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Matt Carpenter is a 2X Major League All-Star (2013 & 2014) a World Series Champion (2011) and a Master of The Mental Game. In this podcast, Carp breaks down his mental approach to the game and how ONE DECISION that he had at TCU changed his life and his career for ever.
I started to work with Carp when he was a sophomore at TCU in April of 2006 and would have told you that you were crazy if you said he was going to have the success in baseball that he is having. He tells you in his own words… HOW he made the HUGE jump from where he was to where he is now and what he does on a consistent basis to make sure that he stays as sharp mentally as he plays physically.
Follow Matt Carpenter on Twitter.
Follow Brian Cain on Twitter.
[Welcome to the Brian Cain Peak Performance Podcast. On each and every episode Brian talks with coaches, athletes, and performers in all arenas who are putting into practice the principles of Peak Performance that will help you close the gap from where you are to where you want to be to help you become a master of the Mental Game and to help you start Dominating The Day.]
Cain: Hey this is Brian Cain, your mental conditioning coach. Today we’ve got Matt Carpenter from the St. Louis Cardinals joining us today. You probably remember Matt as a player who hit a Game 3 Home Run in the NLCS in 2012. I got the chance to work with Matt (I think) his freshman year at TCU and have followed his career all the way now up to the big leagues with the St. Louis Cardinals. He is a guy who made a decision to turn his career around and has reaped the benefit of that – so did the Frog Nation as he was one of the top TCU players of all time. He is a graduate of Elkins High School in Texas. Carp, I appreciate you taking time out of your busy schedule and training to join us today.
Carpenter: You bet. I appreciate you having me on and giving me the chance to talk a little bit about some of the techniques that I’ve learned over the years that have helped me become the player that I am today.
Cain: I appreciate it. If you could just start by giving the people listening to this and reading this a background from your time at Elkins up to where you are now with the St. Louis Cardinals and kind of give that capsule of your career.
Carpenter: Yeah. I played high school baseball down in Texas at Elkins High School (like you mentioned) for my dad actually who was my high school baseball coach. I was always a baseball guru; a guy who just lived, breathed, and slept the game. It was something I was always thinking about, always trying to get to this point being a professional major leaguer. As far as baseball goes I felt like I had a pretty good grasp of that. I was a guy who was pretty much a student of the game and just kind of grew up around the ballpark.
I had a good high school career and was a highly recruited player. I ended up choosing TCU as my college of choice where I wanted to go. When I got to college I kind of had a rude awakening. I was brought into the environment where now you are not longer the best player on the team. You’ve got guys who are the best players on every team they’ve ever played for all in one place. I kind of got lost in the shuffle as a younger player for many reasons but mainly just because I really hadn’t learned the techniques and extra disciplines that it takes to succeed at the highest level.
It took an injury. It took an eye opening experience for me as a junior to redevelop myself as both a player and a person and start putting those little daily disciplines and the mental game and all the things that you teach and the things that I’ve learned over the course of my career into work. From that point it kind of jumpstarted me into where I am today now – a professional athlete and Major League Baseball player with the St. Louis Cardinals.
Cain: Carp, you talked about that junior year and kind of the eye opening experience. I remember coming back to TCU in the fall – like I had done your freshman year when I met you and your sophomore year – and coming back in your junior year and literally did not recognize you physically. You still had a lot of energy and it seemed like you had changed yourself a little bit. Talk about that eye opening experience and that decision that you made.
Carpenter: That is the thing. I was always a guy that when I was at the field I worked. Even when you first came to teach me my freshman year I was a guy who always listened to what was being taught and I was the guy that really wanted to be good and really wanted to be great but wasn’t doing the things necessary to be great. When I was at the field or practicing or whatever the case may be I was getting after it. But I never went that extra step and I never took it to myself to really push myself to be as good as I could possibly be.
