This article, written by Tom Larson, is the cover story in this week’s San Diego Reader. Tom did a great job with this topic, exploring many different perspectives from athletes in a number of sports and it’s a long article, so I didn’t copy all of it into this post. I’ve included the sections that feature Winning Mind partners (myself and Marc Sagal, our managing partner) and the link to the full story if you want to read it in its entirety.
The Paradox of Awareness
What’s curious about Marc Sagal, a professional soccer player turned sports psychologist and consultant, is how he balances his knowledge of the athlete’s mind with an honesty about his own. Over lunch, he tells me right off, his fingers poised above a chunk of salmon, that his message to clients is that he can help them “perform more effectively under pressure.” He and two partners at Winning Mind counsel 50 clients. Be it in business (corporate executives), military (Navy SEALs), or sports (pros from around the world), we “understand the psychological characteristics that successful people need to have to stay focused and remain calm in pressure situations.”
Sagal’s journey to consultant began with his career in soccer: “I was one of the first American soccer players to play professionally overseas.” After college (a Phi Beta Kappa in philosophy at Colorado College), he played for a team in Sweden. Of Sweden’s many leagues, Sagal was in a “mid-tier” league, “down a notch or two from the top.” Though he never reached the fame and fortune of the top, he did three years as a pro. But barely. His career was shortened, or better, compromised, by an injury he had even before he got to Sweden.
In his last game in college in 1989, he was hit from the side and suffered a meniscal tear in his knee. Though he “played hurt” the rest of the game (he doesn’t remember if anyone told him not to), it was a moment “I’ll never forget.” (I prod Sagal about the injury; at one point he laughs and says, “You’re making me relive something I don’t want to.”) Sagal thinks that he didn’t realize the severity of what had happened. In fact, he would not have realized it as long as he had an opportunity to play. The injury might have been worsened by his playing that day. He’s not sure. He’s had several operations, and part of the meniscus has been cut out, a procedure that’s not recommended nowadays.
Off-season, “I pushed myself to get playing again. When you’re young, you don’t think about the consequences of real proper recovery.” He rehabbed the knee, went to Sweden, and was on the field every other day. “The coaches and other players were aware I was managing the pain,” he recalls. “Honestly, I think I played hurt every single time I went on the field.”
I ask Sagal whether he uses his experience to help his clients. Not much, he says. “It’s funny, but when I thought about talking to you, I didn’t include myself.” And yet here he is, the consummate wounded warrior and, so common in our sports-obsessed age, the wounded healer. Advising others in whom he sees himself.
What does he see? For the injured player, it’s a combination of several things: competitiveness — “They want to get back on the field as soon as possible because that’s what they love to do”; “aggressiveness,” a macho thing; and “immaturity.” Add to that a medical staff that “knows what an acceptable amount of pushing [the injury] is.” But here the athlete takes the blame. He will downplay pain to get back in the game. Doctors and trainers, Sagal says, must give the okay, but too often they are roped in by the athlete’s avidity, a horse who just wants to run, bum leg or not.
In college Sagal had terrific medical care, but he also had enough “freedom to push my irresponsibility more than I should have.” The dilemma is, when to put the reins on an athlete whose greatest asset is his native aggressiveness, which, though it may have got him injured and contributes to an inadequate recovery, also drives him to win.
Reviewing his MRIs with orthopedic surgeons, Sagal realized that “there was nothing to be done.” His doctors were “surprised I could even play.” Since leaving the sport, he’s had two more surgeries. He can no longer run, and he can barely walk. He’s a candidate for knee-replacement surgery. His story is not uncommon. He thinks that about one-third of soccer players have “some kind of injury they’re managing.” Depending on the psychology of the athletes and their awareness, “Some guys can just put it out of their mind, while others are constantly aware of the difficulty.” In that spectrum, Sagal says he was one of those “unfortunately aware of my injury.” He was constantly thinking, “How am I feeling? Am I okay?” But that awareness, though it did begin to impact his playing, also got him to listen to his body and to realize that he should hang it up.
It’s paradoxical, Sagal says, for an athlete to have an “intellectual orientation” because it goes against his training, which tells him not to think but to lose himself in the sport or activity. That “desire to solve problems,” in the midst of the game, is what gets you into trouble.
To help athletes think about themselves as people and not about themselves as performers — that’s the hardest part, he says.
When Is It Time?
Another consultant at Winning Mind is Geoff Miller. At 35, Miller has been a “mental skills” coach for five years with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Miller lives in San Diego but is on the road constantly, traveling with the Pirates and their eight minor-league teams, spring, summer, and fall. Anyone who knows Pirate baseball knows that the team must rely on its young players because it doesn’t have the money to buy expensive players. A lot like the Padres.
