TUCSON, Ariz. — Seton Hall University pitching coach Phil Cundari is Collegiate Baseball’s 2011 Pitching Coach of The Year.
This prestigious award, now in its ninth year, is sponsored by EDGE charting software and web stats.
This superb pitching coach, who just completed his 12th season at Seton Hall, has coached 17 players who were either drafted or signed as a free agent.
Most recently, Cundari helped craft one of the top pitching staffs in Seton Hall history in 2011 which had the eighth lowest ERA of NCAA Division I schools at 2.68.
Paced by Big East Conference first team All-Conference performer Joe DiRucco and team ERA leader Jon Prosinski, the Pirates led the Big East in team ERA and ranked either first or second in opponent batting average, innings pitched, strikeouts, fewest hits allowed, fewest runs allowed and fewest earned runs allowed.
For the past 10 years, Cundari has run his own private practice as a sports performance consultant. A licensed psychotherapist, he specializes in peak performance and mental toughness training for athletes of all levels.
Phil has initiated new ideas that add to the athletic quality of the athlete’s experience. By doing so creates a competitive edge for athletes he works with.
He has incorporated a strength component to the pitchers’ conditioning the day after they pitch which has been important. This is made up of exercises done right on the field or bullpen area. This routine has proven to maintain the pitchers’ health, stamina, and strength throughout the season.
He also charts every pitch that is thrown, from side work to bullpens to games.
Phil has pitchers throw their pens with him working right at their side. This hands on approach has helped in the development of the entire staff.
He is an advocate of video analysis and spends countless hours with Seton Hall pitchers away from the field to review video or pitching performances.
Every pitching coach puts in a tremendous amount of hours and has a passion for pitching. But what separates Phil is his ability to develop them holistically.
"Being a pitching coach wasn’t necessarily intentional," said Cundari, who was a former All-American hurler for the Pirates and pitched in the Oakland A’s organization four years, reaching as high as the AA level in 1987 before his career was cut short by an arm injury.
"When I played in the A’s organization, it was incredible. It was considered the best organization in baseball at that time. It was in the mid-80s when Oakland was drafting players such as Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire, Walt Weiss and athletes such as this.
"Being in that organization, we had the great fortune of having Karl Kuehl who was an incredible authority on the mental game."
Kuehl co-authored two books on the mental approach to baseball called The Mental Game of Baseball: A Guide To Peak Performance (1989) and A Champion’s State Of Mind (2005). He also was a baseball scout and coach who contributed to the Oakland A’s teams that won three pennants.
"Harvey Dorfman was another expert on the mind with the A’s. Both Karl and Harvey were tremendous people. The foundation of the mental aspects of pitching that I learned really took off when Harvey worked with us. Harvey became a great mentor for me even after I was done playing professional baseball.
"I had signed after my junior year at Seton Hall and returned to finish my degree after pro ball was finished. Then I decided to move on to graduate school. It was there that I got into psychiatric social work which involved working in a community mental health center and doing psycho therapy.
"As I finished my Masters, I could have simply gone into a mental health center to work and do psycho therapy. But I had an offer in Milan, Italy to coach pitchers. Since I had played baseball in Florence, Italy for a couple of summers while I was at Seton Hall, I jumped at the chance.
"I figured it would be my last hurrah in baseball before I worked in the real world. I went there that summer in 1990. My pitchers were comprised of some young men, others 26-27 and several who were in their mid-30s. Milan also gave me access to the Mediolanum Sports Psychology Team. I did some work with them trying to understand what they did with their mostly soccer athletes.
"I was born in Italy and can speak Italian fluently. I was 10 years old when my parents moved to the United States. Communicating with the sports psychology team was not a problem for me or with my pitchers on the team."
Psychology Helps Cundari
Cundari was asked if working in psychology helped him become a better pitching coach. After all, pitchers can become mental cases in their own right when their performances on the mound go bad.
"You aren’t kidding," said Cundari.
"We have these wonderful strength training programs. But that muscle between the ears separate some of these competitors from the rest.
"My love for the mental game really began with Harvey Dorfman. It followed with all his books. The Mental Game Of Baseball probably was considered the book in professional ball. Harvey also published The Mental ABCs of Pitching which I use on a regular basis with our pitching staff.
"His last work, which may have been his best work, was Coaching The Mental Game. He did that for coaches, and it is an exceptional work. It has helped me a great deal to mature and grow as a college pitching coach.
"Harvey had a special way of confronting the brutal facts with you. His approach was for a pitcher to look into the mirror and have him do his very best self exam of himself. You needed to know where you were at with your performance. Harvey would never allow you to get away with any excuses. That was one key thing I learned from him that I use a great deal now.
"He had a very forgiving and flexible environment because that is who he was. You were able to look at and examine your performance and everything that went along with it which included what was going on between your ears. He wanted to know what your thoughts were, what your perceptions were, especially of yourself, and the perception of the outcome.
