Tonight, the Kansas City Royals and the San Francisco Giants (who knew!) will square off in Game One of the 2014 World Series. I’m guessing that at least one of the 50 gentlemen on the two rosters will be a little nervous before the game starts. Maybe more than one. And surely, someone at a bar or on your couch or on a national telecast will opine on whether butterflies are currently flying in the stomach of just about every player that flashes across the screen. The World Series is amateur psychology’s finest hour.
I’m not an amateur. I have a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, so before everyone starts saying a bunch of silly things about how pressure is getting the better of Player X, we need to have a discussion about where butterflies come from, how they work, and what they really mean.
First things first. Butterflies in the stomach are not a character flaw. They are a simple fact of biology. When a human being realizes that a situation is particularly stressful (and yeah, being in a World Series counts), the body activates the “fight or flight” response. This happens to everyone. This response evolved to do pretty much what the name says. To survive, our ancestors either had to prevail in a fight against whatever animal they were up against or they had to run away faster. The fact that you are reading this suggests that the response was effective. But what happens is that the body gets ready to run by increasing the flow of blood through the body (your heart races), increasing its intake of oxygen (you breathe more heavily), and getting rid of whatever ballast it might be able to (you suddenly feel like you have to go to the bathroom and throw up). The body is getting ready to make fast, powerful movements, either striking out with power at that saber-toothed tiger or running really fast in the opposite direction of that saber-toothed tiger.
In baseball making quick powerful movements may sound like a great idea. A great swing is both quick and powerful. All that extra adrenaline should surely make a player better, right? Not so fast. Baseball is a wonderful game in that the balance that has to be struck between gross motor skills (the ability to hurl something really really fast) and fine motor control (the ability to make it spin just right so that it flies to an area that’s a couple of square inches big) is remarkably important. It’s not enough in baseball to just be a lumberjack. You need to be a lumberjack who can do a little ballet. So, that fight or flight response, which prioritizes power over nuance is going to affect a player. It might make him more jumpy or just less accurate, but it will likely make him a less good baseball player.
Thankfully, and I can’t stress this enough, the body normally doesn’t keep that system activated for very long. At least it’s not meant to be active for that long. The body has a counter-system that naturally brings the body down from the heightened alert of fight or flight. If you think about it, the situations that it was designed to work in are ones where a person must act decisively over a small period of time. A player might be nervous during the introductions to the game, but they also take half an hour to complete. We actually have decent evidence that closers display this sort of jittery behavior for about 15 minutes from when they “know” that they will have a save to convert, and then calm down. So, for most of the game, players will not be fighting back the butterflies.
There’s a narrative that runs throughout baseball (and most of professional sports) of the player who will reach a key moment in a game and become paralyzed by fear. That can happen, and maybe a hitter has let a called third strike go by him because he was too terrified to swing. (Or maybe he just made a bad decision.) But it is much more rare than people seem to believe. The evidence is that people who find themselves in crisis situations, and here I mean situations in which someone’s life is actually on the line, they report a moment of panic and then they find themselves doing whatever needs to be done. They do report a feeling of disconnect about the situation (“It was weird because I knew he might die, but I just did one step after another”).
To take an example from my own life, one day a few years ago while I was working as a trainee at a hospital behavioral services department, a call came through 911 and was routed to our front desk. There was a man about to jump off a building and somehow I happened to be the closest mental health worker to that phone. If there’s ever a time for clutch performance in a job, it’s that one. Yes, I had a brief moment of panic, but also I realized that I had trained for this sort of event. I followed my training. I’m happy to report that he decided to walk down the stairs to street level and wait for help. I felt that disconnect, but there was another part of me that realized that I didn’t have the luxury of philosophizing about that disconnect.
One other thing that I had going for me (and that baseball players do too) is that they have a great deal of practice. Yes, a hitter might feel nervous going into an at-bat, but he’s also just spent the last six months or so taking at-bats. There’s comfort in repetition. There’s comfort in muscle memory. It’s why most people in high-stress jobs spend so much time doing drills of their necessary skills.
But that’s not to say that baseball players are immune from butterflies. I mentioned earlier that while the body does have a system to counter the “fight or flight” reflex, “fight or flight” can be turned back on if the player feels that he is in a pressure or threatening situation again. Maybe he realizes again that it’s Game One in the middle of the sixth inning, right before he goes to bat. The good news is that he is not doomed. With any luck, a manager or coach or someone has already told him to expect this and strategized about how he will handle it, the same way that they’ve talked about what to expect from Madison Bumgarner on 0-1. There are all sorts of techniques for handling anxiety, from breathing exercises to mentally talking oneself through it.
There’s probably also a good amount of team-level prevention that goes on. Another one of those lovely playoff clichés is the idea that “everyone here keeps each other loose.” During Game Five of the NLCS, I was listening to the San Francisco radio broadcast and during some particularly high-leverage moment where the Giants were making a pitching change, Jon Miller was amazed to see that Pablo Sandoval had stolen Brandon Crawford’s glove. The two probably shared a good laugh and for a moment forgot that they were playing for a trip to the World Series. There’s a lot of power in that sort of distraction. It can reset the fight or flight response. And no, it’s not a minor miracle that teams have traditions for doing this sort of thing (they all do), but it is important.
To be sure, there are people who suffer from anxiety disorders out there (and some of them are probably professional baseball players). These men do not have a character flaw either. Their fight or flight response (along with some specific neurochemical pathways in the brain) has a factory setting where it goes off a little too often and is a little too strong. This different wiring is not something that a player (or anyone else really) has any control over. It’s just one of those things that some people are born with. My hope, both as someone who is interested in the mental health well-being of others and someone who likes good baseball is that they have sought out treatment for it (there is treatment, it works, and people get better!) It’s very likely that those folks are spending extra time preparing for those nervous moments.
Now, these strategies to fight back against nervousness are not 100 percent effective. Sometimes, you really will be looking at a player who is caught up in the moment and sometimes that hanging slider really will be because he’s too amped up. But sometimes, a pitcher… might just hang a slider. That happens too. But what’s important that folks understand is that while nerves can catch up with players, the idea that a player is in some way flawed as a human being (“What a loser, he can’t handle the big stage…”) has to stop. Players are going through a natural human reaction to an important situation, and I don’t think people understand how much effort really goes into combating that reaction. More than that, if a player has a moment where the situation gets the better of him, it is most likely that the next time, he’ll actually be okay. Sometimes, you do everything right and it just doesn’t work that time. One moment does not define a person. We tend to forget that in sports.
So this week, when you’re watching the World Series, there will probably be a new hero minted. Someone will have a really good game or a really good at-bat at a really opportune time. And yeah, someone might become the answer to the trivia question of who was on the losing end of that battle. But the shaming of athletes as weak because they let nervousness get the better of them is not only terrible amateur psychology, it’s rather unfair to them as human beings. So, if you hear someone doing it, you know the truth about butterflies. I encourage you to call that person on it.
Thank you for reading
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