Moneyball for Mindfulness: Mets Try More Coaches for Stress Management
Few people have done as much to push baseball’s front office revolution over the last quarter century as New York Mets general manager Sandy Alderson. During his tenure with the Oakland Athletics, Alderson hired Billy Beane and turned him on to the idea that much of the game’s conventional wisdom was hooey. Alderson has also been at the forefront of a new approach to player psychology. With the As, he hired Harvey Dorfman, one of the game’s earliest gurus. And now, with the Mets, Alderson is building one of the biggest “mental skills” coaching staffs in baseball.
The Mets began rethinking their approach three years ago after longtime team psychologist Jeffery Foote left the team. Under Foote, the club had run a fairly standard employee assistance program, similar to what many companies offer rank and file workers. If a player was dealing with depression, anxiety, or addiction, Foote offered confidential counseling and helped to arrange treatment. His successor, Jonathan Fader, who had been working with the team at the minor league level, put a greater emphasis on providing help with the everyday stress of baseball and persuaded the Mets to hire more staff.
In the past two years, the team has nearly tripled its mental skills staff to a total of eight. After Fader left last year for a consulting job with the NFL’s New York Giants, his job was split in two: Will Lenzner took over duties with the major league roster while Derick Anderson oversees the mental skills staff. Mets’ coaches work with players at every level, from the major league club to the academy in the Dominican Republic. “We have a position coach at every affiliate. We have a pitching coach at every affiliate, a hitting coach,” says Mets assistant general manager John Ricco, “So why wouldn't we have somebody who's helping the players with the mental side of the game?”
Baseball can test even the most resolute minds. (This might be the place to note that the Mets have long tested the mental state of its fans, and the current injury-plagued season has offered no relief.) The sport combines public performance, intense competition for employment, and profound isolation. Baseball’s most essential roles are solitary: one batter and one pitcher at a time. And failure, at least for hitters, is the norm. Under this crucible, even routine plays can suddenly become crushingly difficult. Yankee Hall of Famer Yogi Berra may have botched the math, but he wasn't wrong when he said, “Ninety percent of the game is half mental.”
Until recently, the dominant managerial approach to the psychological challenges of the game was to try to find players who could handle the strain. Everybody else needed to toughen up. In the last few years, however, a handful of teams, including the Chicago Cubs, Boston Red Sox, and Washington Nationals, have begun investing more in mental skills coaching under the premise that, as with hitting, pitching, and fielding, there are useful techniques and strategies that can be learned.
The Mets are extending this philosophy to the minor leagues. In most cases, the team’s mental skills coaches travel with teams and sit on the bench during games dressed to blend in with the medical trainers. “They'll go out and shag balls, just hang out with the players,” says Anderson, who, along with overseeing the team’s staff, works with players at affiliates in Las Vegas and In Binghamton, N.Y. “We try to be ubiquitous but inconspicuous.” Of the team’s eight coaches, only Anderson is a licensed psychologist. The rest hold at least a master’s degree in sports psychology. If a player has a problem that rises to the level of needing clinical intervention, it’s Anderson who arranges care. Otherwise, the staff occupy a space somewhere between therapist and coach.
At the minor league level, where many of the players are teenagers and still adjusting to life on the road, the coaches often help with basic life skills. As players move up, the focus shifts to performance. Often, says Anderson, the job is to help players to pare back mental clutter. A hitter, for instance, might experience a cascading series of thoughts about what not to do while at the plate–don’t drop your hands, don’t commit too early, don’t chase bad pitches.
The idea is to replace this with “a simple action-oriented thought that a player can integrate into his routine and use in times of great panic.” The mantra might sound like this: “You like it inside and down and that's the pitch that you want to hit, so go ahead.”
The Mets believe that making mental skills an everyday part of the game will help erase the stigma attached to seeking help with psychological issues. “It's such an easier sell now,” says Anderson, “They're just seen as one of the coaches.” Despite the changing attitudes, the team declined to make a minor leaguer available to talk about his experience with mental skills coaching because of the sensitivity and privacy of the interactions. The Mets did pass along a couple of anonymous quotes. “I have learned to use my mind as a muscle and a resource to help propel me forward instead of holding me back,” said one.
For mental skills coaches, trust is paramount. Anderson and the rest of the staff are paid by the Mets to help improve performance. The program doesn’t work, however, if players fear that coaches are reporting back to management about their troubles. “It's the thing that sports psychology wrestles with,” says Anderson. “It's a profession-wide problem.”
The issue is not exclusive to sports. Executive coaches and other employer-provided mental health services are confidentiality minefields. A chief financial officer getting help with anger management probably doesn’t want the boss to know the details either. “It's not something that's really codified in the industry,” says Ed Deci, a professor of psychology at University of Rochester and frequent consultant on employee motivation, “It's a case by case thing where people need to communicate what the ground terms are at all times.”
The Mets allow players to control what information gets shared. It might be useful, for instance, for a mental skills coach to share notes about a player’s progress with a hitting coach, but it won’t happen without the player’s permission. The coaches, says Anderson, make sure players know their status at all times. “It's explained up front. It's explained throughout the year, and it's explained in every individual conversation,” he says. Ricco, the assistant GM, says the team’s management never asks for information about players.
The big question—is it working?—is impossible to answer. Sometimes, says Anderson, a player seeks help for a problem and shows immediate improvement. Usually the link isn’t so obvious. Ultimately, if mental skills coaches help even one player, it’s probably worth it. Baseball’s margins are slim. The difference between average and All-Star can be a couple of dozen hits over the course of a season. The entire mental skills program, says Ricco, costs less than $1 million a year. “In the context of what we spend on putting this team out there,” he says, “I think it's definitely money well spent.”