Professional Baseball’s Mental Coaching Revolution

Heading into the 2019 Season 27 MLB Teams are using Mental Skills Trainers

“90% of the game is half mental” – Yogi Berra (circa 1958)

by Edward Bell

The idea of professional athletes as models for mental health and mental strength has been discussed quite a bit in recent years, and to their credit, a lot of athletes have spoken up fairly loudly about these topics. Whether it’s Olympic legend Michael Phelps openly chronicling his own mental health struggles or any number of famous athletes espousing the benefits of mental coaching, wellness efforts, meditation, and the like, the overall effect is wonderful. The world of sports is waking up to the notion that the mind has every bit as much to do with success and wellbeing as the body. 

Even within this environment though, the MLB has not been a sports league many look to for progress. Perhaps that sounds more negative than it ought to, but it’s not a criticism so much as a simple statement. As one league overview aimed at fans and bettors points out correctly, the MLB is the oldest of the four major professional sports leagues in North America. And as most fans will admit, it tends to act like it. For better or worse, the MLB is firmly rooted in tradition and history, and while this is exactly what many people adore about the league, it also means the MLB isn’t particularly modern in some ways. Accordingly, despite the fact that legendary Yankees catcher Yogi Berra famously said that “90 percent of the game is half mental” when he played 70 years ago, it’s not exactly a league we’d look to for breakthroughs in mental conditioning. 

But perhaps it should be. All of the above is true regarding baseball’s age in America and the MLB’s dedication to the past. The last few years however have seen the game modernizing in certain ways, including trying to speed up games for the fan experience, incorporating advanced analytics into team building, and, far more quietly, welcoming mental skills coaches to organizations. 

Joe Maddon

USA Today did a wonderful write-up of this trend heading into the 2018 season, and quoted Chicago Cubs manger Joe Maddon (who isn’t quite Berra but who is no stranger to a good line) getting right to the heart of why the whole development is surprising. Said Maddon, “If you said mental skills before, that was an absolute sign that you were weak among the old-school guys.” Maddon went on to say that while players may have long wanted to talk to mental coaches, they might not have for fear of being perceived differently; he also says that some of the stigma around seeking mental assistance may still be present today, which is hard to disagree with. Despite these challenges though, the same article notes that at the outset of the 2018 season, “mental skills coaches” were employed by a record 27 baseball clubs. 

What these mental skills coaches actually teach may vary from player to player, or clubhouse to clubhouse. Joe Maddon argues that they’re no different from hitting coaches in that they’re simply chipping away at the advice and tips a player might need to succeed. Other articles have touched on the psychology of the game and how mental skills coaches can help players in that area. The whole concept appears to be fairly broad and appears to envelop a lot of different challenges. The broader point, however, that even the MLB is now embracing the mental side of the sport at its core, is a wonderful one for the entire world of athletics. Not only is it undoubtedly going to produce some fascinating stories and lessons, but it may also help kids watching the MLB to open up more about their own needs and desires beyond physical prowess.

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