Miller, in his knit shirt and khaki pants, accentuates the positive. Over iced tea, he refrains from using the term “psychological,” for it connotes a problem. He employs the word “mental” to focus on learned behaviors: “Mental is, do I know what to do, and can I do it when it counts?” The applications on the diamond are many. One weapon in the arsenal of mental skills is to get young hitters to understand “what is happening when they’re failing.” Failure might be defined as follows: say a kid from Rancho Bernardo hits .490 in high school, then hits .260 in the minors; he hears from his coaches, “That’s a good average.” How’s he supposed to respond? The pros are typically a comedown from high school or college glory, so players must learn how their performance is valued and adjust accordingly.
The way to get players to “redefine failure” is to get them to focus on the bigger picture: to think life more than career, career more than season, and a season more than an at-bat. “I give them a process. It’s a transformation from seeking the results you want to seeking a process that will bring you the results.”
This process orientation is key to career- and life-building, says Miller. It’s inevitable that a successful ballplayer, whether or not he makes it to the “bigs,” will begin to think about his life after baseball, to ask the question, “When is it time?” (The average career for the major leaguer is a tad under five years.) This is important because even though the minor leagues have room for an awful lot of players (some 1500 are drafted every year), very few get to the majors. One estimate is that only 10 percent of players who sign a minor-league contract play one game in Major League Baseball. So, for our kid from Rancho Bernardo, the career that he aspired to and worked so hard at from Little League to PONY league, from high school to college, from the minors to the majors, will most likely be over when he reaches 27.
Five factors compel ballplayers to start the transition.
Pay: during a player’s first contract season, according to the Minor League Baseball website, he makes $1100 a month.
School: to coach baseball in college or high school requires a degree.
Options: players, whose discipline is a plus for any employer, get offers from businesspeople to move on.
Calling: Miller says there’s a lot of Christianity in baseball; at times, players feel called by God to stop playing and go in a new direction.
Women: ballplayers are hit on a lot by women, who make themselves available not for the money but to hitch themselves to a future star (remember Bull Durham?). Leaving baseball allows the player to find the right person who’ll love him for more than his fielding ability.
It drives Miller bonkers to hear about prima donnas like Alex Rodriguez or Manny Ramirez, high-maintenance celebrity hitters who’ve both admitted to using steroids. His experience has been with players who are just the opposite: “Most professional athletes are responsible, they care, they live good lives, and they end up getting lumped in with guys who make headlines.”
One of those good guys, who’s been counseled by Miller, is Dan Schwartzbauer. Schwartzbauer retired from professional baseball two years ago at 25. When he made his intention to retire known, his coaches and fellow players all said, “What, are you crazy?” Even his father, who came to every game it seemed, was “disappointed.” Only Miller helped him know “when it was time.” Schwartzbauer had played ball since he was 7. In college, he studied finance and investment management but kept his eye on the prize — baseball every day, even indoor practice sessions during winters. At 21, he entered A ball with the Pittsburgh Pirates. One team he played with was the Hickory Crawdads in Hickory, North Carolina. In 2007, he learned, just as spring training was breaking, that his hoped-for move to a second-base opening in AA ball had fallen through: a major leaguer was sent down to AAA, and the AAA player who was sent to AA got Schwartzbauer’s slot. He was devastated.
It occurred to him that he had spent his baseball life never thinking about his postcareer. “There was no room mentally for me not to think about baseball.” When Schwartzbauer announced his retirement to his manager, the man said, “What in the world are you going to do?” Schwartzbauer replied, “I don’t know. I guess I’ll go get a job.”
Even now, Schwartzbauer still gets calls to play with semipro teams. And, he says, “I don’t have a good reason why I don’t want to do it.” In our long conversation, he sounds as if he’s struggling to let go as much as the sport won’t let him go — when teams, coaches, and former players keep hounding him: why did you dump the dream? His business degree, something that most of the guys he played with do not have, cushioned his leaving.
But most guys, he says, take a long time to hang it up, some barnstorming well into their 30s. For his teammates, playing ball “may not be something they know they’re going to do forever, but they don’t know what else to do.” They get to the point where they cannot face that “it won’t work,” so they end up doing “whatever it takes” to stay.
In a culture that billboards the idea that everyone should pursue a dream, Schwartzbauer says he gave little thought to a second career. Why think about something he didn’t want to do when he was spending most days doing exactly what he wanted to do?
Today, Schwartzbauer knows what else to do. He sells orthopedic medical supplies.
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Geoff Miller’s book, Intangibles: Big-League Stories and Strategies for Winning the Mental Game — in Baseball and in Life, will be released in August, 2012. For more information and free sample chapters, please visit: