New York Yankees legend Yogi Berra, who was known for his quirky quotes, once said, “Baseball is ninety percent mental and the other half is physical.” And while a quizzical look might appear on your face while attempting to process Yogi’s erroneous math, a substantial amount of truth lies in his statement. Sports is unique when it comes to emotions, relationships, and psychology in the workplace. There are very few professions where it is acceptable to display raw emotion, where it is common that you are booed and ridiculed at work and where mental strength is imperative to success. Sports are often viewed as “manly” and “tough”, but is that how teams should approach its organizational strategy? It is ineffective to neglect the mental strength of athletes and teams are taking notice.
Some of you may be unfamiliar with a man named Chad Bohling. He is the unsung hero of the Yankees success. Bohling has been with the club since 2005 when George Steinbrenner hired him to be the team’s Director of Mental Conditioning. At the time, only about a third of the league employed a mental skills coach. It was relatively uncommon and, more importantly, a position that wasn’t necessarily highly regarded. In fact, at the time of Bohling’s hiring the New York Times headline read “Steinbrenner Hires Motivational Coach (Don’t Laugh)”. The all so subtle “Don’t Laugh” reflected the viewpoint of the majority of people at the time: it was a joke. It’s somewhat ironic that something so vital to success was viewed as a punch-line.
Teams invest hundreds of millions of dollars into their players. They are their clubs’ greatest assets, so why not treat them as such? It is obvious that elite physical skill is crucial to becoming a successful athlete but it isn’t the only skill imperative to develop. Baseball, in particular, is viewed as a game within a game. There’s a tremendous amount of downtime to think, to second guess yourself, and to lose self-confidence. The skill of self-confidence is one that impacts play on the diamond day-in-and-day-out. Yes, self-confidence is a skill. Some players are more naturally adept at being composed in pressure-filled situations while other players crack at the first sight of stress but that doesn’t mean the latter cannot improve their performance in high pressured moments.
Dr. Ivan Joseph, who has been the Director of Athletics at Ryerson University in Toronto for over a decade, gave a Ted Talk in 2012 titled “The Skill of Self-Confidence.” In his speech, Dr. Joseph emphasizes his belief that self-confidence can be taught. He believes self-confidence “…to be the ability or belief to believe in yourself, to accomplish any task, no matter the odds, no matter the difficulty, no matter the adversity.” Lack of self-confidence is typically accompanied by the fear of failure or embarrassment. Those who are most successful in baseball, or any profession for that matter, are those who do not fear failure but instead embrace it. Babe Ruth once said, “Never let the fear of striking out get in your way.” It seems so simple, yet it is one of the hardest skills to polish. Dr. Joseph’s concluding remarks were candid, yet simple, “No one will believe in you unless you do.” In other words, it is extremely difficult to be a professional baseball player if you do not believe in yourself.
Self-confidence is just one of a plethora of mental skills, all which are closely connected. that can be developed and taught to improve a baseball player’s performance on the diamond. This past season, Toronto Blue Jays closer Robert Osuna disclosed that he was battling with anxiety. Like any physical injury, Osuna was placed on the disabled list so he had time to heal. Osuna’s bravery shined a light on the importance of mental health, an issue that is often dismissed and suppressed within the sports world.
Hiring mental skill coaches has recently become a trend among sports teams. It is a movement – albeit a relatively quiet one – that has taken baseball by storm. Chicago Cubs General Manager Jed Hoyer said, “Your mental-skills coach is no different than a hitting coach. He’s a guy that can really help your players get better.” If there is one thing baseball teams are always searching for, it is how to gain a competitive advantage. As Seattle Mariners General Manager Jerry Dipoto explained this past year, “We have to make sure that our players are prepared both mentally and physically.” In the early 2000s, Billy Beane and the Oakland Athletics sparked the analytical-driven era that led to a race to the top. The A’s competitive advantage waned as other franchises joined the movement and in a lot of ways, the mental health movement is following a similar path.
The Yankees managed to get out in front of the mental conditioning movement by hiring Bohling in 2005. Over a decade later, Bohling still plays an integral role within the organization. One of the most, if not the most, important aspects of developing mental skills is building close-knit relationships. Bohling along with his colleagues have preached the importance of emotional connections and relationships. Bohling has brought in Steve Shenbaum, who specializes in communication, to help lead bonding sessions. Without close relationships, chemistry is limited and without chemistry, winning is that much harder.
In the end, a mental skills coach is no different than a hitting or pitching coach. A player’s character and mental makeup are undeniably important and the Yankees, and the rest of baseball have taken notice. Mental health is not a joke and it is an obstacle that lies on the path to success.
The Associated Press, “M.L.B. Teams Nurture Mental Health.” The New York Times April 11, 2015
Jack Curry, “Steinbrenner Hires Motivational Coach (Don’t Laugh).” The New York Times April 14, 2005
Joel Sherman, “Yankees have big chemistry questions to answer in offseason.” New York Post October. 11 2017
Kurt Schlosser, “Seattle Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto: Team is at cutting edge of analyzing players’ mental health – and they eat right too.” Geekwire.com June 22, 2017