Every athlete has his “what ifs.”
Mine came after the 1985 World Series, when I played shortstop for the World Champion Kansas City Royals.
“What if” I played my entire career the way I played in that Series?
Prior to Game 1, I was feeling the usual fear and anxiety that every player feels before the Fall Classic. I had different "what ifs" then. What if I made some errors that cost us a game or even the Series? What if I didn’t get any hits at all? What if I just couldn’t execute?
But it turned out much different than that.
In Game 1, I missed the suicide squeeze bunt in my first at bat. John Tudor’s two-seam fastball kept tailing away and I just couldn’t reach it. Every Royals fan in the stadium was disappointed because I failed to get the bunt down to score Daryl Motley who was running on the pitch. But after striking out, I walked back to the dugout with a different feeling inside than usual. I remembered how clear and slow the ball seemed as Tudor’s pitches were approaching me. Even though I didn’t make contact with the ball, I perceived the ball to almost be moving in slow motion.
And that feeling stayed with me the whole Series.
For the next six games, I had my 15 minutes of fame. I went on to hit .278 (I was a career .205 hitter) with a .435 on-base percentage and I played errorless at shortstop. In game 5, with our team down 3-1 in the Series, I had the game-winning hit. Late in game 6, with no score, I made 2 spectacular plays that helped keep the game scoreless. Speedy Willie McGee led off with a ground ball deep in the hole which I backhanded and made a strong throw to get him. The very next hitter, Tommy Herr, hit a ground ball up the middle, which I ranged far and threw on the run to nail him. After the play I flashed a smile that ABC TV caught on camera. My thoughts were, "wow, I can't do anything wrong."
And I could do no wrong in the Series outside of the missed squeeze play. I felt relaxed at the plate, everything was moving in slow motion, and instead of being indifferent or fearing balls hit to me at shortstop, I actually wanted every ball to come my way, especially in critical situations.
We were World Champions that year and I was on top of the world.
I fell from the top of the world the very next season.
At spring training, I couldn’t get back that swing I had during the Series. I didn’t have the fluid motion and range I had defensively. I had so little left in me that I was traded to the Houston Astros midway through the 1987 season following a stint back in the Minor Leagues, and that was it for me. I was out of Major League baseball the very next year.
It’s a hard fall when you are on top one season and then come crashing down 6 months later.
I went over and over in my mind how I felt during the World Series. Why was my swing so smooth and effortless? It’s not like I didn’t understand the mechanics of the swing before the Series and then just got it during those 7 games. Why was I able to make subtle adjustments to my swing to handle the different styles of the pitchers I faced? Why did I want every single ball to be hit to me? I thought about these questions for a long time.
I also thought I came up with some answers that went somewhat against the grain of conventional baseball wisdom. I started to teach hitters to be more aware of their body through awareness techniques. I started to teach breathing exercises. I had some success with these methods, and I thought I was getting somewhere.
But then I met a remarkable athlete and teacher who explained in the minutest detail why I played the best baseball of my life during the 1985 Series. Not only did he explain it, but he has been teaching techniques and drills that allow his students (in tennis and golf) to have the same experience I had, by design rather than by chance.
His name is Steven Yellin. In 1971, he was the Florida State High School tennis singles champion (Chris Evert was the girls champion that year). He went on to play #1 singles at the University of Pennsylvania and was member of the All-Ivy Team. He even had a win over John McEnroe while he was at Penn. But his real accomplishments have to do with understanding where motion originates, not just in tennis and golf, but also in every sport. And he has developed techniques over a 30-year teaching career that allow anyone to replicate effortless, fluid and powerful motion, regardless of which sport they are playing.
Let’s go back to the World Series. After spending time with Steven, I realized why I played so well in those 7 games.
Though my swing had become more fluid during those games, the reason why it had become more refined had nothing to do with any mechanical change I had consciously made. The real reason it changed had to do with how I perceived time.
Time had taken on another dimension. It had slowed down.
Steven explained to me that the first fundamental in any sport has to do with a student being able to experience time moving normally. Usually the opposite happens. The minute an athlete (any athlete, in any sport) starts his motion, or more importantly the split second before the motion begins, time usually becomes distorted. When time becomes distorted, the “subtle muscles” (the subtle muscles are responsible for fluid, effortless motion), the fast-twitch muscles in the body shut down and the gross muscles take over.
When he explained that to me, my mind immediately raced back to the Series. How did a .205 hitter become a .278 hitter in the biggest games of his life? Was I doing something so radically different in my swing that led to those hits? Yes, I was, and it was because I was experiencing time moving normally.
I quickly put a checklist together. When I was at bat:
I saw the ball more clearly
The ball seemed like it was not traveling as quickly
I had more time to make decisions
My eyes were more relaxed
I stayed relax even when I fell behind in the count
I was not chasing as many bad pitches.
In reflection, I realized that the underlying cause of all these changes was that time was moving normally and this affected all elements of my swing and my thinking process. All great athletes, whether it is Joe Montana in football, Michael Jordan in basketball, Tiger Woods in golf or Wayne Gretzky in hockey, have identical experiences in their respective sports — in the heat of battle everything seems to be moving in slow motion. This activates their subtle muscles and allows them the freedom to do what they want to do whenever they want to do it. And this separates them from the field.
Steven has developed a series of drills that allow his students to experience time moving slowly. When I applied these drills to some students I have been teaching, the results, in all honesty, were amazing. Their swings were tension free and naturally became better without me saying anything about mechanics. They were staying inside and through the ball regardless of the location of the pitch. Their bat speed naturally increased. Their swings became smoother and they made more consistent solid contact with the ball. I was amazed, really amazed.
I realized that the subtle muscles, or fast-twitch muscles in their hands and wrists, had “awakened” and were working perfectly along with the core and lower half of the body. Instead of these parts of the body or the shoulders and chest dominating the swing, they were now working as they should for great success. This resulted in a fluid, powerful and effortless motion.
Just by chance during the World Series, time for me started to move normally when I was at bat or in the field. Just by chance this happened to be the seven most important games of my life. And just by chance, that which came so fortuitously in October, left as quickly as possible in April. How many players have had this same experience? They get hot and then just as quickly, they cool off. And they don’t understand who turned the heat down.
Time turned it down.
The experience of time gave them their moments of greatness and a different experience of time took it away. The experience of time is the first fundamental in every sport. Great athletes experience this, because when they perform their best, everything feels like it is in slow motion. They can’t teach this experience to anyone, but they don’t have to, they just do it. What I discovered was that this experience can be taught and it can quickly make a huge, career- changing difference.
If I had this knowledge 20 years ago, there would have been no "what ifs." I very well may have lived the dream for another 15 years until I retired. But at least now, I can teach my students to set up by choice what I experienced by chance, in the seven greatest games of my life.