Next up in the Pinch Hitters series is Jeff Wildfogel, who used his knowledge of sports psychology to write about the mental side of baseball.
In most circumstances, this is exactly the kind of post I would want to avoid, but Jeff has the background to write as an authority. He is a performance psychologist and mental coach who has worked with elite athletes. He’s also a vigorous follower of the Yankees organization, and those of you who followed my blog in Scranton or follow the forums on Pinstripes Plus will recognize Jeff’s name as one of the more respected fan voices out there.
In the Yankees meltdown in the ALCS against Boston in 2004, Alex Rodriguez was 1-for-12 with no RBI in Games 5 through 7 – and looked bad in doing so. From Game 5 of the 2004 ALCS until the 2009 post-season, ARod hit .143, 8 for 56, with 1 HR and 1 RBI in 16 post-season games and was an easy out with runners on, 0 for 15 with no RBI.
Sports psychologists know that the big mistake players make in pressure situations is feeling that they have to change what they are doing to match the importance of the situation. They try harder, take more (or fewer) pitches or change a thousand other things. The 2004 season was ARod’s first with the Yankees. Many Yankee fans and people in the media blamed ARod’s ineffectiveness in the last three games of the ALCS for the Yankees historic collapse. In response, it seems ARod took it upon himself to show the world, Yankee fans, his teammates, and himself that he could lead the Yankees to a World Series Championship. I don’t know what ARod told himself every time he got up with runners in scoring position in the post-season from game 5 in the 2004 ALCS until the 2009 post-season, but it was probably some version of, “C’mon Alex, you’re the man. Everyone’s counting on you. Show them what you can do and what you’re made of.”
What happened to ARod is what happens to players who don’t handle pressure well. They try too hard, become self-conscious of what they are trying to do and of their past failures, and become too aggressive or too tentative, or fluctuate from one to the other.
But then, in the 2009 post-season, ARod played like the best player in baseball hitting .358 with 6 HRs and 18 RBI in 15 games, including 11 for 25 with 3 HRs and 15 RBI with runners on base. What changed? The difference in ARod’s post-season performances might be random fluctuations in small samples as some claim, but I think that after being embarrassed by the steroid revelations and undergoing hip surgery, ARod finally realized that he wasn’t going to please everyone, couldn’t be Superman, and in many ways became comfortable being Alex Rodriguez rather than trying to live up to being the highest paid and best player in baseball.
With the internal pressure off, ARod performed like the great hitter he had always been. His physical skills hadn’t changed; his technique hadn’t improved. The difference was his mental approach.
While baseball players have access to pitching, hitting and strength coaches, and to instruction on just about every physical aspect of baseball, it’s only recently that the Yankees have hired sports psychologists to help their players improve their mental game. But have the Yankees done enough?
Question: How many sports psychologists does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: One, but only if the light bulb is willing.
This joke illustrates the problem I think the Yankees are facing. While it’s great that they provide players with someone to help with their mental game, it’s not so great if players don’t avail themselves of this help. In my experience, that’s exactly what happens more often than not. Players choose not to work with a sports psychologist for many reasons. Some of the emotional reasons include 1) concern that if they did work with a sports psychologist, others would think them mentally weak, 2) believing that players at their level should be able to master the mental game by themselves, and 3) that working with a sports psychologist implies that they have problems, an implication that makes them uncomfortable.
While such attitudes toward pitching, hitting, and strength coaches would be seen as absurd and counterproductive, that is exactly where baseball and mental coaches are too often today. The Yankees need to do a better job educating their players on what sports psychologists do and why it’s not a stigma to work with one any more than it is to work with a strength coach. Until the Yankees help players see why they should work with a sports psychologist and why there is nothing negative implied by doing so, many players who want to perform at their best under pressure, shorten their slumps, focus better, stay motivated when rehabbing from surgery, or want to improve any other aspect of their mental game, are not going to be helped by the Yankees having a sports psychologist around and will choose to fend for themselves.
If it took ARod several years to straighten out his mental game, and then only by chance, why would it be any different for Robinson Cano, Brett Gardner, Joba Chamberlain, and other Yankees? As a Yankee fan, I think it’s a great shame to have a $200 million payroll, the best coaches and instructors available, and then, in essence, leave each player’s mental game up to chance.