Is Aiding Mental Health The Next Frontier Of MLB Player Development?
Brandon Wood was 25 years old and on his ascent to stardom.
The Angels’ three-time No. 1 prospect had a clear shot to play third base every day in Anaheim in 2010, following the free agent departure of Chone Figgins.
Instead, fear of seeking help for the panic attacks that struck him every time he trotted out to his position destroyed his promising career.
“I was just so light-headed. I couldn’t really breathe—I had this feeling of pure fear,” Wood said. “I have to have success here and I don’t know how I’m going to do it.”
Struggling with anxiety and uncertainty, Wood chose to suffer in silence rather than speak up. He worried that simply admitting he needed help with his mental state would be perceived poorly by manager Mike Scioscia and negatively impact his career far more than the daily panic attacks.
Wood hit .146 that season. A year later he was waived. He retired from baseball before turning 30.
There’s no way to quantify how many cases like Wood have existed in professional baseball—careers and lives derailed because of a culture that didn’t put a proper value on mental health.
Only recently have high-profile athletes been vocal about struggles with mental health. Kevin Love of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers has been credited by many in the field for his openness regarding depression and anxiety. Earlier this year ESPN’s Jeff Passan shared the gut-wrenching but inspirational story of former big league outfielder Drew Robinson, who in 2020 survived a suicide attempt and is now working to help others struggling with their mental well-being.
Struggles on the field don’t always end when athletes take off their cleats.
When former Rays' prospect Luke Bailey was struggling with the yips during his minor league career, it wasn’t just his play on the diamond that suffered. The young catcher took the mental fight with him everywhere, culminating in fracturing a wall by punching his hand in frustration.
“Every night after games, driving home—praying, crying. It was just one of the hardest things in sports you could go through,” Bailey said.
Long before they become professionals, athletes are conditioned to hide insecurity from public view and repress their emotions to cope with negativity.
“That’s the interesting part about that old-school mentality,” said Dr. Chris Bader, assistant athletic director for mental health and performance at the University of Arkansas. “For athletes growing up there’s still that hyper-masculinized ‘rub some dirt on it’ inside, even if that’s not exactly what we’re hearing.”
Early attention to the mental aspects of major league players’ lives were focused on mental skills rather than mental health. Dr. Charlie Maher, a sport and performance psychologist for the Indians who has been working in baseball since 1988, recalled his early directive from coaches and players being strictly related to actual in-game performance.
“During that time period, mental development was very, very new. It was seen by players and staff in a reserved matter, in a skeptical way,” Maher said. “Mental development was well received, but the focus was not on mental health, it was on helping them perform better on the field.”
In a 2018 article for “The Baseball Observer,” Maher laid out how he differentiates mental skills and mental health. The skills portion focuses on preparation for competition, building mental tools and routine to ensure that the athlete is mentally ready to compete. Mental health deals with the occupational stress linked to the sport, as well as stresses of life itself. That can include conditions such as anxiety or depression as well as addiction or family issues.
Methods to help improve performance are easier to sell to athletes, but to Maher and other mental health professionals, the importance of being able to cover all the bases of mental hygiene within the organization is essential to a successful mental skills and health program.
Dr. Angus Mugford, the vice president of high performance for the Blue Jays, equates the essential treatment of mental health like an athlete would treat a physical injury—it’s just another part of the health continuum. He views mental skills and health professionals in the same vein as athletic trainers or surgeons.
“You have the physical therapist, surgeon or athletic trainer all involved,” Mugford said, “A strength coach works to help a player come through rehab, or (it could be a case of) a player who’s not injured and just trying to get stronger. I would see a mental performance coach and mental health coach performing a very similar role.”
In the 2010s, major league baseball fully entered the age of analytics. MLB Statcast brought concepts like spin rate and exit velocity to the masses. But under the cover of the data revolution, another cultural shift was taking place.
In just the past decade, MLB has made dramatic progress in helping players handle the mental side of the game. Maher believes the past decade worked wonders for the way the sport’s thinking advanced. The stigma associated with mental health is receding.
