6 Mental Health Principles We Can Learn From Baseball

By Josh Jonas 

Bob Costas once said that “baseball is proof of God, because no man could create a thing so perfect.”  For those who have no connection to the sport, that quote may seem odd. But for me, that line pretty much sums up the way I have felt about baseball since I was still in single digits.  Every year, my own personal reward for making it through the winter is Opening Day, and there is something about the first day of baseball that makes the world go from black and white to technicolor.  Add this little thing called a global pandemic, and perhaps more than ever I am treating this upcoming season as an emotional finish line.  

I have always found a wisdom in this beautiful sport, which is why it often finds its way into the work I do as a therapist; I’m guided by Baseball just as much as by Bion.  To commemorate the beginning of the 2021 Baseball season, here are six principles that baseball has taught me.  

Inoculate Yourself to Failure

         Without question the hardest single thing to do in sports is to hit a baseball. 

                                                                                    -Ted Williams

A career .300 hitter in baseball is a no-brainer Hall of Famer.   This means that the best of the best in the sport will fail seventy percent of the time.  This is why baseball, more than any other sport, has failure built into it.  Failure is a prerequisite for success — and I don’t say that as some cute line, I mean it quite literally. Ask anyone whose life you admire: artists, athletes, and entrepreneurs alike will tell you about the failures in their life that ultimately led them to their greatest growth. Yet, failure has a way of getting in our head, psyching us out, and telling us we are not worth the goals we are trying to attain.  This is why, just like in baseball, we must inoculate ourselves to failure. Understand that for us to achieve what we want to achieve failure is a must, so the sooner we become okay with it the better. As Frank Wilczek said, “if we’re not failing, we’re not working on hard enough problems.”  

Greatness is not just about “Stuff”

You ever notice how their stuff is shit, but your @#^% is stuff?!

                                                                                    -George Carlin

I was 10 years old the summer my father and I watched Dwight Gooden have one of the greatest seasons a pitcher has ever had.  With two strikes on a batter, Gooden had a curve ball that was so good it would start at the batter’s head and then, at the last moment, drop right into the strike zone.  My father and I would laugh as we watched batters roll their eyes and shake their heads as they walked back to the dugout, everything in their body language saying, “This guy is so good it’s not fair.”  In baseball language, Gooden had “stuff.”

Since that summer of ’85 there have been a handful of pitchers who have put seasons together that have rivaled Gooden’s, and all of them have had something in common. During the course of the season where these pitchers were dominating the league with their amazing “stuff,” there were always a few starts where their “stuff” didn’t show up. Whether a fastball is a little flat, or a curveball doesn’t have its usual bite, a common eccentricity of baseball is that sometimes stuff randomly just disappears.  But what made these dominant pitchers remarkable was that when they weren’t the absolute best they could be it didn’t matter.  “He didn’t have his best stuff today, but he found a way to win,” is a phrase I have heard countless times over the years watching baseball and it has had a profound effect on me.  

So many of us believe that the greats live in their greatness always and effortlessly.  This belief can be painful or even crippling for a lot of us, because the moment we are struggling or even just exuding effort, it then means we have lost the opportunity for us to achieve our own personal greatness.  But if we take a lesson from baseball, we know mastery is not just about our “stuff,” it is just as much about what we do when our stuff doesn’t show up. As a therapist, on the days when I am feeling inspired, energized and in the zone, the work can feel effortless.  However, this past COVID-year has been intense. Anxiety has been up, hopefulness has been down, and Zoom fatigue is real.  This leads us to not always feeling like we are amped and in the zone, and yet the work I’ve done over the past year has been some of my proudest.  I took a cue from baseball and didn’t fret if I felt like I didn’t have my best stuff; I knew there could still be an avenue to winning.

Emotional Injuries are Injuries

90 percent of the game is half mental.

                                                          –Yogi Berra

The back of the pitcher staring in at his catcher, ready to take on the batter is the definitive perspective anytime we watch a ballgame on TV.  However, it is also the least accurate in getting a feel for what it is like to stand only sixty feet away from someone throwing a hard ball 98 mph in your general direction. A fastball can get to homeplate in less than four-tenths of a second, which is why if it were to be thrown right at you, you’d be in a lot of trouble with nowhere to go; every so often this happens.  There’s an unfortunate history of ballplayers getting hit, and seriously hurt by a pitch–the worst being in 1920 when Cleveland Indian’s shortstop Ray Chapman died shortly after being hit in the head by a fastball. Dying is thankfully a rarity, but injury is not.  

