An Interview on Mental Performance with D1 College Baseball Standout- Derek Bender
A great part of mental performance work is the ability to create and maintain deep connections with high performing people. Derek Bender, now a Sophomore at Coastal Carolina University, is certainly a high performing athlete, and one that I have developed a great relationship with in the last several years. Derek plays baseball for CCU and is currently one of the top hitters in the nation. As I write this he is #4 in the country in RBI’s per game. He also leads his team in homeruns and is second on the team with hits and batting average.
I’ve had the pleasure of having many conversations with Derek, starting in 11th grade where he attended The Albany Academies, a private school in upstate NY. Derek then moved to finish high school in South Carolina before heading to CCU to start his college career. Some of our conversations, especially the earlier ones, I would get to share with him my expertise in sport psychology; but as time went on, I got to learn from him and his process. Now, he has become one of the top hitters in the country, and has great wisdom to share on the process that has got him there.
I recently sat down and recorded one of our conversations so that you all could reap the benefit from his expertise in mental performance, and how he applies these skills to both baseball and life. His process is extraordinary and is exactly the wisdom that should be applied if we want to be consistent in what we do. Consistent, I said. Not perfect.
Hope you enjoy it!
Interview with Derek Bender
PC: Derek, so good to be with you today! Thanks for letting me record our conversation. Tell me about the change from last year where you were not getting a lot of time and at bats to this year where you are leading in all of these hitting statistics.
DB: It sucks not to play, and when I did play, I didn't do well… I never felt like I belonged there. Now I have the confidence in myself and a reliance on the preparation. That was never there. I was just happy being there and trying to find my way. Now I try to have the mindset that it is the last pitch or game I ever have. This gives me the most amount of confidence. It doesn't always guarantee success, but it puts me in a better frame of mind where I can have no regrets.
PC: I love that… It sounds like with this approach you are really trying to take the focus off of the outcomes. In the game of baseball, you are not always successful.
DB: Yes, exactly. It's likely not just a baseball thing, but being able to deal with things that you cannot control is the entirety of where I'm coming from in my approach. I have certainly dealt with some personal stuff but if I stick with the process, it makes life and baseball so much more enjoyable.
PC: How do you battle the fact that things don't always go your way and that you do fail sometimes?
DB: You have to fail. You have to fail a lot. Failing is a part of it. The failure makes it better when you succeed. I prepared, I executed and I succeeded. That is so fulfilling. How do I do it again?!
That's where the work comes in. I planned, I prepared, I executed. It’s so addicting. It can be so fulfilling to know that you have done the swings, done the technical and tactical pieces. You have done the mental exercises. You’ve scouted the pitcher. And then you get in the game and you execute. It’s so fun to do that. Of course there are times when I don't execute. I knew exactly what the pitcher was going to do, but I didn't execute. Those days after are also fun because I can let it go and just execute the process on the next day. Take 500 swings working on what I need to work on. The game tells you what you need to work on. Even if you are perfect the day before, there are always things to work on.
PC: Tell me how work ethic relates to your life?
DB: Working hard is my life. Baseball and the work I put into it is my livelihood. What I have always done. I try to not let anything get in between me and my training. I do sometimes go through patches where I'm not working hard, but I realize quickly that it's happening and I get back on track. If I go to bed at night and I havent put in 2 rounds of swings or haven't worked out, I can barely sleep. I feel regret. If I can look back at my career and know that I didn't have any regrets, I would be satisfied with it. There is no way a baseball player is going to bat a 1,000. We cannot be perfect. We are not going to execute all of the time. But I would be way more mad at myself if I didn't prepare or work to my fullest.
PC: Yes, that’s a mindset that you have always had. Seems like it has been ingrained in you. Where did that come from?
DB: It came from my hitting coach. Most of what I have is gifted through him. Almost everything when it comes to playing the game came from him.
PC: Want to give him a shout-out!?
DB: For sure! Dan Sausville- Albany NY.
PC: So there is all of this preparation you go through. You work very hard. You realize you are not going to be a perfect batter but of course this idea of execution is what every player wants. So how do you create more consistency with your execution at the plate?
