Psychology and Baseball


As a graduate with a degree in Psychology from Western Michigan University, personally, I have always been fascinated by the role that an individual’s psyche plays in their performance on the field. Now, while I do have some understanding of the psychology of an individual, I certainly don’t claim to be an expert. I would need much more schooling beyond my 4 years to be so. Even though I haven’t continued in the field, I think it is safe to say, I or anyone else, don’t have to be Sigmund Frued or John B. Watson to realize that what goes on between the ears can effect what happens on a baseball field.

So much of baseball is mental in that often, thinking can get in the way. Pitchers and hitters have to be able to repeat the mechanics of their motions naturally, which can be difficult when a player has something going on in their life that could be entirely unrelated to baseball. After all, baseball players are human beings like the rest of us who have to deal with enormous pressure on a day to day basis. It should stand that from time to time they need help to get their mind right so they can just go out and play the game with as few distractions as possible.

Given what we know about a person’s mental health and how it can affect job performance, my assumption has always been that almost every team in baseball employs individuals that can help players that are going through a rough time. An interview with Brian Peterson, a sports psychologist employed by the Detroit Tigers, by David Laurila of Fangraphs reminded me today that maybe that isn’t the case.

I was a little surprised of course to see an article like this on Fangraphs, but the interview is definitely worth checking out.

Within that interview, Peterson guesses that approximately 6 or 7 teams employ “performance enhancement instructors” as he calls himself, which is somewhat of an astonishingly low number to me. As a fan of the sport that has as much to do with the mental aspects of the game as any, I am glad that the Tigers are one of these teams.

The question is, what is really taking these other teams so long to at least offer their players access to an individual like this?

I would imagine that it would have to do with the stigma still attached to those individuals that seek the help of someone like Peterson. In the world of professional athletes, going to see someone who can help give you the tools to deal with things outside of baseball, is probably seen as a sign of weakness by some. After all, there is a great deal of machismo in baseball, the sport essentially being a series of individual matchups of who is going to get the better of the other guy. The real shame is that guys like Peterson aren’t more readily available to players.

Part of the reason sports psychologists might not be more heavily employed by organizations is the trust issue. Within the interview at Fangraphs, you can see that Peterson goes out of his way to mention the word trust and confidentiality several times. This is obviously important, and why I think he makes sure he mentions it. Players have to feel comfortable talking to him, which I am sure can be difficult given that the Tigers employ him. In effect, it could be like talking to a teacher at school about something personal as a reason for a bad grade, then worrying that the teacher is going to contact your parents. The difference is that the teacher isn’t bound by the same rules of confidentiality as someone like Peterson is. Still, there might just be more of a comfort level for the player to go and talk to a sports psychologist that is away from the organization.

As I mentioned earlier, I am glad the Tigers are one of the teams in baseball that employ an individual like Peterson. We have seen players of all skill levels deal with things outside of baseball that can affect what they do on the field. Two prime examples of this are Zack Greinke and Joey Votto. Ex-Tiger Dontrelle Willis is also one to have been known to deal with anxiety issues. It stands to reason that there is a good percentage of baseball players, just like the regular population, that deal with issues like these.

Watching baseball players, and athletes in general, it is easy for us to forget sometimes that these men and women are just human beings like us. It is easy to forget that because idolizing athletes, or being jealous of the money they make is ingrained into our society. However, they deal with the same things we deal with on a day to day basis, whether that be a death in the family, or a fight with their wife, or a kid getting picked on at school. These every day issues are  likely to effect them as it does us. We often just don’t know about it, nor should we really.

Still, it is something that we should all keep in mind when a player is going through a slump. Maybe they don’t suck, maybe they are just being human.

*There is obviously a ton more information out there on this subject. All you have to do is Google the title of this piece and you can read up more on it if you would like.