This is a free sample chapter from my book, Intangibles: Big-League Stories and Strategies for Winning the Mental Game — in Baseball and in Life. For more information on Intangibles, click the book cover:
An Introduction to the Mental Game
I met Bobby Kingsbury on my first day as the Mental Skills Coach for the Pittsburgh Pirates. I had been hired halfway through Spring Training of 2005 and there were only two weeks left in camp, so my first objective was simply to get to know as many major league and minor league players as I could before they left Florida to begin playing their respective seasons. The Pirates Minor League Field Coordinator, Jeff Banister, had been introducing me to coaches and players and we shook hands with Bobby outside of one of the batting cages.
“Hey, when can I schedule some time with you?” he asked like he was ordering a sandwich or arranging to have his car detailed.
Bobby had a cocky grin and an even cockier walk, but he had some substance to him as well. A native of Cleveland, he was selected in the 8th round of the 2002 Draft out of Fordham University in New York. He was equal parts sharp guy and wise guy and I couldn’t quite tell if he’d picked up his New York swagger in his three years at Fordham or if it was a personality trait that drew him to a school in the city.
I only knew of one major league player who had gone to Fordham, Frankie Frisch, and I only knew that because he had been nicknamed “The Fordham Flash.” I asked Bobby if he had ever heard of Frisch as we sat down to start our conversation.
“Who, the Flash?” Bobby said with a confident smirk. “Yeah, I’ve heard of him.”
I asked Bobby to give me a brief history of his career, which included some impressive accomplishments. He had just established career highs in doubles (24) and home runs (19) while contributing to a Hickory team that won the South Atlantic League Championship. He had also taken time out of his season to play for the Greek Olympic Team at the 2004 Summer Games in Athens. Host countries are allowed to field a team in every sport without having to qualify and since there was only one baseball field in Greece and barely any Greek nationals who even know how to play the game, the Greek Olympic Committee allowed any American-born player who had no less than third-generation Greek Heritage to be considered. Bobby was one of the stars of the team.
After getting some background, I asked him a simple question, “What can I do to help you?”
Bobby’s face changed from cocky to desperate and his eyes softened from their piercing focus. His body slumped in his chair.
“I know I can do better.”
My conversation that first day with Bobby Kingsbury is a perfect example of what I have found to be the hardest part of my job…the emotional highs and lows I end up experiencing with each and every player. Every baseball player dreams of making it to the big leagues, and while it isn’t difficult to identify which players have the most physical talent in a minor league game, every single player in uniform is holding on to the dream that someday it’s going to happen. Someday, he’ll get his 400 at-bats in a season and show everyone what he can do. This year, he’ll stay injury-free and finally realize all his potential. One of these days, he’ll turn the Rubik’s Cube of his talent in exactly the right combination, all the colors will line up, and he’ll be able to command his fastball on every pitch. Every player in the organization, from AAA to Rookie Ball has his own dream. I have the honor and privilege of getting to share that dream with each of them. Even though I know most of their dreams won’t come true, I can’t help them if I don’t believe that each one of them will.
Sometimes those dreams do come true. Sometimes someone like Shane Youman makes a decision that he’s tired of being ignored, tired of having other people decide his fate, that he’s tired of wasting time and that he’s going to the big leagues. That’s what Shane told me at the beginning of Spring Training in 2006. He began the season in the bullpen at AA Altoona, the same place he had spent the entire 2005 season…now 26 years old, a 43rd round draft pick, never a prospect, with no clear path to the big leagues. A month into the season, he got a spot-start and he never looked back. He went 7-2 with a 1.51 ERA and started the AA All-Star Game that year, then got promoted to AAA Indianapolis, where he went 4-0 in seven starts. In September, he was added to the 40-man roster then called up to Pittsburgh, where he had a 2.91 ERA in five appearances. He started the final game of the season, having gone from the bullpen in AA to starting in the big leagues in one year.
Most of the time, though, the dreams don’t come true. Sometimes all I can do to help a player is to stay with him until his dream has died…a virtual “hospice care” for terminal dreams. It wouldn’t be so hard to deal with if it was apparent who was destined for greatness in the big leagues from the time he was in A-Ball and who was going to hang around for a while until he went home to search for something else to do with his life.