"His questioning would allow you to come to your own conclusion in terms of where you needed to get better, change your approach and where you needed to change your attitude. His delivery was in such a way that (1) you couldn’t dispute it, (2) you couldn’t fight it, and (3) it put you in a position where you looked for solutions.
"The solutions were physical, whether it was preparation, affirmations or lack of it, where your mind was and body. That is what his special gift was. Whatever the problem was with your performance that day, you left him feeling like you had a solution and could get to work on it right away. I know that has had an impact on me not only in baseball but in all walks of life.
"Harvey gave you a choice of picking from confidence to courage to character to conviction to determination. He would always ask what the most important thing was. And Harvey always felt that courage was most important. And that went along with confronting your fears on the mound. That is a big component in what I teach. That is just a glimpse of what I learned from him. He was much more comprehensive than this."
Cundari said that Kuehl also had an influence on him as well.
"He would talk about Tom Seaver (former All-Star pitcher with the New York Mets) and how important a routine was for a pitcher on the mound. Karl mentioned that Seaver’s routine was so consistent that he would blink a certain number of times between pitches. And it was identical each time. As a young guy, I thought this was really far fetched when I first heard this. But today as I work with pitchers, I make sure our pitchers have a routine on the pitching rubber.
"Part of that is what we call our centering breath — taking a deep breath — making sure our pitchers are very relaxed before they make the pitch.
"Karl also impressed on me to visualize the pitch in your mind that was called by the catcher prior to throwing it. I also learned this from former Phillies’ lefthander Steve Carlton. I was really a fan of Steve during my playing days. He visualized lanes for all of his unique pitches. That is something I use today."
Cundari was asked how he teaches specific routines to his pitchers.
"To introduce pitchers to this entire mental side of pitching would be impossible all at once. The easiest way has been to provide some handouts and worksheets which helps to educate them on the importance of the mental game.
"The visualization area is discussed as the Fall winds down. For the last 10 years or so, there are areas of the mental game that I choose for six weeks after our Fall ends that I call ‘rap sessions.’
"They are about one hour long and weekly. Each year, I emphasize one of the mental skill areas a little bit more than the others. I may do a general overview of all the mental skills which takes into account from focus to concentration, goal setting, visualization, and affirmation, which can positive or negative.
"With visualization, I introduce them to more general visualization practices. That is to help them to get into a relaxed kind of state. It allows them to visualize images of themselves. One is recalling positive performances. Then you make associations and connections on how they felt and what their thoughts were based on that outcome.
"When they really have a positive experience on the mound, we try to have them associate them with words to try to express and describe what that feels like so they can recall that and reconnect to that especially when they are struggling later. I encourage them to utilize training logs which they write in and journals all the time. That is one of the places they can go to when problems crop up.
"Those are completely confidential for each athlete. I try not to interfere with their personal feelings. I want them to be brutally honest with themselves in those journals because those are the best places for self examination so it can increase awareness on their part.
"One of the mistakes I made over the years was to have our pitchers only visualize success. I don’t think it is that difficult to visualize success because we all have experienced success and crave it much more. But this is a game of failure. What I now do in visualization is to have them visualize failure from a bad experience in the past as well.
"Karl Kuehl relayed stories about Major League hitters who would drive home after games and replay in their mind the at-bats they had that day as they drove up to their home. Then, based on those at-bats where they didn’t get a hit or have a good at-bat or didn’t make solid contact…whatever their goal was…they then visualized fixing that swing and putting a much better swing on the pitch they missed.
"It seemed to me that through visualization in their mind, they were repairing the mistakes they made. Mentally, I feel you recover much quicker if you can visualize your failure and then visualize yourself fixing it. I used to only have pitchers visualize success. But because there is so much failure built into the game of baseball, why not practice visualizing a failure and then visualize fixing that bad pitch. We also have our pitchers practice visualization when they show up for a game with not the best of attitudes or fatigue and so forth. They visualize in their minds how to overcome those issues and fix them."
Cundari said that utilizing the rap sessions allow his pitchers to have a level of comfort which is helpful.
"We also utilize visualization in the bullpen. Our catcher gives the sign and the pitcher nods to confirm the pitch and location he wants. With visualization, he sees the lane in his mind where the pitch will travel all the way to the catcher’s mitt. This is precisely what Steve Carlton did when he prepared himself to attack the strike zone.
"When the pitcher executes a good pitch because he had good location, good movement and good velocity, then we want to reinforce it by repeating it. Mentally, when a kid makes a really good pitch, I get excited. I try to reward a great pitch and repeat it so we can make some neuromuscular connection as well as mental. But this happens by working on these pitches over and over again with success. That’s a little bit of the routine when we try to execute a pitch."
MORE TEACHING TECHNIQUES: The full story of Seton Hall pitching coach Phil Cundari's teaching techniques can be found in part one of a 2-part series in the Jan. 6, 2012 edition of Collegiate Baseball. Call (520) 623-4530 to secure a copy of this issue for only $3 (includes postage and handling). Part two will be in the Jan. 27, 2012 issue.
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