MLB's Mental Skills Coaches Help Players Embrace the Unknown

In an unprecedented time of stress and anxiety, MLB teams' most valuable coach is one whose focus is off the field.
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For nearly three months, MLB has been stuck in a previously unthinkable calendar limbo, a time that is neither season nor offseason. It's forced teams to answer a question that they’d never asked before: How do you prepare players when you don’t know when they’ll be playing again? Or how they’ll be playing again?

The answers are, like so much of baseball, proving to be mental as much as technical or physical. Teams are now figuring it out on the fly, but all are aware that readying their players to once again take the field will involve more than just making up for lost time on the mound or in the cage. And that’s shifted a new focus to one particular brand of coach: the mental skills coordinator.

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Over the last decade, mental skills coaches have become common across baseball, part of almost every staff and a standard resource for both major and minor leaguers. They instruct players on everything from meditation to goal-setting to managing anxiety. In a normal season, that usually means regularly scheduled group sessions to cover specific subjects (like, say, confidence one week, and focus the next) paired with additional one-on-one work. But since baseball shut down in March, coaches have translated these efforts to a different context—navigating life in a pandemic while preparing for the uncertainties of an unconventional season.

“We’ve never experienced this before. This isn’t like coming back from the offseason,” says Rays mental performance coach Justin Su’a. “I think it comes down to communication—being able to talk to players and coaches and everyone throwing their heads together and saying, O.K., what are potential obstacles?”

MLB's mental skills coaches can’t anticipate everything that will need to be addressed if baseball returns in 2020. But they've found some value in simply opening a discussion—encouraging players to consider what challenges they might face and how they can start preparing to adjust.

For starters, there’s potentially playing without crowds. “It’s almost like going back to when they were coming up through the ranks, in the minor leagues, in certain stadiums where there aren’t many fans,” Su’a says. “If they have to generate their own energy and intensity, we’re going to have to revisit that.”

Another challenge will be playing without as much access to support staff, who may not be in the clubhouse due to coronavirus protocol (MLB’s proposed health and safety protocol for 2020 restricts the number of coaches and trainers who can be in the clubhouse, and it limits access for other people who may be important to players, such as translators and clubhouse staff). There’s also mental preparation for another “spring training,” particularly for those who have not had access to quality workout facilities during the hiatus. And then there are all the factors that no one has even considered yet.

“We all have blind spots. We might miss some, but I think just having the discussion will prime our minds and prime the players’ minds,” Su'a says. “If we put out in the open the potential pitfalls, that will enable us to respond more effectively when we do come back.”

If nothing else, coaches are using this time to lay the foundation for a transition to new routines. (That’s no small task for a group of people as famously committed to their rituals as ballplayers.) Diamondbacks mental skills coordinator Zach Brandon is encouraging his players to learn to seek out other forms of structure—beginning with what they can build in their own lives now.

“Routines and baseball tend to go hand-in-hand with one another,” Brandon says. “And right now, routines are disrupted.”

For one guy, “routine” could be how he schedules his at-home workout. For another, it could be how he handles home-school lessons for his kids. It’s just recognizing what he can control right now and how he can build structure into it—which leads to another crucial factor here. The players are approaching life from wildly different perspectives right now. Ordinarily, a mental skills coach would be able to root his work in the shared framework of a season. Now? There are players who have spent the last two months alone and players who have been overwhelmed with stay-at-home parenting. There are some who have watched loved ones deal with difficult questions of health and safety. There are some who have struggled, whether emotionally or physically or financially. And there are some who have been fine.

Coaches can still offer shared skills for the current moment—mindfulness, perspective, adaptability. But every player they work with has faced a unique circumstance.

“You talk to a guy in one part of the country and he hasn’t been out of his house, and you talk to another guy who has full access to facilities and is doing his own thing and completely ready to start the season today,” says Mariners mental performance coach Adam Bernero. “Just trying to see what’s happening to them and their world and asking questions to draw out anything that might be on their mind—that takes precedence.”

Bernero and his fellow Mariners mental performance coach, David Franco, figured that out early on. After spring training shut down, the duo decided to break the organization into small groups for weekly mental skills discussions on Zoom. (Bernero and Franco are responsible for Seattle’s entire organization, 200-some players across the majors and minors: 18 groups’ worth, split between the two coaches.) They envisioned the sessions as an opportunity to connect with players in a relaxed environment, and to make it easy, they planned to cover the same topics with each group, keeping a focus on lessons that could apply to everyone.