This is what my experience has been with sport psychology. It hasn’t been breathing techniques and visualization and positive self-talk. For the most part, it hasn’t been trying to “fix” players who have problems throwing strikes or throwing to first or getting out of slumps. Most often, my work with baseball players has been getting into the complex details of helping them understand themselves so that they can take advantage of the tremendous talent that they possess. It’s not that I don’t believe in the traditional techniques that are prescribed in most of the literature devoted to peak performance. It’s just that I believe those traditional techniques are only short-term fixes. Let me explain what I mean…
When most players and coaches talk about the mental game of baseball, they are really talking about two basic principles: knowledge and performing under pressure. To have a strong mental game, you have to know what to do and then be able to execute that knowledge when it counts. Most books on sport psychology offer strategies for staying focused, controlling emotions, and developing positive thinking, but they miss the big picture for maximizing talent. When you are comfortable, confident, and in control on the field, you don’t need help staying focused, controlling emotions, or staying positive…that just happens on its own. Instead of learning tricks to help you overcome the tough times, the real key to successful performance is to learn and understand where, when, why and how you experience pressure. If you can know the conditions that make you feel pressure, you can get to the root causes that get you off track and then you won’t need the short-term fixes.
Unfortunately, it takes time to sort through the complexities that make us feel pressure. We all come to the field with our own life experiences, habits, personalities, families, and preferences. And sometimes, we don’t WANT to know what’s really making us feel the way we feel. Learning to understand why we make the decisions we make and training our minds to move toward long-term success is a process that requires patience and practice.
In my work with players, I offer short-term and long-term approaches to developing knowledge and abilities to perform under pressure. In the short term, you need to have some weapons to help you stay on track when you’re not feeling confident, comfortable, and in control while playing the game. And in the long term, you need to be able to know who you are, know what you want, and know what to do if you don’t get it.
The two approaches take the forms of simple concepts that are familiar to all baseball players:
- Dealing with Failure
- Short-Term Skills for Performing Under Pressure
These topics are laid out in this sequence so the following can be answered:
- Know who you are
- Know what you want
- Know what to do when you don’t get it
- Know what to do in the meantime before you’ve mastered these concepts
How are the stories in this book different from the breathing, routines, and positive self-talk you might be used to reading about? On the surface, they might not be that different at all. They are, after all, triggers, reminders, and mindsets that help players break through performance blocks. But the depth of the stories is in how they get to the root of what the players are dealing with, rather than simply helping them get through a tough time. My goal has always been to help players address their realities with honest conversation.
You might find some of the stories take unique paths to get to their points. But they all end with the player understanding more about who he is, or what he wants, or what to do when he doesn’t get what he wants, or what to do in the meantime while he’s figuring those things out. Bobby Kingsbury was brave enough to face a reality many cannot…he was able to be honest with himself that he could do better. He was even braver when he asked me for help. I owed it to him to help him find the answers to those big questions.
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Geoff Miller is a partner at Winning Mind, LLC, a San Diego-based company that helps elite performers in sports, business, and the military perform under pressure.
The majority of Geoff’s time is spent as the Mental Skills Coach for the Atlanta Braves organization. In this role, Geoff is involved with the Braves’ major league team and each of its minor league affiliates, and he conducts psychological evaluations of potential draft selections for the Scouting Department. Geoff has provided mental skills coaching services to two other Major League Baseball teams as well, spending 2005–2009 with the Pittsburgh Pirates and 2010 with the Washington Nationals. In addition to MLB clients, Geoff is a resource to player agents with clients in football and basketball, and he provides individual coaching to amateur athletes in Southern California.
Geoff has lectured at the national conferences of the American Baseball Coaches Association, the MLB Analytics Conference, and the Golf Coaches Association of America. He co-authored a chapter on Assessment in Sport Psychology in the Encyclopedia of Applied Psychology. He holds a bachelor of arts degree from the University of California, Riverside, as well as a master’s degree in sport psychology from San Diego State University.
For more information, please contact Geoff Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org