With Tom House’s Help, Jose Altuve Conquered “The Creature”

Tom House and Dusty Baker go way back. They were Atlanta Braves teammates from 1971-1975, and before that they roomed together in the minor leagues. Their bond remains as strong as ever. Just last week the Houston Astros manager tapped into the renowned pitching guru’s expertise — albeit for reasons you might not expect. Baker consulted with House because his second baseman was battling a serious case of the yips.

“We kind of have this troubleshooting thing,” divulged House, who is often referred to as the father of modern pitching mechanics. “When Dusty runs across something he’s not quite sure about, or if I have a question about something that I don’t have access to… we’ve maintained a pretty solid communication relationship since way back when.”

What’s shared between the old friends follows the Vegas Rule, but while anything Jose Altuve specific would thus remain in-house, an overview of the phenomenon qualifies as fair game. I asked what causes a player to suddenly not be able to throw a baseball with any degree of accuracy.

“It’s when the conscious mind and the subconscious mind have a disconnect,” explained House, who has a Ph.D. in sports psychology. “Basically, it’s what they call a double-bind — you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Your brain won’t allow your arm to throw properly, because it doesn’t want to suffer the consequences of throwing the ball. It happens with catchers all the time. Steve Sax is famous because he couldn’t throw from second base. With golf, it’s putting the ball into the hole.”

Interestingly, an attack of the yips — or, as House prefers to call them “the creature” — rarely inflicts duffers.

“It only happens to smart athletes that care too much,” the University of Southern California graduate told me. “It never happens to the kid [who] is just an unconscious competent. It only happens to really smart athletes that really care about their performance.”

If you don’t have a degree in psychology, you’re probably not familiar with the term “unconscious competent.” I asked for a definition, and in response I got what would be better described as a primer in humans’ psychological states as we (hopefully) move from incompetence to competence in a skill.

“There four levels of competence,” House explained. “There is unconscious incompetence. There is unconscious competence — that’s what most athletes are, they’re unconsciously competent; they’re good, but they really don’t know why. And then there is conscious incompetence. Those kinds of athletes you want to run from; they’re terrible and they don’t really care. And then the ultimate level is to be consciously competent. The ultimate is to be good at what you do, and know why.”

House went on to explain that athletes who encounter “the creature” can be cured. He referenced the links in describing an often-effective fix.

“I don’t know if you’re a golfer, but just close one eye, or close both eyes, as you’re putting,” said House. “Same with throwing. That eliminates input that allows your brain to think too much. In other words, when you close your eyes and visualize, there’s no input other than what your target is. If you keep your eyes open when you’re putting, there is the green, there are people standing around. Your brain is processing input from your vision. The key to the whole thing is if you can allow yourself to visualize only [what you want to see]. Your body will adjust accordingly.”

A failure to enable that adjustment can be fatal to a career.

“The kid’s that don’t get over ‘the creature’ let the outcome, and the fear of the outcome, affect the process of actually throwing, or swinging, or putting,” said House. “That disconnect pushes them out of the sport.”

House believes that Baker talked to Altuve about their conversation, although he doesn’t know exactly what was shared. Whatever it was, it appears to have helped. After throwing away two balls in NLCS Game 2, and another in Game 3, the Astros second baseman played error-free over the final four games. With House’s help, Altuve conquered the creature.

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We’ll hear from House on several other pitching-related topics in the days to come.





David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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bennysantiago09
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bennysantiago09

Pretty sure this description of “conscious competence” as the ultimate state is a bit of revision of the actual hierarchy. . . but maybe that doesn’t surprise me with 1970’s baseball wisdom.

https://www.mccc.edu/~lyncha/documents/stagesofcompetence.pdf

Bartolo Cologne
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Bartolo Cologne

Thanks for posting the link. I also thought he was using the term in a way that was different from what I had learned. Unconscious competence is usually considered the peak phase because you’ve integrated your learning to the point that it has become second nature (this is, for example, the key to being able to improvise well when playing jazz). This idea is encapsulated in the famous Bruce Lee quote: “Before I learned the art, a punch was just a punch, and a kick, just a kick. After I learned the art, a punch was no longer a punch, a kick, no longer a kick. Now that I understand the art, a punch is just a punch and a kick is just a kick.”