Mind Over Batter
By Susie Magill
Cat Osterman had Callista Balko’s number: nine to be exact. Balko had been 0-9 in her previous career at-bats—nine straight Ks—when facing Texas’ three time national softball player of the year.
“She threw my weakness—a drop ball,” said Balko, a junior at the University of Arizona. “I was trying to adjust anything to hit off that girl. I don’t think I even fouled off a pitch during those nine at bats. It was a frustrating time.”
No one, especially Balko, was surprised when Osterman walked Kristie Fox, Arizona’s best hitter, to face Balko in the bottom of the sixth inning during Game 5 of the 2006 NCAA Women’s College World Series.
“Who wouldn’t do that?” asked Balko in the Arizona Daily Star. “As a catcher, I was thinking the same thing: They’re dumb if they don’t.”
Readying herself in the batters’ box, Balko had nothing to lose. With Osterman working on a no-hitter, she figured she might as well give it a shot and swing. She choked up on the bat and settled into her stance, like every time before, but this time something was distinctly different. Balko was at ease, relaxed even. The score was tied 0-0, with runners on first and second (the first runner reached after being hit by a pitch). Anyone in her position probably should have felt immense pressure. But not Balko. She had envisioned herself in this exact situation every day for the past six months.
“No one in their right mind should have been confident at that point. She had no history of success [against Osterman], but her brain, the subconscious, didn’t differentiate reality from fantasy.”
The first pitch was thrown—strike one. Two more and Balko would be carrying an 0-10 record. The second pitch came, but this time Balko turned, made contact and sent the ball sailing between third and short, giving the Wildcats their first hit and run of the game. Arizona scored off a double steal during the next at-bat and defeated the Longhorns 2-0 for their first win over UT since 2002. Arizona moved on in the series and eventually claimed their seventh national championship.
“The funny thing is, nothing was going through my mind when I stepped up to the plate,” explained Balko. “When I was trying to hit off of Cat before, I was constantly thinking about my mechanics, making sure I was swinging with an undercut. And when you think, that’s when you go wrong.
“I didn’t even think about how many times I had visualized this hit until I was on first base. I was almost in tears. I felt such a sense of accomplishment because I had worked through it mentally so many times.”
What Balko had accomplished was successfully training her mind. She allowed herself to focus only on the positive, specifically when it came to her thoughts of hitting against Osterman.
“You can’t think defensive thoughts; you have to be aggressive and positive,” said Christian performance coach Jim Murphy, who worked with Balko before the season to help her hitting. “[During Game 5], Callista had all those positive thoughts, and to most, that was illogical. How could she think that? No one in their right mind should have been confident at that point. She had no history of success [against Osterman], but her brain, the subconscious, didn’t differentiate reality from fantasy. It only tried to manifest what she believed.”
Balko didn’t just limit her negative thoughts. She chose three specific goals to achieve during the season: to be an All-American, the team’s MVP and to have the game-winning hit during the College World Series against the country’s best pitcher.
The first two goals depended solely on Balko’s performance, but there was more to consider with the third. Arizona had to make it to the series and then face off against UT’s Osterman (who holds the NCAA record for most strike-outs) with Balko in a position to bring home the winning run. But Balko didn’t waste time on what “might” be. She clearly envisioned what she felt “would” be.
Every night of the 2006 season she pictured herself in the batter’s box, squaring off against the Texas lefty and hitting her drop ball for the win. No wonder she beamed with confidence when her reality and imagination collided. She had crushed that hit a hundred times in her mind, causing her brain to become comfortable with the thought of a would-be tense situation.
Bats: Right Throws: Right
Quick Stats: Started all 65 games in 2006, catching every pitch of every inning; Helped Arizona to a 2006 College Wolrd Series Championship.
“When you come up to any situation in life, you will go back through your mental files, and the subconscious will remember everything that has ever happened to you, especially those times that have high emotions,” explained Murphy. “So, even though this particular situation had never happened to Callista in real life, it had in her mind. There was nothing else for reality to compare to than what she had seen in her mind.”
But Balko wasn’t just playing mind games. There was a spiritual side to her preparation. She began to refocus her relationship with Christ.
“There are only so many times you can go 0-20*; I couldn’t do this by myself,” said Balko. “And when I would start to think about the negative, I would just pray.”
As Paul stated in 2 Corinthians 10:5 (NIV), Christians are to "demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God.” He further stated that we must “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.”
The challenge of taking thoughts captive “is a very active process,” said Dr. Julie Bell, a Dallas-based sports psychologist and FCA supporter. “We are to be thoughtful about what we think, making sure it lines up with Scripture. Whatever is true, lovely, noble**—all those things—think on them.”
Murphy agreed that, if anyone wants to perform better, whether at work or in the gym, he or she will benefit from a spiritual basis because the perspective that a relationship with Christ brings is irreplaceable.
“It doesn’t matter what happens to you,” said Murphy. “What matters is what you think about what happens to you. As Christians, we believe that God is in control and everything happens for a reason.”
This dependence on God, blended with tightly reined thoughts, awarded Balko two of her season goals: helping her team capture an NCAA championship and being named the Wildcats’ MVP. But Murphy warns to continually remain cautious of our emotions even when success is achieved, because the mind faces a constant battle when defining one’s purpose.
“If our identity lies in ourselves as athletes, we are going to be on that roller coaster of emotions and not truly successful,” he said. “But if we believe that our identity lies in Christ and that our relationship with Him goes on forever, then athletics is just a grain of sand in the sea of eternity.”
*Balko began the 2006 preseason 0-20 at the plate.
**Phillipians 4:8 (NIV)- "Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable-if anything is excellent or praiseworthy-think about such things."
For more stories about faith and sport, visit www.sharingthevictory.com, the official magazine of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
Courtesy of University of Arizona