In 2009 Mets third baseman David Wright was hit square in the helmet by a Matt Cain fastball, dropping him to the ground. Wright was helped off the field and hospitalized overnight with a concussion. After three weeks Wright’s physical injuries and symptoms had healed enough for the medical staff to clear him to play.  But watching him return to “the scene of the crime,” he was noticeably uncomfortable. Ostensibly Wright was trying to stare down the barrel of a gun, where he had last been shot, and now remain calm, believing he was safe.  It then only makes sense that for days following his reemergence from the injured list, Wright struggled to get his bearings at the plate; a setting where he had been so steady before. Just about any player that gets hit in the head like Wright has an identical experience.  They are ready to play, and yet they are not.  Because one injury has healed, while another still needs time–the emotional injury that the incident caused. 

Whether it is getting hit in the head by a fastball, or a relief pitcher giving up a walk-off homer in the ninth, a major part of baseball is healing from the emotional injury.  Which is why watching baseball for the majority of my life has taught me to take the emotional injury seriously, because so often we don’t. The loss of a loved one, the ending of a relationship, or even a fight with someone we care about are examples of situations that cause real injuries in our emotional world.  So much of the time we try to push past these injuries and get back to “normal,” before that injury has been healed.  The idea that David Wright would have tried to stay in the game after he got hit in the head sounds absurd to us, and yet we often attempt the emotional equivalent.  Emotional injuries have the same properties as physical ones, and they need to be treated as such.

Don’t Look at What the Guy Behind You is Doing

Ninety feet between bases is perhaps as close as man has ever come to perfection.

 –Sportswriter Red Smith

Whether it’s stealing a base, or legging out an infield hit, the number of plays at the bases that are hairline close make Smith’s quote hard to argue.  

It is obvious that a ballplayer needs to get to whichever base they are running to as quickly as possible. You would think then that this happens every time.  But it doesn’t.  As the runner is booking it as fast as they can to the base in front of them, there is a small thing they will sometimes do that slows them down–look behind them to see where the ball is. Many times that look slows them down just enough to be out.  

I’ve heard many an announcer say, “He would’ve been safe if he hadn’t looked behind him! Why did he do that?!?!” It’s a good question.  And the answer is because it is really hard not to.  As much as all ball players know intellectually that turning around will do nothing for them, the instinct to see how they are doing in relation to what’s behind them is so strong.  This is why a baseball player has to train himself to go as hard as he can in the direction of the base in front of him, and ignore the impulse.

This has been a big life lesson for me and my patients.  It is a natural thing to want to turn around and see where we are in our lives in comparison to others.  Am I doing enough, making enough, being enough compared to others around me are natural questions and feelings to have. Though they are natural, they are also not helpful.  Just as in baseball, looking around to see where we are in terms of others does nothing but cause us to lose our focus and slow us down.  

In fact, the ballplayer that goes hard into the base without looking behind him is physically embodying the stoic idea of euthymia: having a sense of your own path, and the ability to stay on it while not being distracted by others that intersect it.  As much as possible, this is how we should be.  Looking around to see where we are and who’s gaining on us slows us down, blurs our purpose, and has the ability to put us into an anxious chaotic state.  Looking at only what’s in front of us is the quickest way to achieve what we’re aiming to achieve.   It is also a way for us to feel what euthymia definitionally means: Tranquility.  

Be 100% Behind Your Pitch

Pitching is both [art and science] and you have to put them together. You have to study the movement of your pitches. You have to learn to read bat speed against the speed of a fastball. If a hitter has a slow swing, I don’t want to throw him anything soft. I want to go hard against slow. If he has a quick bat, I probably want to be soft more than I want to be hard.

                                                                      -Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez

Author Nick Hornby on creating a mix tape: “A good compilation tape…is hard to do. You’ve got to kick off with a corker to hold the attention, and then you’ve got to up it a notch, or cool it a notch. . . there are [a lot] of rules.” Hornby is describing the delicate balance of art and science that goes into connecting music.  Take the phrase compilation tape out of the quote, and put the word pitching in, and you see that there really is no difference.  Pitching is creating a mix tape; a beautiful blend of art and science.

