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Kobritz: The mental game of baseball

Beyond the Lines

Yogi Berra once said, “Ninety percent of the game is half mental.” Berra, one of the most quotable baseball players of all time, was credited with innumerable sayings, some of which he never said. But in his 1998 book, aptly titled, “The Yogi Book: I Really Didn’t Say Everything I Said!” Berra did take credit for emphasizing the mental aspects of the game in his own unique language. Not everyone agreed with him.

“If you said mental skills (years ago),’’ said Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon, “that was an absolute sign that you were weak among the old-school guys.” Boy, how the game has changed. According to a survey by USA Today, at the beginning of the 2018 season 27 out of 30 MLB teams employed a “mental skills coach,” someone players could talk to about their struggles, fears and emotions, in either their personal or professional lives. The specialists even have their own professional association, the Professional Baseball Performance Psychology Group.

The Yankees employ a staff of five mental skills coaches. Says General Manager Brian Cashman, “Our job is to put our players in the best position to find success, and that means not just physically, but mentally and emotionally at the same time. We’re trying to exercise all of the muscles, including the brain. Another tool.”

And why not? Employing mental health coaches should be no more controversial than having an analytics department. An employee who crunches numbers no more competes with a scout than a mental skills coach competes with a pitching coach. Ken Ravizza, a sports psychologist who passed away on July 8, was one of the pioneers of mental skills coaching. Ravizza, a kinesiology professor at Cal State Fullerton and consultant to the school’s baseball team, authored the book, “Heads-Up Baseball: Playing the Game One Pitch at a Time.” His mantra was simple: “Forget the last game, forget the last play and forget the excuses.” To drive home his point, he presented the players with a miniature toilet, a metaphor to flush away a bad at-bat, a poor pitch or a fielding mistake.

Ravizza formed a bond with Maddon while the latter was a minor league manager for the Angels. Maddon introduced Ravizza to his players when he managed Tampa Bay and later as manager of the Cubs. Ravizza’s low-key approach allowed him to overcome the stigma that he never played the game, something Bob Tewksbury never had to deal with as a former MLB pitcher. Tewksbury, currently employed as a sports psychologist by the Giants, won 110 games in a 13-year career that ran the gamut of success and failure. Once an All-Star and a third-place finisher in balloting for the 1992 Cy Young Award, he was also released twice.

Baseball’s mental health professionals go by various titles - director of optimal performance, sport psychologist, director of specialized performance programs, and mental skills coach. But regardless of what they’re called, their importance to player and team success in a sport where public failure is a certainty, cannot be overstated.

Jordan Kobritz is a non-practicing attorney and CPA, former Minor League Baseball team owner and current investor in MiLB teams. He is a professor in the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog, sportsbeyondthelines.com. The opinions contained in this column are the author’s. Kobritz can be reached by email at jordan.kobritz@cortland.edu.