Recently, we caught up with former Michigan All-American and 2005 National Champion softball pitcher, Jennie Ritter, to discuss the factors that powered her success. According to Ritter, a strong work ethic and dedication to mental toughness as well as off-season training are the keys for excelling in any sport.
STACK: How would you describe mental toughness?
Ritter: When nothing is going your way, to be able to keep a level head and keep going forward. When your body is telling you to quit, do you have the drive inside to keep going.
STACK: Do you think girls today are as mentally tough as they were when you played college and professional softball?
Ritter: The evolution of women's sports has allowed athletes to become softer. With new training technology, physical therapy techniques and built in excuses for not pushing it to the limit, girls in general aren't mentally tough compared to previous generations. When female sports first became recognized, women had to fight for every opportunity. Today's female athlete is a much better athlete, but that isn't translating into them being more mentally tough.
STACK: What can a young softball player do to train and improve her mental toughness?
Ritter: There are two things a player should do. The first would be to find ways to continue putting challenges in front of [herself]. For instance if a girl is a 16U pitcher and striking out 16 girls a game, then she needs to move up to 18U or Gold. Always set new goals, short-term and long-term, and be relentless at achieving them. The second thing—and this is important for improving at anything in life—be consistent. You have to make it a priority to challenge yourself and put yourself in uncomfortable situations—just as regularly as you would practice pitching, hitting or fielding. Make it a habit and it will become a reality.
STACK: Since softball is a year-round sport, what is your opinion of off-season training?
Ritter: Unlike other sports, the most breaks we have from games are usually only two to three weeks. I think athletes need to learn to listen to what their body is telling them and train accordingly. If you feel great going into a mini layoff, then that's a good time to work on your strength and conditioning. But if you are exhausted or injured, then it may be just as beneficial to rest up and come back when you're able to give it 100 percent.
STACK: What advice would you give to girls who don't like to train?
Ritter: Some athletes are genetically blessed and make it very far in their sport without training. Others have to work their butt off to get everything they've achieved. If you're an athlete who doesn't like to train, eventually you will be passed up and beat out by the girl who takes her training just as seriously as her game on the diamond.
STACK: How important is work ethic to becoming a better athlete, and beyond sports.
Ritter: I believe the lessons we learn as athletes—losing a tough extra-inning game, doing extra sprints at practice, waking up at 5 a.m. for a workout or a weekend tournament that is 12 games long and exhausting—all add up and can be used years after. Without adversity and showing a strong work ethic, you won't ever know how good you can be. As athletes, we're all given the opportunity to learn those lessons and draw upon them later on in life.