Pitchers and catchers spend hours together going over what pitch they will throw in what scenario, and what batter will or won’t get what pitch.  As Nick Hornby said, there are a lot of rules.  There is a sentiment in baseball that there is a right pitch to throw at the right time.  And yet, there is a saying in baseball that I love: Better to be 100% behind the wrong pitch, than 50% behind the right one. In a sport where a specific scenario dictates a certain rule for the pitcher, this other idea exists as well; all rules get thrown out for the truth. That is the art.

As much as a situation may call for an off-speed pitch, if the pitcher in that moment is feeling most confident and certain about his fastball, then he should go with the heater.  Because knowing the “correct” pitch in a given circumstance means nothing if it is not fully invested in by the pitcher’s mind and body.  The right pitch can be overruled by the true pitch.

In my work, and in myself, I revisit this idea often. When we feel lost, it often comes from solving for the wrong thing. We tend to look for the right thing to do, versus feeling for the thing we need to do-the thing that is grounded in our purpose.  Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl said it is not for us to ask life, “What is the meaning of all this?” But rather understand it is us that is being asked by life, “What is our meaning?” 

Answering this is hard, but if peace of mind comes from being fully invested in the pitches we throw-the things we do- we need to answer this question for ourselves.  Whether it is the “best” thing to do may be secondary to the thing I can fully invest in with no regrets, regardless of the outcome.  Or as Sandy Koufax put it, “A guy that throws what he intends to throw, that’s the definition of a good pitcher.”

Sometimes, Miracles Can Happen

                           In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened!

                                              -Vin Scully during Game 1 of the ’88 World Series

When I was 9 years-old, after a decent amount of begging, my parents finally agreed to take me to a movie that I had been treating as the cultural event of a lifetime! “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo.”  Apparently, I wasn’t the only 80’s kid that felt this way, because when we got there it was sold out.  Beyond bummed, my parents tried to convince me to see the other movie that was starting at the same time.  But it was Boogaloo or bust for me, and so I only had interest in the movie that had, at a minimum, three break dance battles.  Though their stating over and over that this was a better movie sounded ridiculous, after some hardcore begging of their own I conceded.  I agreed, with zero enthusiasm, to see the movie I was sure would be a complete waste of an evening: “The Natural.”  

I never use this word, but that might have been the first time in my nine years that I had ever been enthralled. Roy Hobbs, perhaps the greatest player you ever saw, single handedly brings his ball club within a game of winning the pennant.  In his final at bat, with blood on his shirt from an old injury that could cripple him at any moment, he hits a homerun off of the hard throwing reliever.  He wins the pennant for the fictional New York Knights, and Roy Hobbs rounds the bases as his entire team celebrates in ecstatic amazement. 

I fell in love with “The Natural,” and for days after I kept replaying that ending in my head. The Epicness of it. The Beauty of it.  Even if it was a miracle that only Hollywood could create, I didn’t care; I loved it.  Except five years later, “The Natural”happened for real.  

In 1988 The Oakland Athletics were the powerhouse of the majors in a men amongst boys kind of way.  With names like McGuire, Canseco, and pitching Ace Dave Stewart, the A’s looked like the Ivan Drago of Major League Baseball.  They also had what was known as their “secret weapon;” Dennis Eckersley.  With 45 saves that year, Eckersley was lights out, the best relief pitcher in baseball. 

As expected, Oakland rolled over the rest of the American League winning 104 games, sweeping The Pennant, and were obvious favorites to dominate and win The World Series. Just under six hours south of Oakland were their awaiting victims, The Los Angeles Dodgers.   

The ’88 Dodgers were the Acura Integra of baseball teams. They were good.  They were solid. They were also completely out of their league when it came to matching up against The A’s.  Whereas Oakland did what everyone expected them to do, Los Angeles overachieved all year, and really did it on the back of one man-Kirk Gibson.  

Gibson was the MVP of The National League in 1988 and the heart and soul of The Dodgers.  More than just MVP numbers Gibson had MVP traits. He had fire, he had grit, he had the passion and charisma that could carry a ball club all the way to the World Series, which is exactly what he did.  However, as impactful as Gibson was, The Dodgers were still thought to have no chance as they were David to Oakland’s Goliath.   

