Experienced players and coaches know that baseball is as much a mental game as it is a physical one. In this guest blog, mental performance coach Mike Huber discusses how a better understanding of sports psychology can help players build tools to boost confidence, increase focus, manage anxiety, and create sustainable training routines.
Written by Mike Huber
Mental performance coaching, often referred to as sport psychology, has been part of professional baseball for over 30 years. Pioneers like Harvey Dorfman and Ken Ravizza helped make mental skills training accepted in baseball.
Since the 1980s, the prevalence of mental skills coaching within major league baseball has grown steadily and significantly. Today, almost all major league organizations employ teams of mental skills coaches to help develop players at the minor league and major league levels, as well as internationally (Hayes, 2019; Jones, 2020).
In fact, the Major League Baseball Players Association has requested access to mental performance coaching through a previously negotiated Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA; Jones). The CBA states, “each Club shall provide Players with access, on a voluntary basis, to confidential sports psychology services in a private space” (Jones, p. 43).
There is perhaps no better indication that mental performance coaching is important and effective than professional baseball players demanding access to these services.
So, how do mental skills coaches help baseball players?
Mental performance coaches (MPCs) often help players build tools to increase confidence, increase focus, manage anxiety, and create sustainable routines to deal with the “grind” that is a baseball season.
However, in my experience, baseball players often view mental performance coaching as a way to “fix” performance issues in the short-term. I often call this the “band-aid” approach. However, my experience tells me that mental performance coaching is a long game. Baseball players that invest time and energy in working on their mental game see long-term benefits.
So, what is the payoff for baseball players making the long-term investment in mental skills training?
One study has shown mental skills training results in greater performance consistency, meaning that players have “fewer and shorter slumps, and more frequent and longer streaks” (Hayes, p. 14).
In addition, the same study provided statistically significant evidence that players that work with MPCs have longer careers on average than players that do not work with MPCs (Hayes). More specifically, players who worked with MPCs played 2.3 years longer than players who did not work with MPCs. Being able to extend your career by over two years could mean the difference between retirement and making it to the next level of professional baseball or even a new contract. For an amateur baseball player, greater longevity could mean advancing from high school to college baseball or college baseball to professional sport. Advancing levels typically requires players to adapt to a higher level of competition and likely, more frequent failure.
What the Hayes study did not find is that working with an MPC significantly enhanced on-field performance as defined by batting average for hitters and earned run average for pitchers.
I believe the Hayes study supports my personal hypothesis that investing in mental performance coaching is a long-term proposition that requires commitment and patience. The benefit of mental performance coaching in my view, and supported by the research, is that learning how to effectively cope with the ups and downs of the baseball grind is critical to success. Judging success as a baseball player based on results alone in the short-term can lead to burnout and ultimately retirement from the game.
So, what are some suggestions for baseball players interested in working with an MPC?
Work with someone who understands the game of baseball.
While it isn’t always necessary to work with an MPC that is expert in your sport, I find that understanding the unique nature of baseball and all of its nuances can really help in developing mental strategies for coping with baseball’s inherent failures and improving performance.
Work with a Certified Mental Performance Consultant®, if possible.
There are many MPCs out there with varying degrees of training. Just because someone isn’t certified through the Association for Applied Sport Psychology (AASP), doesn’t mean they aren’t necessarily qualified to help you. However, CMPCs are highly trained in sport psychology theory, development of mental skills and strategies, and have at least 200 hours of fieldwork experience working with athletes in the application of those theories and strategies.
Trust your instincts when choosing an MPC.
Success in the mental performance coaching relationship requires trust between the MPC and the athlete. Trust your gut when selecting someone to work with. Do they seem to have your best interests at heart? Are they committed to your success first and foremost? Having a relationship that allows for open and honest communication will likely generate the best results in the MPC-athlete relationship.
Hayes, C. (2019). Mind games: Does using a mental skills coach improve the performance of professional baseball players? Master’s Thesis, Harvard Extension School.
Jones, M.S. (2020). The intersection of context, professional philosophy, and working alliance: MPCs’ experiences within professional baseball.
Perkins, J. (2021 November 15). The role of mental performance coaches in player development. Retrieved from: https://www.prospectslive.com/prospects-live/2021/11/14/the-role-of-mental-performance-coaches-in-player-development