Why you should care
Because meditation and mashing are not mutually exclusive.
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For more than a decade in the minor and major leagues, Erik Pappas had been gunning down attempted base stealers from behind the plate. Then, while in camp with the Florida Marlins in 1995, the 11-year veteran catcher’s career was in jeopardy — all because of “the yips.” Warm-up throws to second base were easy, but as soon as the game started, anxiety set in. “I would just lock up,” says Pappas. “I couldn’t make the throw.”
With the help of famed mental skills coach Harvey Dorfman, Pappas cured his glitch and played two more seasons in the minors. He doesn’t know why the yips — common lexicon for an athlete’s loss of fine motor skills — took hold, but lessons in mental preparation and enhancement cured the ailment. Baseball, perhaps more than any other sport, is a trial of mental fortitude. Modern baseball players are bigger, faster and stronger than in any era past. Still, one thing remains the same: constant failure. Slumps and mental implosions never cease to hijack seasons. For that reason, individuals like Dorfman are becoming the norm. Today, at least half of major league teams have a full-time mental skills coach on staff, and some, like the Cubs, have implemented comprehensive mental programs at every level of the organization. Baseball is changing — and the new path to success is the six inches between the ears.
It’s a much more hands-on approach today. Now, mental performance [in baseball] doesn’t mean ‘You’re nuts.’
Erik Pappas, former MLB catcher
It’s said that hitting a baseball is the hardest task in sports; even the best batters suffer a 70 percent failure rate. Pitching and fielding are equally nerve-racking, given that the weight of the entire game rests on every throw. For this reason, players are constantly searching for ways to clear their mind. Josh Bell, the Pirates’ young rising star, practices yoga and works with Pittsburgh’s director of mental conditioning, Bernie Holliday, to “quiet all of the negative energy and noise” that accumulates during a season. “Your brain can get pretty cluttered over the course of a season,” Bell tells OZY. “I try to free up my mind and not let fear and doubt set in.”
For Hall of Fame pitcher John Smoltz, calm hitters were always the toughest outs. “The guys who can slow the game down are the toughest to deal with,” Smoltz tells OZY. Smoltz’s colleague on Fox Sports, Yankees legend Alex Rodriguez, sees the other side of baseball’s 60-foot, 6-inch duel. “Great pitchers can feast on players who are anxious and don’t feel comfortable at the plate.”
Widely considered the leader in baseball mental performance consulting, the late Dorfman was hired as the mental skills coach for the Oakland A’s in the mid-1980s. He earned a World Series ring with Oakland in 1989 and another with Florida in 1997. The Author of The Mental ABCs of Baseball combined common sense with tough love and empathy. His success with players like Barry Zito, Jamie Moyer and Roy Halladay, who credits Dorfman with saving his career, led other teams to seek their own gurus. By the turn of the century, mental skills coaches were popping up here and there on payrolls.
Still, sports psychology and the idea of “shrinks” in baseball remained taboo in the locker room. In the ’80s and ’90s, says Pappas, players largely coached themselves. The suggestion that a player might benefit from a mental coach meant something was horribly wrong. “It’s a much more hands-on approach today,” he tells OZY. “Now, mental performance doesn’t mean ‘You’re nuts.’”
These days, lodged between morning batting practice and fielding drills, weight training and cryogenic chamber recovery therapy, several meals and, of course, the actual games, players across baseball pencil in time to mentally reset. Just as the Phillies’ strength and conditioning coach is essential to star third baseman Maikel Franco’s bat speed, mental skills coach Geoff Miller has become paramount to Franco’s approach at the plate. Miller is the Phillies’ first-ever mental skills coach and, like Dorfman, is not a licensed psychologist. More executive consultant than therapist, Miller uses locker room language and common interests — music, movies, poker — to coach his pupils. After breaking into baseball in 2005 as a minor league consultant with Pittsburgh, Miller has climbed the professional ladder and finally has the opportunity to implement a complete program at the major league level. His focus? Simple. “My job is to help each of our players maximize their full potential,” Miller told Philly.com.
Today, teams are constantly searching for an edge on the competition. As OZY has noted elsewhere, the edge gained by analytics departments in the Moneyball era has largely been nullified. Fielding a roster full of players who master their own domain could be the newest, fastest route to championship success. In his book Crunch Time: How to Be Your Best When It Matters Most, longtime pitching coach and performance guru Rick Peterson outlines a strategy that has helped so many of his players triumph. “Reframing” is one’s ability to view a difficult situation in a different light. Peterson contends that via evolution, humans become naturally defensive under pressure. Defensive mechanisms are essential for survival but are often detrimental in sports or business. To combat this, Peterson has spent his career teaching players how to calm their nerves and reframe tense situations into scenarios ripe for crunch-time excellence.
The concept of guiding a player on the road to mindfulness and emotional control is the essence of every mental skills program popping up in clubhouses today. Baseball is a simple game with thousands of pressure-packed situations that form a complex matrix. Players who are relaxed and able to relish their own self-confidence are often the game’s best. They’re also usually the most adverse to change. “If you’re playing well,” Pappas tells OZY, “you don’t want to talk to anyone or open any new horizons.”
But unnecessary change should not be the goal of any mental skills coach, Miller writes in his book, Intangibles. The goal is much less complicated. “I’ve never found a better way to get through to a player than to simply make it clear to him that I believe in him.”
* Correction: An earlier version of this feature stated that Harvey Dorfman had no degrees of higher learning. He, in fact, held a master’s degree in educational psychology.