That is the kind of experience for me was that my junior year – my first year to be eligible for the Major League Baseball draft – I had Tommy John that season. I took a medical redshirt and ended up having surgery. I watched guys that I had come to TCU with and were in the same class as me getting drafted and going on to play professional baseball. This was the same dream that I had as a high school player and the same thought that I had when I first signed to TCU was “I’m going to be here for three years then I’ll be off going to do my pro thing and next thing you know I’ll be in the big leagues.” When this kind of plan was interrupted with this injury it opened my eyes. I was like “man I’ve got to make some changes.”
(Like you said) I know a lot of guys didn’t recognize me after that next year. I ended up changing myself to not only on the baseball field but also in other areas of my life. My nutrition. I lost close to 50 pounds. I really dedicated myself into the weight room. Almost a full makeover as a person. It definitely was one of those things that has jumpstarted me and propelled me into the position that I am in today.
Cain: In your TCU career you came back for that red shirt Junior year that Senior year and led TCU to their super regional at the University of Texas. Carp, talk a little bit about now that you’ve had a chance to be in the big leagues, be in a post-season in the big leagues and have played in a super regional and post-season in college, talk about just the importance of college baseball. Now that you’ve been at the highest level how special is college baseball? Now that you can speak from a standpoint that you have been at the pinnacle, you have been in the Major League Baseball Playoffs, how has that changed your perspective on college baseball? What was that whole experience like for you?
Carpenter: When you spend half a decade (like I did) in college I mean I can be a little more biased than most people. I absolutely without a doubt am an advocate of college baseball. If you’re a guy that’s in high school, you’re borderline possibly a major league draft guy and you’re thinking about whether or not you want to go to college or you want to sign professionally, I think it’s a no brainer.
The college baseball experience is something that not only developed me as a player but it developed me as a person, as a husband, and the man I am today. The life lessons that I was taught as a college baseball player were second to none. I would never take back that opportunity to gain those experiences that I had in college. I think it’s so critical and so valuable to becoming the player that you want to be or the person that you want to be.
I see it all the time going up through the minor leagues; those kinds of high school players, they’re just missing – not to take anything away from them because it’s not like they are bad players. There are plenty of people who have gone on to be successful without going to college. But they’re just missing that life experience that you get while you’re in college and being part of a college baseball program. There are so many things. I could go on the list as long as I could think of of the things that I’ve gotten to experience while in there – to have an opportunity to work with and meet you. The other relationships that I feel being a college baseball player – I just wouldn’t take those back. Even the struggles that I had my first couple of years.
I actually had dinner with my head college coach – Jim Schlossnagle – about two weekends ago and he asked me that question. Knowing what I know now if I could have gone back to my freshman year and do it all over again and make some better decisions would I do it. I thought about it. This is a question I’ve thought about many times. I don’t think I would. I think the struggles and the things that I went through in my first couple years there and the changes that I ended up having to make, I think that I wouldn’t be in the same position I am today if I wouldn’t have gotten to go through those and learn from them and experience from them.
I’m a big college guy. My nickname among my professional teammates is “The College Hero,” “Manny College.” They always give me a hard time about that. I couldn’t say enough good things about it.
Cain: That’s outstanding. I think playing with that type of energy that you do and playing the game the way that you played at TCU with that relentless energy pitch-to-pitch I’ve got to imagine that’s part of what has also helped you succeed as a pro baseball player and make it to the big leagues.
Carpenter: There is no question. As a minor league player I really think – I mean obviously you’ve got to play well to make it to the big leagues or to advance in the minor league system. But I’ll tell you what, if there was one thing that I could say that separated me from the other guys that I was competing against it was (like you said) that energy. Just that will to win. That work ethic. Those things that are absolute necessities (I think) in the college level to even be a part of the team.
I could think of the things at TCU, the kind of core values our program was built around, it was attitude and effort. The two things that he used to always say that he wouldn’t coach was our attitude and effort. It was hilarious to me because when I got to pro ball those two things were things that I didn’t even have to think about to do and yet those were the two things that separated me the most from other guys. It was just funny to me because I didn’t even think about that. That was just the way I was. That was just the way I was taught, what college baseball had instilled in me and what kind of player I was. I was gaining so much attention and really separating myself so far from other guys just by the things that I didn’t even think about doing. It didn’t even seem like it was a big deal to me because that was just the way I was in handling that.
Cain: I think that is a tribute to your development and also to the staff at TCU. When you were there you played for three guys that are now head coaches in big time programs – with Coach Schlossnagle staying at TCU and he is actually the 2013 Team USA National Coach, and Todd Whitting who is now the head coach at the University of Houston, and Randy Mazey who is now the head coach at West Virginia – so you played for three guys that are the cream of the crop in college baseball.
For the coaches listening to this, Carp, what do you think are some of the things that those three guys did as coaches that made them so successful, that made you guys as a program so successful, and also helped attribute to that mentality that you’ve been talking about?
Carpenter: Obviously (like you said) those three guys I got to play for in college were second to none between Randy Mazey and Todd Whitting and Jim Schlossnagle, all college coaches (like you mentioned). The thing that they did so well – and Coach Schlossnagle kind of more than any of them really – is the fact that there was nothing they wouldn’t do to get better. Meaning (for example) having you come out and speak to us. Doing that extra step to hire a mental coach. These are things that not every program is willing to do. When I was at TCU there was nothing that they weren’t willing to do to make us better. If there was anything that they thought would make us – even if it was just a little bit better, even if they thought we might just gain a little bit of knowledge by doing whatever it was that they thought about doing, they were willing to take that risk or that investment. Whatever you want to call it they were willing to do that.
Coach Schlossnagle set the tone for that program while I was there that it was we we’re going to get after it every day and we’re going to come to the park with the mentality of “we’ve got this time to get better right now, let’s make the most of it.” I have never been around a guy who literally when you are around him – you’ve got to be around him to realize it but when you’re around this guy everything he does is centered around being a better coach, being a better program, building a better program, making his team better, making his players around him better. His big recruiting tactic was “I know how (inaudible) plays off, this is what I do, baseball, this program is what I do.” I don’t think he could have said that any better because it’s the honest fact. You know as well as I do being around him that is really how the guy thinks.
Being around that for five years and being at the program those kinds of personalities will kind of rub off on you and you start to inherit those feelings yourself. You put them into your own style and you kind of transport and build out your own way. You learn and you become kind of like him. That is the way that I have been. I have kind of taken on that same kind of mentality and it has benefitted me in the long run.
Cain: That’s awesome. Carp, let’s shift gears here a little bit from talking baseball and program development and just talk specifically on the mental game. If I were to ask you “what is the mental game to Matt Carpenter” what would you talk about?
Carpenter: It’s funny. I think my answer now would be different than when I first got introduced to the mental game. The first time I had really ever heard anything about it was when you first came to TCU and started working with us.
For me it’s amazing when you get to this point that I’ve gotten in my career it just hits you like a ton of bricks. You just realize that your biggest enemy, the person you battle the most in baseball, is yourself. Especially when you get at this level. Everybody in this game is good at what they do when you get into professional and college baseball. What separates the guys from being good and being great, separates a minor leaguer from a big leaguer or even a college baseball player from a professional baseball player, there is no question in my mind that it’s the mental game.
It’s funny. Looking back at guys that I played with in college there is no doubt they were better baseball players than me – they’ll admit it and I’ll admit it – but the reason that I’m still playing as opposed to them still playing is I felt like I had a better grasp of the mental game than they did. There is no doubt in my mind that that is the biggest part of succeeding at a high level is being able to separate all the negative thinking. You talk about the red lights and all the things that get in a player’s way from being great. If you can get a grasp for that and start to learn from it and develop the techniques to control your mind while you’re playing this game you are going to give yourself the best chance at being successful.
Cain: Carp, you talked about how your biggest opponent is yourself and that negative thinking and red light mentality. For the people who are uninitiated into the mental game, what do you mean by “red lights?”
Carpenter: That is one of the techniques that we learned from you while I was at TCU. That red light is just a symbol for when you are starting – not even really when you are starting. The yellow light is what you would be like when you are starting to kind of feel like you are getting in your own way whether you just made an error and you’re starting to think about it and your mind is racing, “I don’t want to be the next hitter.” When you get to that red light/yellow light mentality you are starting to have that negative mind, not letting that negative thought process kind of get in your way of being successful. Obviously a green light would be when you are feeling at your best.
When there is nothing – whether you are not thinking or whether you’re thinking nothing but positive, whatever kind of mindset you have, whatever it is that is positive and you are thinking “I’m going to make this play” or “get this guy,” “throw this pitch,” “I’m going to drive it here,” these thoughts are always going through your head. When you are in that yellow and red light mentality that is when that negative thinking is creeping in. You hit air or you struck out. “I don’t want to strike out again I’ve already struck out once” or “this is the biggest game of my life, I’m in the playoffs at Game 3 of the NLCS and there are so many people watching, I hope I don’t make a mistake on national TV.” Those are the kinds of thoughts that you want to stay away from and that is what I mean by that red light mentality.
Cain: I think those thoughts are always going to come, Carp. You played in Game 3 of the NLCS. You played in front of the biggest crowds you possibly can in the Major League Baseball Playoffs. Is it just that those thoughts don’t show up at all or do those thoughts show up and you’re able to recognize them and release them before those yellow lights turn into red lights?
Carpenter: No doubt. That is something that takes practice. Obviously the work that we put in in college working with you, these are techniques that we learned, releasing those mental bricks and being able to recognize when you are starting to think like that and how to get yourself out of it.
Everybody’s ways are different and everybody kind of has their own style on how they do that. We talked about that focal point. Some hitters have those batting gloves and that can be their focal point. I’m a guy who actually doesn’t use batting gloves so I had to do something different to regain my focus. When I start to feel like I’m getting in that kind of mentality where my mind is racing and I’m thinking negative that is where I really try to control my breathing.
One of the things that I learned early on in my career is that a good breath is a very vital tool in slowing the game down. We talk about slowing the game down. I think that is a huge part about baseball. I know you talk a lot about that. That is really the key to this game is being able to slow it down when things speed up. I think the deep cleansing release of that kind of nervous energy is a big thing. I try to visualize as I’m taking my big breath that I am inhaling (obviously) oxygen and then when I release I am releasing (literally) all those butterflies or whatever I’m feeling. That kind of nervous butterflies feeling, I am just releasing it out of my mouth. I visualize it come pouring out as I take my exhale. That is something that really calms me down and puts me back in that mindset I need to be in.
I talked earlier about that focal point. For me it’s always been down at my cleats. I know that that is my spot where I can kind of take back, regroup, look down at my cleats and realize “okay time to go, just get back in that good spot, let’s get back in that good frame of mind and let’s get back to focusing on the thing I can control and not the things I can’t control.”
Cain: Awesome, Carp. Great stuff. So when we watch you hit on TV and your head is down you are not looking at the corner of the plate. You are looking at your shoe?
Cain: And that is a focal point for you that if you can see your shoe that says you’re in the present moment and you’re playing one pitch at a time.
Carpenter: Exactly right.
Cain: Carp, we talk about the three P’s – living in the present (playing one pitch at a time), controlling the process and controlling what you can control, and then staying positive. You’ve addressed all those so far. Talk a little bit specifically about playing one pitch at a time and what that means to you.
