Los Angeles Dodgers’ legendary play-by-play announcer Vin Scully once said of outfielders that they “have a lot of time to think and to destroy themselves.”
In a three-hour start-stop game like baseball, the ball might only be in play for 10 minutes. But during the downtime, players can see their mistakes replayed both in their minds and on 10,000-square-foot screens. Each error is assigned and tallied on scoreboards around the stadium and even online. Every mistake is seen and talked about around the world.
Athletes are human. Amid the chaos, they can’t help but scramble for reason, trying to impose order where seemingly none exists, searching for a reentry point for the mind to start taking back control. Thinking isn’t a bad thing depending on how you do it, why you do it, what you are thinking about—and whether you can change it. No longer content with having meticulous control over every other part of their bodies, athletes now work on their brains as well.
Finding that psychological edge on the field is now a field in itself, one led in part by dozens of Ithaca College alumni offering mental skills training not just in sports but also in business, the military, and other fields. However, it’s Major League Baseball where they’ve had the biggest impact. In fact, of the last three World Series winners, each has had in its organization an alumnus from Ithaca College’s sport psychology master’s program. Dan Abroms, MS ’08, of the Boston Red Sox; Jesse Michel, MS ’09, of the Houston Astros; and Josh Lifrak, MS ’05, of the Chicago Cubs. Overall, four of the 30 organizations employ an IC alumnus in their mental skills department. Like Abroms, the Tampa Bay Rays’ James Schwabach, MS ’11, works primarily with younger minor league players (read his story online at ithaca.edu/icview).
WINNING OVER MINDS
In a time when psychology and therapy in general were still deemed taboo by society, many players, managers, and coaches dismissed or mocked sport psychology. When Chicago Cubs owner Philip Wrigley employed baseball’s first practitioner in 1938, the team manager ordered players not to talk to him, and within two years, the sport psychologist was gone.
Fast forward to 2014. The Cubs and their relatively new president, Theo Epstein, hired Josh Lifrak as director of the mental skills program, and the next season, Joe Maddon as manager. Inheriting the Cubs’ World Series drought, which was going into its 106th year, the three brought in the late Ken Ravizza, already a pioneer in sport psychology. This time around, Cubs players were told they should respect the mental skills coaches just as they would their batting and pitching coaches. In the intervening 75 years, general acceptance of sport psychology had grown. In the last decade alone, the number of mental skills coaches in baseball had doubled.
Most teams now had them, and players realized that what was in their head could help them get ahead, especially when struggling. “If you don’t perform well for a game or two, you feel it,” says Jesse Michel. “If you don’t perform well for a week or two, it drains you. If you don’t perform well for a month, you feel like you’re at the bottom of a well without a way out.”
For players already on the lower fringes of a roster, especially those in the major leagues, a string of poor performances only adds to the pressure. They stand to lose salary, endorsements, maybe even their careers. That stress increases for young players who are not making a lot of money, especially those who grew up poor and face the added pressure of supporting an extended family back home, which could be across the world. A drop in performance could be financially disastrous.
“It’s not like you’re going to avoid the negative or not think about it,” Michel said. The difference between a AAA salary and a Major League salary is drastic. Players who make it want to stay, but if they start thinking too much about having to do well here, it’s kind of like trying to pitch with a 50-pound backpack on. It isn’t going to work. Instead, it really is just about, ‘Hey, what do I do well? How do I execute? What do I need to focus on in order to do that? And now, let’s go do it.’”
Young phenoms, with their meteoric rises, especially struggle when they struggle.
“The reason they’re here in professional baseball is because they’ve never failed before. They’ve been the best player everywhere they’ve been, and now everyone around them is elite. The alpha-level competition is new to them,” Michel said.
“Most people believe elite athletes have this natural gift, this talent, this God-given skill. I don’t necessarily believe that’s true. They might have it initially. Their starting point is higher. But elite athletes get to that elite point because they outwork everybody else, nurture that skill, and develop the right mindset to succeed.”
