Mental Health and Meditation in Sports
It is January 2015, the new year just behind us, and I’m in Connecticut for the Red Sox fan fest at Foxwood’s resort. I was coming off my best year in professional baseball, winning the International League (AAA) Pitcher of the Year award, and finally got the call after four years in the minor leagues. I made my major league debut about six months earlier, and spent the last two months of the 2014 season trying to figure out major league hitters; struggling a bit, but mixing in some quality starts. I was battling some shoulder fatigue in my last three or four starts, but still made every one, and had some strong outings. With the team at Foxwoods, paired with the starters for most main events, it seemed that starting rotation opportunity was right in front of me.
Two days later, I was traded.
What the fuck?!
The Red Sox have invested a lot of time and resources into me…why did I only get seven starts with them? Am I not as good as I think? Do I know anyone on the Rangers? I just got my condo for Spring Training, which starts in a week, now what the fuck do I do?
There were probably a ton of others, but you get the point.
Now, fast forward, a few weeks later I land in Phoenix, AZ. I’m taking a ride to my apartment I had just linked on to a couple days earlier. As I unpack some of my stuff I start letting my mind run wild again. The anxiety kicks in.
Immediate shaking of the hands.
The pit in my stomach.
Light sweating and heart racing.
This came from thinking about the next day and reporting to the new team. A small thought that went rampant.
60 guys get invited to camp. I have met three (from a visit I took to Dallas the day after the trade) and played with one other guy, seven years earlier for six weeks in the Cape Cod summer league.
They won’t even remember who I am. Who am I going to talk to? What the fuck am I going to talk to these country boys about? I wonder where my locker is? Oh, sick it’s in the corner with a couple AA guys.
I showed up the next day, did a little introducing, shook hands, made some small talk, took a twenty minute shit to avoid awkwardness, and retreated to my locker and phone, and put my head down as a safe haven. Rinse and repeat. For weeks.
The next six to eight weeks were extremely difficult for me.
I had anxiety about meeting new guys and teammates, a whole new coaching staff and front office watching every move while you compete for a spot, media hyping the race for the 5th starter spot, and living in a new spring training city I have never been before. I was no longer playing with guys I had battled through the minor leagues with who became like family to me. I wasn’t with the organization who selected me in the first round and invested a ton into my development. That combination, along with the psychological effect of being traded; not knowing if the new team wanted me or if the old team wanted to get rid of me, really fucked me up. And it translated to the field.
The sad part? It took me three years to figure out that my physical performance was directly affected by my mental state of mind.
The good part? I am grateful for the three years it took. I am grateful for the things that happened to me, and the lessons I learned throughout the journey. I now have an understanding of the human brain, and its performance. I have knowledge of tools and tactics to help train my mind the same way I train my body. I have had compassion for myself for the thoughts I initially had about new teammates and coaching staffs and have been able to let go of the regret I initially had for losing out on opportunity to meet new people and a chance at success. I have put myself in a much more advantageous position to play baseball again, if I get that opportunity. There were many steps along the way, and I hope I write enough posts to explain them all at some point in detail. For now, I will talk about one of the first tactics that started my journey on mental health and how important it is to an athlete: meditation. I hope to shed some light on some of the stigmas and garbage that is associated with meditation and even some of the hurdles I faced when starting out. I will explain some of the types of meditation I use, and resources that helped me get to where I am today mentally. And as always, I will leave you with a few books to read to help you jumpstart your mental training.
What is meditation?
If you google that phrase you will likely feel overwhelmed. You might see answers about religion, spirituality, monks, and other practices that may be typically labeled as “taboo.” If you do some more reading however, you may like what you see. You might see things such as: “considered thoughts on a subject” or “using thinking and observation to achieve an emotionally calm state.” I like to define meditation as the deliberate practice of channeling thoughts, feelings, and emotions into a positive state of well-being. But it took me a while to arrive at that.
A very long while.
I first was introduced to meditation around 2015, the same time I was traded. At the time, I was ignorant and immature, and thought it seemed pretty ridiculous to be able to “watch” your thoughts and then let them go to achieve clarity of the mind. Now, I block off certain times of my day, even if it is only a couple of minutes, to slow my thoughts down and appreciate being in the present moment.
I feel especially passionate about this subject because of the line above. As an athlete, our lives depend on competition. With that competition comes judgement and comparisons. I struggled with comparing myself to other players constantly, always trying to be inside the minds of the people making decisions about my career. When I got traded, that increased dramatically. I keep referring to the trade because it was a defining moment in my career, especially looking back on my mental journey. At one point with the Rangers, I was feeling so much anxiety and pressure, that the team even prescribed an anti-depressant to help regulate my mood. In the typical maturation cycle, I truly wish I knew what I know now.
Each day I wake up looking forward to what lies ahead. I usually have a pretty good night’s sleep, wake up, and immediately focus on what I am grateful for. That leads me into a positive feeling and allows me to have the energy to get out of bed, usually pretty early, and go start my day. I usually do a few things after waking up like a workout, reading, or making some breakfast and coffee, but before I really start my day, I allow myself to quiet my mind and mediate, often in a number of different ways..
I chose this one first because it’s the practice I choose most often, and I think the most beneficial to an athlete. This is the simple practice of having “mindful awareness” of the thoughts coming into your mind,accepting them for what they are and how they make you feel, letting them go, and then returning to focus on your breathing. This is huge for me when suffering from anxiety as well as “runaway thoughts” revolving around anything related to the game I just pitched, situations within the organization, and countless others. I recognize the thought I am having and how it makes me feel in that moment, accept myself for having it without judgement. I then release it, returning to the focus of breathing in through my nose, and out through my mouth slowly. A good quick read for beginners is a “Real Happiness” by Sharon Salazberg.
This is a simple practice. I sometimes combine this with my mindfulness meditation, but other times just use it as a quick change in perspective when facing something that is bothersome. It is as simple as making a quick list of the things I am truly grateful for which usually results in a pretty radical change in energy and mood. Other times, I send gratitude messages to people I care about, wish well upon, or love. I personalize it, get in depth more than a basic thank you, and find something specific within our relationship that I am particularly grateful for. Try this if you are struggling with mood swings, or feeling angry about someone or situation. Tony Robbins says “It is impossible to be angry and grateful at the same time.”
I might lose some of you here. But, chances are if you’ve read this far, you have some sort of spiritual curiosity or intrigue, right? You may actually reap incredible benefits from this practice, if you are able to put your judgement aside. When I choose to practice a nature meditation, I try my best to immerse myself completely in the moment and use the natural environment around me to my advantage. I absorb the moment, focusing on moments and objects that are usually in the background. I focus on the wind moving the grass or trees, I listen the birds or natural sounds around me, or even as simple and fully noticing everything about every step I take. From the way my foot hits the pavement, to how my foot feels in my shoes and socks, or how the grass feels brushing against me. Sounds spacey, but trust me, it is powerful. I use this practice when I am struggling with staying in the moment, either focusing on something in the past or having worry about something in the future. Center yourself, be in the moment.A good read to blend with this theme is Wherever You Go, There You Are: A Mindfulness Meditation Practice in Everyday Life by Jon Kabat-Zinn.