“Pretty quickly, we found that each group needed to be customized based off who’s in it, where they’re at in their life, in their baseball career,” says Franco.

For major leaguers, there are questions about how to set goals for a shortened season in a pandemic. For players on the bubble, there are questions about how to manage expectations for a new level of unknown. And for minor leaguers, there are questions about how to prepare for potentially not playing at all. With groups drawn along these lines, the sessions can offer more focused conversations—even if they aren’t what the coaches have in mind.

“We’re trying to be careful about [not] making this feel like some sort of homework,” says Bernero. “It’s not, you need to study for a week and get back to us on this conference call. We’re trying to make it relaxed. Some of my conversations have just been talking life, with nothing to do with what the original topic was, and I think that’s been the best way to keep guys engaged.”

Mariners mental skills coach Adam Bernero stands in front of a rushing river.

Mariners mental performance coach Adam Bernero

With players in the majors, Bernero and Franco focus on more concrete skills for baseball, getting them locked in for an unusual season. With players in the minors, the curriculum is looser, with broad lessons like mindfulness and keeping perspective. 

For Donnie Walton, an infielder who made his major league debut with the Mariners in 2019, the sessions have been full of useful tools, like breath exercises to relax on the field and podcast recommendations to learn more about mental toughness. But he’s particularly appreciated a more basic feature—the chance to talk regularly with his teammates about their own perspectives, in a relaxed environment, which can be hard to come by in the grind of a typical season.

“It’s helped my patience,” he says. “We’re all eager to go play. But just in talking to them, you realize what other guys go through and how they think and approach the game. And then when I do go out to the field to play catch or take BP, I can take that information and use it.”

Sam Delaplane, a minor-league pitcher, has found the weekly sessions useful as a guidebook of sorts. After a breakout season in Double-A in 2019, he was invited to big-league camp this spring, and beginning to think more about what pitching in the majors would really entail. So his Zoom group of eight players includes both those with major league service and those, like him, who haven’t been there. They’ve had conversations about all the different facets of the experience—how to handle success on the big-league stage, how to cope with being sent back to the minors, and how to trust yourself on the mound when you’re facing, say, Mike Trout.

“It’s been absolutely huge,” he says. “Baseball’s just as much mental as it is physical. I’m lucky enough to have resources that I can still use to physically train now with the coronavirus, but being able to train that mental side during this down time and really grow—it’s been huge.” 

One group of younger minor leaguers stays engaged by assigning a different guy to make a presentation each week (on a subject of his choice, so yes, there’s been one about murder hornets and one about The Last Dance). Another group has turned their sessions into a book club for Chop Wood, Carry Water by Joshua Medcalf. "It's not about baseball," says minor-league third baseman Joe Rizzo. "But it's about daily life, and going about things day to day and learning to be content with where you are." And there are some players—mostly minor leaguers in the Dominican Republic—who don’t have the reliable internet connection needed for an hour on Zoom, so Franco records a new mental skills talk for them each week in Spanish and hosts the group discussion on WhatsApp.

“In some regards, it’s really hard,” Franco says. “In other regards, it’s a really cool opportunity to challenge our guys and to talk through ways to handle ourselves during this time.”

Of course, “this time” looks different for each player. But that can be the basis for a whole slew of different chances to hone mental skills.

Pirates director of mental strength Bernie Holliday has used this spring to create an online platform with video lessons for players on themes such as mindfulness and focus. They’re short, 10 to 15 minutes each, with a few activities and prompts for reflection—material to “get them to think about how it relates to them, how it relates to their game, and how they can practice it on a day-to-day basis,” he says. He’s tried to show players that they have more opportunities to live in the moment more than they might think, no matter how they’re spending their days. As a parent? Try patience and accepting what you can and cannot control. Just playing video games? Focus on composure, poise and concentration.

Holliday tells players that the skills that they use to get through a slump or a jam can also work for them in a stressful moment away from the field.

“At this point, we’re focusing on just doing life with guys,” Holliday says. “Checking in and seeing how they’re doing and not trying to change what they feel, not trying to fix what they feel, but just to feel it together.”

It’s a different role for these coaches. But it’s one that fits the moment—giving them a chance to offer connection, to share resources where it makes sense, and otherwise, to simply listen.

“The biggest thing for us right now is just recognizing that our players do more than just play baseball,” Brandon says. “They have other parts of their identity. They have other values within their life. And I think now is a really great time to connect with that.”