Almost like a nutritionist who feeds the body in such a way to boost immunity and head off deficiencies or imbalances, sport psychology practitioners want to arm the athlete’s mind with skills to adapt and cope. This is often done through classroom work in groups.
"Early on,” Michel says, “we do a lot of training on mental skills, confidence, emotional control, focus, perspective, and redefining failure. If we teach them that stuff up front, maybe once they start failing, they’ll have a better chance to succeed, putting to work the skills they need so that we don’t have to put out as many fires.” Michel notes that mentor Greg Shelley, associate professor in the Department of Exercise and Sport Sciences at IC, used to say their goal should be to work themselves out of a job.
When mental skills coaches try to help players through short-term struggles, having them latch on to the familiar can be helpful. Some players are famous for their routines, which might seem fun, fanatical, or frivolous to outsiders. They can have a purpose though, if used correctly, especially for staying in a rhythm and remaining focused.
“We really like to do things mindfully, so our framework is doing things on purpose with purpose. We try to help players lock into a process or a routine that will help them,” Lifrak says.
Circumstances, cities, leagues, and ballparks can differ greatly, but every park has a foul line to jump over, clay to feel under your feet, the top of a foul pole to stare at. Focusing on one of those as part of a routine can chase away distraction and provide a sense of normalcy and consistency.
“If I’m going from hanging out on the bench to running out onto the field, maybe my jumping over the foul line re-engages my mind, wakes me up. ‘Okay, I’m ready to go. I’m jumping back into this game,’” he said. “However, once they become rote, a meaningless routine, they have no purpose. They become superstition.”
And that’s what the coaches want to avoid: assigning a bigger meaning to something that is meaningless. If a player doesn’t do part of the routine for whatever reason, it should still be okay. The process should be kept simple.
“We talk about getting in the batter’s box the same way every time. We talk about stepping on the mound the same way every time. As uncomfortable as it can feel out there, at least there is some comfort in that. It feels the same. So whether you’re in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, with a thousand people, or at a sold-out Dodger Stadium with five tiers—there’s a similarity.”
That’s especially important if you are like Tim Locastro ’18, standing on second base being watched by 48,000 rabid Colorado Rockies fans hoping to see their team clinch a playoff berth—and conversely, for him to fail. They didn’t care that he just stepped into a Major League game for the first time, or that the day before, his baseball season had seemed long over.
Distractions can change perception, and perception can become reality. It can also quickly become a nightmare.
Baseball has a four-letter S-word: S-L-U-M… Okay, it’s actually a five-letter word, but we dare not add the P. If you must refer to it, it’s “underperforming offensively,” “struggling a bit at the plate,” or “in a drought.” “The yips” are also spoken of as a disease—when they’re spoken of at all. They involve a sudden loss of motor control that leaves even veteran all-stars incapable of completing what should be simple, routine tasks. The yips have ended careers, especially in baseball and golf.
“Language is really important. I do not use the word ‘slump.’ I don’t use the word ‘yips.’ I don’t use whatever buzzwords popular psychology uses,” Michel says. “I try to avoid those because I don’t want the athlete to assume it’s okay to think that way. ‘Slump’ implies that they’ve somehow fallen off a cliff, that they’re in this quicksand of performance, and they have no way of escaping, which is wrong.
“It’s not a slump. They’re performing at a lower level than they expect or than they’re capable of,” Michel says. “They aren’t a different person than they were a month ago. Struggling is a lot more mental than physical.”
Coaches often yell, “Get your head in the game” or “Be smart and think out there.” That can be good advice, but during games, the key can actually be thinking less, Michel says. Your body needs every millisecond, and thought can slow everything down.
“If you’re thinking while you’re hitting, that takes time. It’s like an accelerating race car hitting a speed bump. Now, all of a sudden, you’re out of rhythm. Your body is out of whack. You’re not performing the same way you practice.”
And what if it is not just an individual player but an entire team that is struggling...for more than a century? Could a team of mental skills coaches help the Cubs break a championship drought that started 20 years before the Great Depression? Could they put an end to the curse. Technically speaking, it ceased being “a curse” for the players, Lifrak said. It was reframed.
