About three hours before every game, nearly without fail, Washington Nationals first baseman Matt Adams would look up from a conversation with a teammate, or from organizing his locker, or from indulging a reporter, and realize it was time.
“Time to go get right,” he would say, and the big, burly, tattooed man would lumber out of the room and into the dugout, where Mark Campbell, the team’s director of mental conditioning, awaited him. Then came a chat on the top of the bench, or a slow walk around the warning track, a private conversation as important to Adams’s day as the ones he had with hitting coach Kevin Long or working in the unfamiliar outfield with coach Bobby Henley.
Neither man would ever share the specific content of those conversations, of course. In fact, the Nationals rejected multiple interview requests for Campbell over the years. Trust is too important to his job to have anyone thinking he might be sharing secrets, or publicizing a player’s carefully obscured baseball demons.
But these days, mental coaches are the norm in baseball. The collective bargaining agreement negotiated between the league and the Major League Baseball Players’ Union requires all teams provide access to one. And more players are realizing what Adams recognized at the beginning of his first spring training with the Nationals.
“I have everything at my fingertips to become better than I already am,” Adams said. “I just had a little bit more maturity to myself this year than I had in the past, which allowed me to realize that [the mental side] is huge. This is a huge part of the game. Everybody up here at this level has talent. So it’s getting a grip on the mental side of it, and making that side stronger is just going to benefit you in the long run.”
The definition of “strength” has long influenced the way many professional athletes seek assistance with the mental side of their game. “Strength” used to mean not showing weakness, physical or mental, as evidenced by decades of baseball war stories about avoiding the training room. “Strong” players wouldn’t need help combating doubt or disappointment, or at least, wouldn’t show it. That sentiment is not unique to baseball, of course.
But that mind-set — that mental fortitude is best seen in those who never seem to question theirs — is one players inside and outside the Nationals’ clubhouse say is changing.
"In years past, I felt like teams would find out that you were using that person and use that against you — ‘This guy’s weak,’ ” Adams said. “Here, this organization doesn’t feel like that. They bring in the best. We’ve got a good nutritionist. We’ve got a good medical staff, and strength staff, too. They want their players to be well-rounded in everything.”
For Adams, who spent hours before games trying to improve his footwork so he could serve in left field when needed, who chose every postgame word carefully so as never to sell out a teammate, “being well-rounded in everything” did not mean being perfect. He hit for a lower average in 2018 than in 2017. His numbers against left-handed pitching improved, but not dramatically enough to suggest he should shed that dreaded baseball title: “platoon player.” But those conversations between Adams and Campbell weren’t about avoiding failure or finding perfection.
“The biggest things he talks to me about is choice. You always have a choice. If you go 0 for 4, you can choose to let that ruin the rest of your day. That's going to downhill spiral from there,” Adams said. “The biggest thing for me was realizing that and coming to grips with just being my genuine self, which meant realizing that — yeah, we don't like to fail. But it's part of the game. It's definitely changed the way I look at days like that.”
Adams just agreed to a one-year deal with a second-year option to return to the Nationals for the 2019 season after they traded him to St. Louis in their August fire sale. On the phone with reporters after signing, Adams said Washington “feels like home,” even though he only played part of a season there. After all, he’s already got his regularly scheduled “time to get right,” just before batting practice, weather permitting.
The path to acceptance
Dave Martinez remembers that day in an office in Chicago, when he was Joe Maddon’s bench coach with the Cubs and having a bad day. He couldn’t stop staring at the floor, the safest place to look in times of hardship. Ceilings only serve as a reminder of the heights not yet reached.
Ken Ravizza, the Cubs’ longtime mental coach, dropped onto the floor to intercept Martinez’s gaze. He looked up at him, receiving reluctant eye contact from a man determined not to give it. At that point, Martinez had to talk. So he did.
"I really believed he's a big part of why I'm managing today,” Martinez said then. “He's helped me throughout many different obstacles, as a player, as a young player, as a coach. He's helped me understand players. He was an unbelievable person and a greater friend.”