Carpenter: Playing one pitch at a time is being focused exactly on what is going on right now. I think if you’re thinking about your previous at-bat or the error that you made in the first inning you are not focused on what is happening right now. You are going to be either a step late on a ground ball hit to your left, you’re going to be in the wrong position on the double play, you are going to not cover the act that you’re supposed to be covering. Whatever the case may be you are going to be off because you are not focused on what you need to be focused on at this present moment.
That was something (especially as a young player) I just really had no grasp on. I think a lot of guys go through that. I think understanding why that happens is one of the key reasons of how you can fix it. Everybody goes through it. You just want to be the best player you can possibly be so you’re constantly thinking about what you’re doing, your last at-bat and how you could have made it better – at least that is the way I was. If I went up there my first at-bat and I struck out or I took a pitch I shouldn’t have (whatever the case may be) I just start really thinking about that at-bat. “Why did I do that? How can I fix it?” It’s just in my mind. I’m thinking that that is the way I should be thinking because I want to try to improve but the reality is I’m getting in my own way and it’s only going to make this game go on even worse than it started if I continue to think like that.
That is something I had to learn is that as soon as this at-bat is over it’s over with. You’ve got to flush it. You talked about flushing it, using that mental imagery of actually flushing that toilet and saying “okay now that that’s over I’m just going to flush it and not even think about it anymore and go on to the next at-bat or the next pitch or go play defense” – whatever it is that is going on. I just think that is so important in this game.
Like I mentioned earlier you get in your own way. Your biggest enemy sometimes can be yourself. If you get to the point where you can control that you are going to give yourself the best chance to be successful. So (like I said) I’m always focused on this pitch. I can’t change the pitch before. If I made an error in a pitch before it’s over with. I can’t change it. I’ve got to be focused on this next pitch. If I’m locked in for an entire game on one pitch at a time, each pitch is its own pitch and I’m focused on that one, then I am going to give myself the best chance to be good and be successful for that game.
Cain: Outstanding. Carp, you’ve mentioned a lot just being able to control what you can control. There are so many factors in this game of baseball that you can’t control. Talk a little bit about that and what you’ve seen being at the professional level now where guys are getting caught on organizational moves or things that are outside of their control or whether they’re in the lineup. Talk a little bit about that – controlling what you can control.
Carpenter: I’m a big believer in this. For the first time in my career this year this part of my mental game was something that I had to use more this year than I’ve ever had in my life. For the first time in my life I was really a bit player (for lack of a better word). A utility player. A guy that no matter how well I did I could go to the park one day and just start in left field and go 4 for 4 with two homeruns and five RBIs. I could come back the very next day and not be in the lineup.
For me this was really hard from a mental standpoint because you want to play so bad and you feel like you are deserving to play and you want to be in there but yet as well as you do you have no control over writing the lineup. The only thing that I could do was come to the park every day ready to play. Be focused on being ready to play. If I was in the lineup then I could go out and give it my best effort.
Early on in the season I was letting this get to me and it was causing me a lot of stress and it was really affecting my play when I did get my opportunities to get in there. When I finally realized it I didn’t let it last long. Thankfully because of the work that I’ve done with the mental game and the techniques that I’ve gotten and the things that I’ve learned I addressed it early and finished the season using these techniques and did a great job with it. It ended up being really almost a streak of mine.
I just had to really get back to the basics and realize I can’t control what this lineup is going to be. I can’t control if I’m going to be in there. All I can control is when I’m in there that I am going to play it one pitch at a time, that I’m going to give it my best effort, that I am going to work as hard as I can. Those are the things that I can control.
To go one step further that goes for everything. Even if you are in there every day. You can’t control what the strike zone is going to be like. You can’t control the weather. You can’t control whether a family member just recently got sick, whether you had a flat tire on the way to the park – whatever it is. There are things that you just can’t control and they can either have an impact on the way you are thinking that day or they can’t. If you can focus on the things that you can control – which are your effort, your attitude, your focus, those kinds of things – then you are going to be in the best mind frame for that day, for that game, for that season.