“I would say we’re 70% past that, still about 30% who haven’t (gotten past the stigma),” Maher said. “Fifteen years ago it was the other way (around).”
Getting a sport rooted in more than 100 years of tradition to adjust its culture has been easier said than done. For a sport in love with numbers, positive mental health treatment isn’t as tangible as a higher launch angle or even a batting average. A full-scale program treating the mental side of baseball requires both athletes and MLB’s powers that be to take something akin to a leap of faith.
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No advertising is more effective than word of mouth, and player testimony to the importance of the mental part of their game has helped get the ball rolling. Former all-star righthander Bob Tewksbury became known for his mental preparation in the early 1990s. Following his retirement, Tewksbury received his master’s degree in psychology and immediately began working with MLB organizations and individual players on their mental skills.
“Mental skills are really nothing other than life skills in the context of sport,” Tewksbury said. “Concentration, the ability to focus on the task at hand—anyone at any vocation struggles with that.”
Tewksbury’s client list includes the likes of Jon Lester and Andrew Miller—players he’s worked with who credit mental skills work to improving performance.
With positive reviews from top players beginning to trickle in over the past decade, teams began bringing in mental skills coaches to work with their organizations. Many have also incorporated professionals dually trained in both mental skills and mental health. Spearheaded by these professionals, MLB organizations now seek to take care of their athletes on the field and off—by investing in their mental well-being.
MLB has progressed by leaps and bounds in every aspect of mental health commitment and resources. In 2011, the Professional Baseball Performance Psychology Group of mental skills coaches and sport psychologists who provided services to MLB clubs had just 12 members. Now it has 68, with Maher serving as president.
Acceptance of the importance of mental health and processes has increased steadily. During the height of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, many organizations held mental health meetings every single week to keep tabs on the mental status of players and coaches. Players and staffers also had direct access to mental health resources through MLB’s wellness program.
“There is no greater priority at MLB than the wellness and care of our players,” said a representative from MLB’s wellness program. “Providing information, instruction and resources that allow our players to be ready to safely compete at their highest level is a tremendous challenge, but one we embrace fully.”
Like with anything in life, organizations will get out what they put into their mental skills and mental health programs. To achieve peak mental performance over the course of the next decade, while balancing baseball with life, will take emotional and financial investment from the top down.
In Maher’s eyes, the optimum next step in mental and emotional development of players, coaches and staff is creating a fully staffed, mentally healthy environment at the MLB level, capable of handling as much in-house as possible.
“You have to get the right kinds of professionals on board,” Maher said, “and they have to work together and collaborate on dealing with the total player—the mental skills coaches dealing with the on-field (and) mental health professionals addressing overall well-being.
“Having a system that enables such collaboration—that to me is the crucial area. That’s the area that needs to be developed and sustained.”
That ideal mentally healthy environment could be within reach, but it requires complete buy-in. Building trust with the athletes is essential, because players want someone they’re familiar with, who understands their struggles and respects their privacy.
That commitment includes the field staff. A big focus in the upcoming decade will be instructing managers and coaches on how their words and actions can be conducive to creating mental positivity.
“It’s all about trust . . . it takes a long time to build that and seconds to lose it,” Mugford said. “As soon as a manager or a coach makes a comment about someone being soft, and takes someone out of a lineup, you’re done. Actions speak louder than words.”
The system that Mugford and Maher are hoping to build in baseball also takes increased staff on all levels, which might be the largest obstacle.
Professional baseball is a diverse game, with roughly 30% of major league players being born internationally. The demand for bilingual staff trained in both mental health and skills at this point is greater than the supply. Maher envisions the creation of more internships for mental health professionals who want to work in sports, and more continuous outreach encouraging growth in the field.
Regardless of how far MLB has come when working on the mental side of the game, experts in the field are far from satisfied in the progress.
“I think we have to continuously advance and improve,” Maher said. “We want to be able to provide for the needs of the player as a performer, as a person, to do that within a context of the individual, the team and the organization.”