Yankee great Yogi Berra once said ” Baseball is 90% mental- the other half is physical.”…. ” A full mind is an empty bat.” As quirky as Yogi Berra’s famous quotes may be, there is definitely some truth to these statements.
The importance of psychology in sports is a much disputed subject. At the professional level, sports psychology has become a more prevalent subject in the last ten years. Players like John Smoltz, Zach Greinke, and Alex Rodriguez claim to have benefited off sports psychology. It dates back as far as Babe Ruth, Columbia University brought the Sultan of Swat into their lab to conduct mental evaluations to see the correlation between his mental toughness and success on the field.
Sports Psychology is a branch of psychology that researches mental factors in attainment of athletic skills and performance. Mental toughness is a phrase used routinely in organized sports. If takes confidence and commitment to pave the road to success. The ability to accept failure and success and to be able to move on from both is the key to mental toughness.
According to known sports psychologist, Dr. Alan Goldberg, ” You play your best baseball when you’re trusting yourself and “unconscious”, that is, not thinking”….” Thinking slows your reflexes and reaction times way down”. Many times when a player is struggling, he is described as being
” in his head”. ” Thinking tightens your muscles up in knots, distracts focus from the task at hand and kills every part of your game.”
The NCAA currently doesn’t recognize sports psychologists as separate from coaches, so because of that few schools hire full-time sports psychologists because they count against the NCAA limits on coaches. This limits some players from getting the help they need to help them reach and become successful at a professional level.
At a professional level, many players struggle with concentration and control problems. The use of a sports psychologist earlier in life could have helped prevent these issues. A licensed sports psychologist on every major league team could be just what certain players need to excel.
Why do I bring up this subject? It is a subject that has been boggling me for quite some time. If a players mental toughness is considered just as important in the scouting of a prospect as the physical, a team could be saved precious time and money.
Playing for a big market team like the New York Yankees or the Boston Red Sox is a world away from playing for a small market team like the Kansas City Royals or Pittsburgh Pirates. The pressure is greater to perform. Weather it is the passionate fans, persistent media scrutiny, or just living up to the expectations of playing for that team , many players buckle under the bright lights. In 2002, the Yankees acquired Jeff Weaver in a three team deal. Weaver crumbled in the bright lights of NY going 12-12 with. 5.35 ERA and got traded after the 2003 season. Anyone who watched Weaver pitching at Fenway while the Fenway faithful chanted his name knew by Weaver’s body language that he was probably having nightmares each night about stepping on the mound. In the past, it was assumed that the skills of mental toughness was genetically based or acquired early in life. Looking at Jeff’s little brother Jared, that statement doesn’t hold much ground. Probably the worst case lack of mental toughness that I have ever seen is Carl Pavano. In December of 2004, the Yankees signed Pavano to a 4 year, 40 million contract. He ended up only pitching in 26 games, went 9-8 with a 5.00 ERA. On and off the DL, Pavano received repeated criticism from players in his own clubhouse, questioning his desire and willingness to play, doubting his “injuries”. When Pavano was on the mound, he couldn’t handle criticism from the fans and media. Needless to say his career since he left the Yankees and signed with the Minnesota Twins has been significantly better, even receiving the Joseph W. Haynes Award in 2010. On the other end of the spectrum, pitchers like Pedro Martinez, Curt Schilling, Andy Pettitte, and Roger Clemens have never been questioned for a lack of mental toughness. Their successful careers on high profile teams and dominating appearances in the playoffs speak for itself.
If the presence of sports psychologists take on a more supporting role in Major league Baseball then maybe the anxiety that many players feel can dissipate allowing them to fully live up to their potential.
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