Mental Bases – MLB Players Focus on Mental Strength

Major League Baseball (MLB) headlines tend to focus on players’ use of performance-enhancing drugs and that effect on their physical health, but another concern that should be as alarming is players’ mental health.

A team is dependent on an individual’s performance, therefore adding pressure to every player that steps up to pitch or bat. “The pitcher stands alone on the rubber. The hitter stands alone in the box. You’re all alone,” states Dr. Ken Ravizza in USA Today.

Last June, pitcher Roberto Osuna (formerly with the Toronto Blue Jays and now with the Houston Astros), disclosed he was battling anxiety after missing consecutive games. Osuna does not believe his pitching mechanics are at fault as reported by ESPN, “This has nothing to do with me being on the field. I feel great out there. It’s just when I’m out of baseball, when I’m not on the field, that I feel just weird and a little bit lost.”

Although Osuna believes his anxiety is not tied to the game, it affected the hard-throwing right-hander’s performance and overall mental health. Osuna worked with Paddy Steinford, the Blue Jays’ mental performance coach to understand his notion of feeling “weird and a little bit lost.”

There are two types of anxiety disorders: generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and social anxiety disorder (SAD). What differentiates the two is the threat or thought content that can trigger one opposed to the other. Generalized anxiety disorder is described as, “Worrying very much about everyday things and having trouble controlling worries or feelings of nervousness,” according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

2018’s season had a record high of 27 Major League Baseball teams with mental health physicians as part of the teams’ traveling staff. The inclusion of mental coaches is a major step forward for MLB athletes’ well-being.

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older,” according to Anxiety and Depression Association of America. However, it is difficult for men to openly disclose their mental health in a male-dominated sport where hypermasculinity is very prominent. Emotional self-control is expected as men are to maintain emotional composure at all times.

In spite of that, in the last three decades, more players’ mental illnesses were acknowledged, as more names were placed on the disabled list (DL). Previously, a typical disabled list consisted only of physical injuries.

Los Angeles Dodgers relief pitcher Hong-Chih Kuo was another player placed on the disabled list due to an anxiety disorder. As he began his 2011 season, he was a promising star on the rise after making All-Stars the previous year. But he seemed to struggle locating pitches, which is typically associated with performance anxiety disorder.  

People with social anxiety disorder have a harder time in social settings whether it be meeting new people, performing in front of others or being observed. “The person is afraid that he or she will be humiliated, judged, and rejected,” according to National Institute of Mental Health.

Often times as a person tries to contain their anxiety but then are affected by depression. Nearly one-half of those diagnosed with depression are also diagnosed with an anxiety disorder,” according to National Institute of Mental Health.

Baltimore Orioles’ relief pitcher Justin Duchscherer was placed on the DL after admitting he was dealing with depression. Although managing personal affairs, Duchscherer appeared to be pitching well and rehabilitating from an elbow surgery. However, Duchscherer eventually told reporters, “I felt like a total failure. I felt like, ‘I can’t stay healthy enough to perform, so I’m not doing my job, and I failed at my marriage.’ I started to get into a lot of negative thought patterns.” Duchscherer eventually underwent treatment for clinical depression. He was determined to understand the root of his problem. “If someone says, ‘He’s weak’ or ‘He’s soft,’ that’s not my problem. It’s on them,” said Duchscherer.  

A recent strategy that Bob Tewksbury, former MLB pitcher and current mental skills coach, tried to instill in his players is to refrain from social media. Tewksbury states to USA Today, “Because they have the constant access with people that criticize them. If they choose to focus on the criticism, it doesn’t put you in a good place. You have to eliminate those distractions, get rid of that negativity.” The public scrutiny is not ideal for anyone’s wellbeing. He suggests that players not read too much into social media comments.

Yogi Berra, one of the greatest baseball players of all time, said “Baseball is 90% mental.” The mental state of a person not only affects his career but his loved ones and overall health. It is influential that the MLB organization is looking after its players’ mental health.

To contact the writer, email Leslie Rivera at [email protected]