DB: A few things… I'm a huge thinker when it comes to the game. One thing is that I rely on any information I can get on the pitcher. Does his ball move? Does it sink or rise or cut, or what is his speed difference? There is a lot of stuff that we get that may not be perfect or the info is off so I really take it upon myself to do my own analysis.
I also rely on a self-talk statement. I shorten it up to 3 small segments. Like, “get out over the plate,” or “back corner of the plate,” or “ball under,” or “1 ball above.” It is little things like that. My self-talk is on the process and it is critical to what I do. And then I go up there with the most confidence ever.
PC: How do you go up with the most confidence ever?
DB: I know that I'm talented and I'm prepared. I will not always get a hit, but I know I can execute my plan, and by doing that I will be successful.
PC: Sounds like 2 things there: An insane amount of preparation, but also a belief in yourself that you will be able to handle anything you see. It must be hard though that you can maintain the belief that you can handle anything you see when the game of baseball has so much failure?
DB: I know that if I lose that confidence and I start having self-doubt, everything goes downhill. I rely on the process though. Am I executing my plan and am I prepared enough? If the answer is yes, there is no way that I should have doubt in who I am as a player.
PC: Yes, that's the wisdom. If you start to have doubts, come back to process, and have a mindset that you have prepared. That you have done it before and there is no reason you can't do it again. Tell me what self-doubt does to the swing?
DB: It slows it down. Makes you more defensive. You pick up too early or too late. Mound presence and box presence is such a big thing. You need to appear bigger and taller than you are. When guys don't have that, they’re up and down in a few pitches. They are not confident in themselves, not locked in. Even If I am 0 for 4, I go out extremely confident and lay myself out.
PC: Are there any mental skills that you have found helpful to you, to manage your mind? A skill that calms down the body and mind or something that gets you more energized and focused?
DB: A big thing that I do is visualize myself coming up to the box with runners on base. Succeeding with runners in scoring position. That is very helpful.
Another thing has been the skill of stepping back and dissociating. It is a skill I learned from the book “The Overthinking Cure.” Anxiety and stress and the other feelings that go along with intrusive thoughts is all from being so attached to those thoughts, from personalizing ourselves to them. Just step back and take yourself out of it and reflect. Do I have any reason to be mad or to be stressed? Should I be getting upset about this? As a thinker, being able to step back and rationally think about the problem, I find that I really don't have a reason to be upset about most of the things that happen in my life.
PC: Some players like to use self-talk statements that help give them confidence, I call “Hype Thoughts” like “you got this” or “you can do this, you’ve done it before.” Do you use anything like that to keep motivated and confident?
DB: Not really. My brain is wired for practical and process, not personal. I think of the brain like a computer. In sport mode, it needs to run at its most efficient and highest level. I plug in the software. I run the updates. And when it’s time to go, it just runs the program. All of the work I put in and the focus I put in on the process is meant so that my program runs as smoothly and efficiently as possible. For me, hype thoughts get in the way of that. It creates a buffer between my internal cue and my swing. A hype thought like “I'm going to hit this ball so far, Let’s Go! Let's go!” gets my swing long and slow and I miss it, where a process thought makes my swing quick. Less is more.
PC: Great! Love that. So you have a game tonight against James Madison. What is your process for the next 6 hours before gametime?
DB: After the call, I will go look through videos of the pitcher and get the scouting report on him. We have a pool workout too. On my own, I'll likely listen to some music, go for a nice walk. I have found that for me, superstitions and strict routines create anxiety for me. Although I do have some things that I like to do, like showering before I put on my uniform, it’s a want, not a need. At this point, I'm in an experimental phase where I'm seeing what works, but I do not like getting locked down to a routine.
PC: Hey, I wanted to turn it over to you. As far as the mental piece of sport, what is something you want to relay to people that is important to you?
DB: Yes, the biggest thing I want to stress is that just because you do it all, you work on every piece of your game: the physical, technical, tactical, and mental, you could still end up failing or not achieve all that you want. It is not all about success, it is about doing what you do that allows you to feel good about who you are. To look at yourself in the mirror and be able to accept what you have done and that you have done all you can to be the best that you can be. At the end of the day, that is what it is all about!
So there you have it! Great wisdom from one of the top hitters in college baseball right now. I have no doubt that we will all be hearing a lot more about Derek Bender in the years to come.
Thanks for reading!
Powell Cucchiella, LMHC