big game and you can treat it, hey man, it’s the same game we’ve played the whole year.  It’s the same 2×4.  Let’s go out and do what we do and play Commodore baseball and let’s see what happens.  We’re not changing anything.  They’ll buy into that same mentality.

So red lights and green lights are contagious but then also fake it, act, it’s play-acting.  I use the acronym ACE – acting changes everything.  If you don’t feel good, you go out and you fake it.  It’s Kevin Costner when he talked about it in that video clip of, as an actor you have to have a technique that you use because you’re not always going to feel good. You’re not always going to feel great but if you fake it, sooner or later, about two innings into the game you start to feel good.  Or for Costner as an actor, about 10-20 minutes into the acting you pick it up, you find it.  If you have that thing to go to, if you have that technique you can use, you’re going to be able to turn that negative performance around and find a lot more success, I think.

Coach Corbin, thanks for your time.  I appreciate it.  Good stuff.  I look forward to working with you.

Corbin:  Thanks, Brian.