Which is why The World Series was over before it began.  Gibson had injured both legs so badly in the previous series that he couldn’t walk, which meant he couldn’t play.  And if there was no Gibson, ostensibly there were no Dodgers.

Game 1 started with the announcement that Gibson wouldn’t be playing.  They tried everything from ice to cortisone injections, but apparently Kirk Gibson could barely stand.  With that the game took on the quality that everyone expected.  Oakland led 4-3 going into the bottom of the 9th, and as had happened so many times before, Dennis Eckersley came in to shut it down.  

Eckersley worked quickly getting the first batter to pop up and the next to strike out.  Mike Davis was up next followed by the pitcher’s spot which meant that if Davis got on, there would be a pinch hitter.  The obvious question became, is Gibson coming? The TV cameras scanned the entire Dodger’s dugout, looking for any sign that he might be lurking. But Vin Scully let everyone watching know that Kirk Gibson was nowhere to be found.  Instead, Dave Anderson waited to pinch hit if needed.  

Uncharacteristically, Eckersley walked Mike Davis.  Dave Anderson then turned around, went back to the dugout, and just like a movie I had seen when I was nine, Kirk Gibson came hobbling up to the plate.  He took a few practice swings that hurt to watch, you could feel electricity coming from the television, and then Gibson stepped in against Eckersley.  

Eckersley fired in two fastballs, Gibson gave them each late emergency swings fouling them away, and just like that Gibson had one strike left. Another foul ball, and with each swing you could feel the brittleness in Gibson’s lower half.  As he made his way back into the batter’s box Vin Scully remarked “It’s one thing to favor one leg, but how do you favor two?” 

Then a ball.  Another foul ball. A ball again, and again. And somehow Gibson got himself to the line that my friends and I would say every time we played stickball against our garage.  World Series…bottom of the ninth…three and two…two outs.  With everyone in Dodger Stadium on their feet Gibson called time out, took a deep breath, and stepped back in one more time.  Dennis Eckersley then threw a slider that started to tail away from the plate, Gibson lunged at it with what looked like a one-armed swing, and the baseball took off, sailing higher and higher, not stopping until it landed in the right field stands.  Dodger Stadium exploded as Kirk Gibson limped around the bases and pumped his fist until he crossed home.  The game was over, The Dodgers won, and I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. 

On the radio legendary Jack Buck announced, “A homerun by Gibson! I don’t believe what I just saw! I don’t BELIEVE what I just saw! Is this really happening?!” Buck had been calling ballgames for over thirty years by 1988, and what he just saw he couldn’t comprehend.  The Dodgers went on to win The World Series, and we had all just witnessed a baseball miracle.   

Sometimes, miracles can happen.  That is what I learned 33 years ago witnessing the Gibson homerun.  Sometimes, they can happen, and we need to make room for them. Because things we thought would never exist, can.  Trauma imprints on our nervous system that the things we never got, we never will. And the ways we are, we will always be.  This means to some, a better, easier way does not exist.

“It’s miraculous Josh,” a patient said to me and his wife in a recent couple’s session. “I’m not kidding. The fact that I can wake up in the morning now not anxious, not feeling dread, but feeling good. That I can feel good and hopeful about my day…it feels like a miracle.”  Alcoholics can stop drinking. Those who never think they’ll find a loving partner do.  These things happen.  

If mediocrity knows nothing above itself, our making space for a miracle from time to time can be the beginning of us tapping into our greatness.  Allowing for something that is difficult to believe in to exist.  Like Kirk Gibson with two bad legs and one arm hitting a homerun to win a World Series.  I don’t believe what I just saw!

Happy Opening Day Everybody.

Josh Jonas is a Psychotherapist with The Village Institute (https://villageinstitute.com/).

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The Editorial Team at Lake Oconee Health is made up of skilled health and wellness writers and experts, led by Daniel Casciato who has over 25 years of experience in healthcare writing. Since 1998, we have produced compelling and informative content for numerous publications, establishing ourselves as a trusted resource for health and wellness information. We aim to provide our readers with valuable insights and guidance to help them lead healthier and happier lives.