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Mental Health Principles We Can Learn From Baseball

A Personal Perspective: How this wisdom fits into my work as a therapist.

Joshua Peacock/ Unsplash
Source: Joshua Peacock/ Unsplash

Part I of III

Bob Costas once said, “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 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 the principles that baseball has taught me.

1. Inoculate yourself against 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 70 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 heads, 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 against failure. Understand that for us to achieve what we want to achieve, failure is a must, so the sooner we become OK with it, the better. As Frank Wilczek said, “If we’re not failing, we’re not working on hard enough problems.”

2. Greatness is not just about “stuff”

"You ever notice how their stuff is shit, but your shit 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.

Many of us believe that the greats live in their greatness always and effortlessly. This belief can be painful or even crippling for the rest of us because the moment we are struggling or even just exuding effort, it then means we have lost the opportunity 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 feel 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.

Part I of III

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