Bob Tewksbury is familiar with the adage that 90 percent of the game is mental. A sport psychology coach in the Red Sox organization, his job is to help the team’s minor league players reach their on-field potential by maximizing their mental performance.
Known for having outstanding control, Tewksbury spent 13 seasons as a big league pitcher, compiling a career record of 110-102 with six teams. Originally with the Yankees, he had his best season in 1992 when he went 16-5 with a 2.16 ERA for St. Louis. After retiring, Tewksbury received a Master’s Degree in Sport Psychology and Counseling from Boston University. A player development consultant for the Red Sox in 2004, he has been in his current role since 2005.
David Laurila talked to Tewksbury for Baseball Prospectus about the mental game of baseball and the field of sport psychology.
David Laurila: What are your primary responsibilities as a sport psychology coach?
Bob Tewksbury: My primary role is to help all players within the Red Sox minor league system perform to the best of their abilities. That work entails several aspects depending on the area of performance the player feels he needs to work on. Those areas can include: working on better pre-game, in-game, and post-game routines; learning how to relax more while at the plate, on the mound, or in the field; how to deal with negative thoughts; how to improve concentration; or helping players establish proper goals. It could be helping counsel a player with personal or interpersonal issues away from the field which may be affecting the player’s performance.
DL: Give us a brief history of sport psychology in baseball.
BT: As far as I know, a man named Coleman Griffith, who is considered to be the “father of sport psychology” in North America, was the first sport psychologist to work with professional baseball teams when he was asked to help the Chicago Cubs in 1925. Over the last several years there have been many other sport psychologists, or sport psychology consultants, working with teams. Most notable are Harvey Dorfman and Karl Kuehl, who authored The Mental Game of Baseball, and Ken Ravizza who authored the book Heads Up Baseball and worked for years with the (then) California Angels.
DL: How difficult is it to get young male athletes to open up and talk about their feelings? And how do those attitudes differ from when you played?
BT: Let’s face it, since the beginning of time, it could be stated that men have always had difficulty talking about their feelings, regardless of their profession. The underlying theme is that men are afraid to show weakness and vulnerability, and in a profession like professional sports, in this case baseball, you don’t want to be seen as weak by others. I know as a young player with the Yankees in 1986, I was afraid to express myself, in part because of not wanting to let anyone know how I felt, but largely because I didn’t have a resource to talk to such as a team sport psychologist or mental skills coach. That is one reason I got into doing this work, and know the value in it from a player’s perspective. I don’t really know if the players have changed much, but I do know that more teams have better resources for the players than 20 years ago, and that is the first step to getting the players to share thoughts and fears that years ago they had no one to talk with them about.
DL: Explain “visualization” and how it helps in baseball.
BT: The mental skill of visualization has proven to be effective in a variety of sports. This is a skill which I used more than any other when I played, as part of my pre-game preparation. On days I would pitch, I would get my Walkman and head to the trainer’s room for a visualization session. I would lie there for 15-30 minutes, picturing in my mind what I wanted to do for the game. In my mind, I would throw all my pitches, oftentimes falling asleep during the process. The mental rehearsal helped me have positive focus prior to the game, and the nap helped ease any pre-game butterflies I may have had by helping me get them (the butterflies) to fly in order. It was a great pre-game routine for me, and many times the events of the game happened JUST like I had visualized in my mind. The bottom line with visualization is that the body doesn’t know the difference between a real or imagined action. For example, if I visualize throwing a fastball down-and-away to a hitter, the muscle fibers in my body respond just like I was really doing it–to a much lesser degree, obviously, but still nonetheless. By visualizing, you are programming your body to respond accordingly to an imagined action. If you think and picture good things, there is a good chance they will happen. The opposite side of that is also true. Ask any golfer who hits the ball in the water off the tee! I’ll bet nine times out of 10 that happened because the golfer had a quick mental picture; he visualized it happening…and as much as he tried to not do it, his body (and his mind) led him there!
DL: Is there such a thing as an ideal baseball personality? And if so, is Manny Ramirez the poster child?
BT: What you are talking about here is what scouts and executives call “makeup.” High-achieving players play with confidence, have a short-term memory regarding past failures, keep their focus on the process of their actions rather than on the result, and minimize their achievements. Those players have the ideal baseball personality. Manny certainly has many of those attributes, and in my opinion, is one of the best right-handed hitters of all time.
DL: How much confluence is there between the psychological and the mechanical–a player’s confidence being affected by mechanical issues?