“We never saw the drought as a curse. We saw it as an incredible opportunity,” Lifrak says. “Our players were thinking not about a curse but about how awesome it would feel to go down in history as part of the team that ends up winning the World Series for the Cubs and the people of Chicago. ‘This will be amazing! What a privilege!’”
TURNING THE TIDE
Just two years after Lifrak came on board, the Cubs did make it to the World Series. After losing three of their first four games, they miraculously tied it up, forcing the deciding Game 7—the most-watched baseball game in the last 25 years. After eight innings, the Cubs were on fire, up by three runs and needing just four outs to clinch the championship. And. Then. It. All. Vanished. The Cubs’ lead. The blood in their faces. The hope. The game was tied, and no team had ever won a Game 7 on the road in extra innings. That’s when the skies opened up.
With a tarp covering the infield, the teams sought shelter. Cubs’ right fielder Jason Heyward called a players-only meeting in the weight room, and Heyward, who had struggled mightily the entire postseason, gave a speech that’s now part of baseball lore: “’We’re the best team in baseball, and we’re the best team in baseball for a reason. Now we’re going to show it. We play like the score is nothing-nothing. We have to stay positive, and fight for your brothers. Stick together, and we’re going to win this game.”
In case you didn’t feel the seismic shift in baseball that night, the next day’s Chicago Tribune front page read simply “At last!”
Lifrak wasn’t surprised that the players did it for Chicago and for each other. That’s what they had done all season.
“When you are not doing it for yourself, when you put it in that perspective, it’s really easy to focus on a process instead of an outcome,” he says.
When the Cubs finally won, the city of Houston watched with envy. In the 55 years it had hosted a major league team, the city had never won a World Series title. Just a few months after Lifrak earned his ring with the Cubs, Houston hired Michel as their first mental skills coordinator. After leaving IC, Michel had headed straight to West Virginia University for a second master’s in counseling and a PhD. Then he worked for three years with the military in Hawaii.
In Houston, Michel immediately saw eager players who were highly motivated and bought in to the program. Although top mental skills coaches exude a kind of charismatic and confident communication style that’s more indicative of motivational speakers and CEOs, their role is almost always behind the scenes. As part of the job, they literally meet the athletes where they are, whether it’s during batting practice or in a weight room, over dinner, or in their office. For follow-ups, some use FaceTime or other video devices, and although it’s not ideal, they’ll even text with athletes.
It’s important both to be approachable and to know when and how to approach an athlete, especially if he’s been struggling for a while.
“Sometimes just talking to somebody who gives you their full attention for an hour is a catharsis, enough to clear your mind,” says Michel.
So how do the practitioners measure their own success? Job titles are good. World titles are better. These coaches are confident in their abilities and secure in their outcomes but are always quick to point out that the seemingly infinite variables in a season, or even in one athlete’s performance, make it impossible to take credit. The support team off the field outnumbers the one on it: dozens of coaches, nutritionists, trainers, medical staffers, and family members all contribute.
If it takes a village to raise a player who’s down, it might take a city to raise an entire team. But it all starts with individual players.
“We’re part of the performance equation, an important part,” says Michel. “But the player is the biggest contributing factor. I might have helped them unlock or tap into a mindset shift or an ability to focus a little bit more or less, or trust themselves more, communicate better, but I’m not the one performing on the field. My credibility is established based on the work that I do with the players. If the players say I helped them, that’s where my credibility comes from.”
Like the elite athletes they train, the practitioners know what motivates them. It’s the relationships, not the fanfare. Even after the Houston Astros finally won a World Series, amid a chaotic celebration that was beamed around the world, a private glance was enough for Michel.
“I’m more comfortable watching the athlete celebrate. If just he and I know the story of how much he went through and the work he put in, and if we can look at each other and give a little smirk because nobody else has any clue what the athlete went through, that’s enough for me.”