By STEVE KRAH
Tapping into potential is what Kelli Zeese does as director of operations and a mental performance coach for Selking Performance Group.
Coming straight from helping the University of Notre Dame softball team, the South Bend, Ind., native shared ideas on the mental game and championship mindset Tuesday, March 29 at the final South Bend Cubs Foundation Coaches Club meeting of 2021-22 at Four Winds Field.
A graduate of Saint Joseph High School in South Bend, Zeese has a Psychology degree from Saint Mary’s College, a Masters of Business Administration/Masters of Sports Administration from Ohio University and is pursuing a Masters of Performance/Sport Psychology from National University.
She went to work for Selking Performance Group in 2020 after serving as assistant director of Athletics Facilities and Operations at Boston College.
Among many other experiences, Zeese has been Director of Baseball Operations at Notre Dame, where she had been head baseball student manager and also a football student manager.
Kelli grew up playing sports — her favorite was softball — as the oldest child of Mark and Linda Zeese. She has two younger brothers — Aaron and Kerry. The latter was the starting third baseman on Saint Joseph’s 2017 IHSAA Class 3A baseball state champions and is now a junior infielder/pitcher at Roosevelt University in Chicago.
J.R. Haley, son of South Bend Cubs Foundation executive director Mark Haley, was a senior on that John Gumpf-coached Saint Joe squad.
Zeese (pronounced Zay-zee) said that the purpose of mental performance training is to answer the question: How can I deliver my best, consistently, when it matters most?
“Recognize that (delivering) very best is going to be different from your very best,” said Zeese. “How can I do so consistently whether it’s the first or last pitch of the game, we’re up by 10 or down by 10? We want our mindset to be the same.
“We don’t want to have these (Instagram-like) filters like this is my mindset when we’re up by three, but when we’re down by three this is my mindset.
“How do I respond in pressure situations?”
While her talk was in the context of sport and specifically baseball, she said these concepts have helped in academic, business and life situations, including preparing for a test, presentation, job interview and or difficult conversation.
Zeese talked about brain science and presented tangible training tips, including positive/productive language, perfection vs. excellence and being in the present moment.
Achieving optimum mental performance means to “Know you why.”
“Why do you do what you do?,” said Zeese. “What type of important or legacy do you want to leave? What do I do today to make that happen? Why do you coach? Why are you part of this organization?
“We talk with our athletes about different forms of motivation. Who’s the source of your motivation? What types of rewards are there?”
Zeese gave advice to the coaches/instructors in the room.
“Part of your objective is to create that environment in which they can grow and thrive,” said Zeese. “What a great vehicle sports and baseball is to be able to do that.”
Selking Performance Group — led by Dr. Amber Selking, whose new book is “Winning the Mental Game: The Playbook for Building Championship Mindsets” and is host of the “Building Championship Mindsets” podcast — likes to set itself apart by helping people understand who the brain works.
“It allows people to be more intentional about the training itself,” said Zeese.
She showed this with a hex nut dangling from a string — an activity former Notre Dame soccer player Selking shows in her “Dare to Think Like A Champion Today” TEDx Talk.
The activity demonstrates the brain-body connection and psycho-neuromuscular theory at work.
Participants are asked to hold the string out with the nut dangling and stationary and using only their thoughts they are to think about it going forward and backward then side to side then in a circle and then stopping.
“Our thoughts are sending these electrical signals through our brain to the neurons in the muscles and nerve endings throughout the body,” said Zeese. “That’s how truly powerful our thoughts are.
“The brain-body connection says thoughts affect our emotions which affect our physiological responses which is going to dictate our performance.
“When we were are thinking we don’t want to strike out our emotions are often fear or anxiety. Our physiological response is that our bodies and our muscles are tense and our visions constricts and narrows. Our performance is going to show.”
Zeese said that science shows that 70,000 to 80,000 thoughts enter the mind each day.
“We can’t control that these thoughts are going to enter our brain,” said Zeese. “However, we can control which ones stay.
“We identify whether (a thought is) productive or unproductive. Does it serve us or not. We’re going to release it if it doesn’t.”
The objective is to change a negative into a positive.
It’s a mindset (a patterned way of thinking about anything).
Alex Smith was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 National Football League Draft by the San Francisco 49ers and struggled as a rookie quarterback.
“I felt I just had to be perfect to justify by draft status,” said Smith in a video clip presented by Zeese. “I became my own worst enemy. I constantly strove for others’ approval and and worried about what they were thinking.
“I felt like I couldn’t even make the smallest of mistakes. This became a paralyzing cycle.”
Smith changed his mindset and went to three Pro Bowls with the Kansas City Chiefs and was the 2020 NFL Comeback Player of the Year with the Washington Redskins/Football Team.
“Accept what you cannot control,” said Smith.
“We grow through failure,” said Zeese. “Identify your weaknesses and turned them into strengths”
Zeese interjected the acronym F.A.I.L., which stands for First Attempt In Learning.
“It’s OK to fail, but let’s get better from it,” said Zeese.
She said that most people think you either win or fail and that successful people know you may fail multiple times before winning.
There’s a difference between perfection and excellence.
Society tells us we need to be perfect. Failure is part of the process. It’s OK to fail. But it’s how you respond and how quickly you recover.”
Zeese said being in the present moment and setting ourselves up for success means our mind needs to be where at the same pace as our feet. The body is always present and we want to be strategic about the use of the past and future.
“We’re going to think about past performances and if it was a poor performance, we’re going to learn from it,” said Zeese. “You can create a highlight reel in your head of positive past performances to build up your confidence.”
After showing clip from the ESPN E:60 special on Evan Longoria and his mental approach, Zeese talked about how the major leaguer approaches the game “one pitch at a time” and uses the visual cue of looking at the top of the left-field foul pole to release and re-focus. These cues or triggers can be visual, physical or verbal.
There is an acronym used by Zeese and her colleagues — W.I.N., which stands for What’s Important Now?
“What’s important THIS pitch?,” said Zeese. “Just it matter that you just swung at a ball in the dirt? Does it matter that you just overthrew a ball or that you just walked a batter?
“When we talk about winning games we break it down. We win innings — both offensively and defensively. We win at-bats by winning one pitch at a time.”