Keeping Focused Amid Chaos

By Charles McKenzie, April 4, 2019
IC alumnus works with minor league players in Latin America.

Editor’s note: This is the second installment in a 6-part series that will also appear in the spring issue of ICView. Read "Mind Games" to learn how two alumni helped major league teams to World Series titles.

When developing young talent for the Tampa Bay Rays, James Schwabach, MS ’11, relies on his experience and training from IC’s exercise and sport sciences program, as well as his Spanish and psychology degrees from undergrad. He works as a mental skills coordinator for the organization’s Latin American teams, like the Dominican Summer League Rays, a rookie affiliate league based in the Dominican Republic, working with players as young as 16.

Working with such young players means he sometimes needs to sell them on the idea. He has an “elevator speech” ready for when he needs it.

“It’s this idea of building mental strength similar to how you build your ability on the baseball field,” he says. “Just like taking ground balls or batting practice, or building your body’s strength in the weight room. There doesn't need to be a problem for you to get stronger. If you are working with a mental skills coach, it doesn't mean that something is wrong with you. It’s just working on your mental game.”

Some of the players he’s working with have faced hardships in their home countries. For the last three years, political uprisings have forced the Rays to move their entire Venezuelan squad to the Dominican Republic.

headshot of James Schwabach

James Schwabach, MS '11

“It can all weigh a player down if they're not working on keeping their head clear on the field,” Schwabach says. “I can't imagine leaving my family and trying to do any job, let alone be a professional baseball player, especially if I knew they were potentially unsafe or not getting enough food, medicine or whatever. But still, there's no way I can completely understand what our Venezuelan players are going through, so I just try to be empathetic and informed.”

He checks in often, knowing baseball means so much more to them than playing a game.

“It’s the only way that they know of to help their family, so I don't want to minimize what they're going through by saying, ‘Oh, you just need to have fun.’ It can’t be fun for them. It’s more like, ‘How do we help you focus when you're on the field and during the game while reminding yourself how important your family is? How do we let that motivate you to be the hardest worker and do everything you can to succeed and help them?’”

Fittingly, he says the best thing for a beleaguered athlete’s presence of mind is just to be mentally present himself.

“Oftentimes, the act of listening, that is the intervention. These guys have the ability if their minds are clear, and they're focused, to figure out what they need to do to be extremely successful on and off the baseball field,” he said. “It’s when their minds get clouded and they don't take the time to slow down the game or slow down their minds that they get into trouble. They lose that consistency. So me just saying, “I hear you,” is often as good as or better than any specific sports psychology intervention.”