Walk into the Air Force baseball locker room before practice, and the pitchers will probably be lying down in a dark room pretending they’re on a raft, listening to a recording of a harp or rain falling.
The pitchers’ arms are at their sides as they visualize their arms are floating in a pool. A couple of them always fall asleep.
New Air Force pitching coach Tim Dixon might seem a little off. He’s left-handed, after all. But Dixon’s approach with the Falcons' pitchers – introducing yoga, daily relaxation techniques and visualization and stressing that as much as throwing the ball – has been working.
Air Force’s ERA this year was 5.26 before the weekend's games. Last year it was 11.31. And at least some of that improvement comes from Dixon teaching them about the mental side of baseball.
“I try to get them to feel texture and little things like that,” Dixon said. “Put them in a place where they’re at peace.”
Dixon’s approach isn’t entirely unique in coaching circles, but it’s unusual, especially for a military academy. Dixon says when he first told the players they would be doing yoga, he got funny looks.
“Then afterward they were like ‘When are we doing yoga again?’” Dixon said. “They bought in very quickly.”
Dixon had his own experience to sell any doubters. He was a pretty high-strung college player, the kind who would throw things and yell a lot after a bad outing.
“I was the worst teammate you could possibly be,” Dixon said.
Dixon landed at Cal State Fullerton for his senior season. He took a sports psychology class taught by renowned professor Ken Ravizza, and it changed his life. Dixon stopped worrying about results and things he couldn’t control. A mellowed Dixon went 13-0 as a senior, and helped Cal State Fullerton win the 1995 College World Series.
He played six years of professional baseball, reaching Triple-A for three of those seasons, and credited his entire pro career to sports psychology and Ravizza, who he speaks to regularly. Dixon got a master's degree in sports psychology from Optimal Performance Institute in 2008.
When Maj. Mike Kazlausky took over as Air Force coach, former Falcons coach Reed Peters suggested he hire Dixon as his pitching coach. Kazlausky appreciates the mental aspect of baseball, bought into Dixon’s ideas on sports psychology and added him to the staff. Dixon also works with the Falcons’ hitters on the mental side of the game, but his approach with the pitchers is what stands out.
“I think it has made the difference,” Kazlausky said. “It’s the same pitchers. The kids believe in themselves.”
“He came in and changed the character of our pitching staff,” junior pitcher Evan Abrecht said. “All the guys are believing.”
Dixon’s approach goes beyond convincing the pitchers they’re on a raft before they go practice. He wants them to focus on only putting a pitch in a certain spot, and eliminating the “uncontrollables.” Dixon wants the pitchers to have a plan for success and stick with it through adversity. His long toss and weighted ball workouts have helped the pitchers gain arm strength.
He hopes mastering the mental side of the game helps them in their lives after baseball. Air Force spends about 30 minutes on relaxation before practice, and he urges players to find 10 minutes for relaxation techniques every night on their own. He said those things helped him be a better person. He thinks Falcons baseball players can benefit too, in areas other than improved ERA.
“Whether it’s military, academic or baseball, you get so many uncontrollable things that can control you,” Dixon said. “We try to simplify it.”