Cain: Awesome. Carp, there are a lot of players that will be listening to this – college baseball players, maybe some guys in the minor leagues that probably coming into the interview were going “nah, mental game, I don’t know what that is, I’m not sure I buy in.” Obviously you have been doing it for a long time. How long was it until you realized “this is something that is going to make a difference for me?” Was it your freshman year? Or was it something that kind of took some time?
Carpenter: That is the thing is I think my freshman and sophomore year I was hearing everything that was being said and I don’t think I actually listened until my junior year. What I mean by that is I always was in the meetings, fired up, ready to learn. The reason I say “hearing” is because as soon as it was over did I really buy in? I would like to say yes but I didn’t get the results that I could have been getting if I really truly was bought in. Then my junior year came and it was just on another level. That is when I really bought into what I was doing, when I really put in those things, that work, those techniques, the mental game on a daily basis – not just at the field, not just in a game, but just in life. Everything that I did in the weight room and the way I ate, my nutrition, in the classroom.
That is the thing that I really think people don’t always understand is the mental game – of course it’s a baseball thing but you can take these same principles and apply them to all facets of your life. That was something that I did. That is something that helped me not only as a baseball player but as a person.
Think about it. That’s life. You can’t control things in this life. There are only certain things you can control. If you can do those to the best of your abilities – no matter what it is – then that is the recipe for being successful at anything, not just baseball.
I think that was for me that junior year that kind of life changing sad reality that I had to go through, that horrible injury and sitting out that time of year and just watching people grow up in front of me and leave and go on to play professional baseball. That was the moment for me where I was like “okay I need to really buy into this” and I did. I couldn’t be happier for that.
Cain: Carp, last question for you. If you could remove the skullcap of all the college baseball players and the people out there that have maybe been in your shoes where they were freshmen or sophomore or they’re in high school and they hear the mental game and they’re listening but they’re not hearing (I think is the way you said it) what would be the final thought? That seed that if you could remove their skullcap and plant one seed in their brain what would that seed be? What would that final thought be that you’d want to leave them with?
Carpenter: If I had a room full of freshman college players – and really it doesn’t matter what age because obviously I learned it at a later age but obviously the quicker you learn it the better. You’re only going to be as good of a baseball player as your physical gift can only take you so far. As good as you are physically made to play this game that is as good as you’re going to be. But if you want to take it to the extra level, if you want to be an overachiever, if you want to be better than the guys that you played with, if you want to be that guy that people are like “how did this guy make it, I was a better player than he was,” then the mental game is something you’ve got to buy into. I am the living example of that.
I mentioned it earlier there are plenty of guys that I played with growing up, there were plenty of guys I played with at TCU, there were plenty of guys I played with all over my career that are better baseball players than I am. But I reached a higher level than they did because of the mental game, because I bought into it, because I practiced what we learned from you, because I put it in on a daily basis.
If you really want to buy into that, if you really want to do those things, then you’ll do the same. But if you don’t – you just don’t believe it or whatever the case may be – maybe you’ll get lucky and you’ll have that eye opening experience I did and get hurt and you’ll get to see it. Maybe that will change you. If not then you’ll have to learn some other way. But for the guys that want to do it they’ll reap those benefits.
Cain: Awesome. Carp, I appreciate you taking the time out of your busy schedule to do this interview. For all the people that will be listening to this what is your Twitter handle? I’m sure there is going to be a heck of alot of Matt Carpenter fans out there. If not already, definitely after they’ve heard this.
Carpenter: I appreciate you having me on. Anytime. I’m never too busy to come on here and talk a little bit with you. My Twitter handle is @MattCarp13.
Cain: We’ll make sure we get that out. Carp, again I want to thank you. I appreciate you coming on and I’m just proud of you and your development as a man and your development as a baseball player and how you have just gotten the most out of your potential and gotten the most out of your ability. I am happy to see the success that you are having.