BT: I think a player’s confidence is affected by mechanical issues. That is both good and bad. For example, a hitter can be really scuffling at the plate and will start looking for something to get him going again. He may or may not work with the hitting coach to “tinker” with some things mechanically, i.e. “Let’s open your stance some,” or “Let’s get loaded earlier.” That mechanical “change” may make the player feel better for the moment, and may even give him some confidence at the plate, which may or may not be immediately rewarded by the player getting a hit. If he is rewarded, the player’s confidence can go up and he may go off on a little streak and life is good. That change may be effective short-term, but it’s my belief that eventually the player will come back to another time when things aren’t going well and look to make another change. This cycle is not a good one for hitters to get into. Another example would be a hitter who is hitting rockets all over the field but is not getting the results he wants, namely hits! So what does he do? He makes a change–unnecessarily, mind you–because he isn’t getting results (which he can’t control) and thinks he has to do something differently to get hits. In both cases, perhaps the only change that needed to be made by the player was a mental one. Perhaps the player who wasn’t getting results, even though he was hitting the ball hard, can just keep his focus on the process–not so much on the outcome. By doing so, he will see that although the “results” are not what he is working toward, he is doing everything right and must stick with his plan and approach. The player who was hitting poorly may have just needed to work on some positive self-talk and relaxation at the plate. He may have been trying to do too much, and as a result was putting too much pressure on his performance. I believe, in most cases, it’s not the mechanical adjustments players need to make, but the mental ones.
DL: Sport psychologists talk about “performance anchors” and “expecting to win” versus “hoping to win.” In a game where failure is commonplace, what is the best way to incorporate those concepts?
BT: It comes down to what the players are thinking. Thoughts lead to actions, and those actions translate into performance. The reality is that all players have negative thoughts and doubts. The difference is that the exceptional players don’t let those thoughts “dock at the port,” so to speak. The negative thoughts sort of float on by and go away. Conversely, players who dwell on negative thoughts let those thoughts “dock” for a while. When that happens, performance is affected. One thing I try to do is have the player develop a series of “performance anchors” which are positive statements that he can develop that are short in length and easy to apply in a game, such as “smooth and rhythmic,” “easy and often,” or “I am the man.” The player can then use his performance anchor to replace the negative thinking patterns and thoughts he has during performance. There are three stages to change this pattern of thinking. The first stage is AWARENESS. Players need to be aware of what they are thinking. Keeping a journal is a good way for a player to identify destructive thinking patterns. The second stage is to BREATHE. Breathing can help bring a player to the present moment. It relaxes the body. If done properly it helps take some anxiety and tension away. Lastly, I encourage a player to REFRAME the negative thought into a positive, or to REPLACE the negative thought with one of his “performance anchors.”
DL: Despite his success, Derek Lowe has had his demeanor on the mound questioned. Others have been accused of having a “deer in the headlights” expression when faced with a pressure situation. What are your thoughts on that?
BT: I think you are talking about two things here. The first is body language, and the second is the setting the player is in. Body language is a big part of performance at any level. There are many players who have difficulty with this part of the game. They let their emotions, both good and bad, show. In both instances, the interpretation of the player’s body language has an effect on those watching (the other team). If a player is acting timid or afraid, or gets down after something may have affected his game, that is viewed by the other team as: “We got ’em now.” It can give your opponent confidence. A player with extreme body language, fist-pumping or bat-tossing for example, is also viewed unfavorably by the opponent. They form personal opinions, like “This guy is a real jerk,” and a team unity of sort where they say, “Get that guy!” The second part is playing in “pressure situations.” I believe this is a matter of perspective. What is a challenge for some can be perceived as a threat by others. When faced with a challenge, confident players respond by rising to meet the challenge: physically, emotionally, physiologically, and mentally. They believe they have what it takes to compete in that setting or situation. Conversely, when the same situation is viewed as a threat, the player responds accordingly based on his perception. The player may very well respond to this same situation with increased anxiety, muscle tension, and fear–all of which can lead to a poor performance.
DL: Luis Tiant‘s 163-pitch effort in Game Four of the 1975 World Series is a classic example of a pitcher willing himself to succeed. How much of winning without your best stuff is mental toughness, and how much of that is learned versus innate?
BT: My, how times have changed. I don’t think you would see anyone throwing 163 pitches in any game today. But having said that, there certainly is a makeup quality that athletes have which separates the good from the great. In postseason play, Luis Tiant was a great pitcher. As I mentioned earlier, his perception of the situation was more of a challenge than a threat, and he responded accordingly because he had the innate ability to compete. He loved it. The great players have both talent and mental toughness. Others have to learn it and combine perhaps less talent along with the mental aspects of performance to be able to compete at a high level. When I think of a mentally tough pitcher, the first one that comes to mind is Greg Maddux. He has incredible talent, but I think his greatness is his ability to compete consistently. I mean, 15 wins each year for 17 years is amazing! He certainly didn’t have his best stuff in all of those games, yet he still found a way to win. Finding a way to win is called mental toughness, and that can be learned. And that is my job. I help players learn aspects of mental skills which will improve mental toughness and hopefully performance.
David Laurila grew up in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is the author of Interviews from Red Sox Nation which was published in 2006 by Maple Street Press. He can be reached here.