Ravizza died during the 2018 season. Martinez found a permanent marker and wrote his initials on his cap in tribute. “Kenny,” as Martinez called him, was a pioneer in the mental coaching field along with Rick Ankiel’s confidant Harvey Dorfman and a few others. Maddon met Ravizza when he was a minor league coach for the California Angels in the 1980s, and never lost track of him. Eventually, he employed him on his major league staffs with the Tampa Bay Rays and Cubs.
Not long ago, mental coaches were unusual. When the Yankees hired a sports psychologist in 2005, outfielder Gary Sheffield famously suggested those who would require such help were “weak-minded.” (Sheffield turned to other aides for weakness prevention, and eventually admitted to the use of steroids.)
Martinez was a contemporary of Sheffield’s. He played in the years when mental coaching was less accepted, but took to Ravizza right away. So did his Cubs players.
Veteran starter Jon Lester, who had built himself a solid major league résumé before joining the Cubs, became a believer in Ravizza’s principles and the effects of mental coaching. He also worked with former major league pitcher Bob Tewksbury, who recently published a book about the mental side of baseball, to build a visualization program. Now, Lester throws almost two or three full innings in his mind before he even takes the mound, something that has helped the 34-year-old remain one of the game’s elite starters long after many of them begin to decline.
“I think back in the day, people would think, ‘Something’s wrong with you. You’re sick. You’re scared to go out there,’ ” Lester said. “Now, I think [mental coaching] is part of being prepared. It’s part of my routine.”
Lester is one of several high-profile stars that make mental coaching a part of their routines. When the All-Star Game was at Nationals Park this summer, several all-stars on both sides lauded the effect mental coaching can have on their performance and work-life balance. Now-Houston Astros outfielder Michael Brantley said he utilized the Cleveland Indians’ mental coach regularly during his all-star season. Now-St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, who owns the eighth-highest OPS in baseball over the last three seasons, said he began using a mental coach regularly four years ago, too.
“Everything you do has a mental aspect,” Goldschmidt said. “ . . . We’re always training physically. Running, lifting, hitting, all that. We know the mental part of the game is just as important, so to not train in that way, to me, didn’t make sense.”
Becoming a necessity
Asked once about how he thought about players who used a mental coach, about whether he would think differently about them because of it, Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo shook his head.
“No,” Rizzo said. “That’s why he’s there.”
Campbell used to work with wounded soldiers and as part of the Army’s training programs. He’s a middle-aged man with varied interests, the kind of person who remembers an inside joke with everyone — the kind of guy who is always wearing shorts, even on the most frigid days, the psychology of which he never explained.
But informal chats and observations reveal that what Campbell can explain is how to develop trust, how to take a few conversations with a player and craft a relationship with some of the most paranoid characters in professional sports. He chats with them, then writes down what he hears. After three seasons with the Nationals, he now blends in like one of the big leather couches in the clubhouse — a comfortable landing place when players need him, unnoticed and unobtrusive when they don’t.
Adams is far from the only National who schedules regular check-ins with Campbell, who traveled with the team on the road last year after two seasons of splitting time between the big league team and its minor league affiliates. He had effectively become indispensable to many of the big leaguers. Some were willing to talk about their work with Campbell. Others, such as Bryce Harper and former National Daniel Murphy, said they relied on their faith and their family to help center themselves in tough baseball times. Some did not want to talk about their mental game at all.
Stephen Strasburg, normally reticent about all things personal, said he has gleaned helpful information from conversations with Campbell but didn’t want to share specifics. Before his departure, Gio Gonzalez spoke regularly about his work with Campbell, who taught him techniques to help him maintain his slippery focus on the mound. In his outstanding 2017 season, Gonzalez often cited Campbell’s help as a contributor to his consistency.
After the Nationals acquired Brandon Kintzler at the 2017 trade deadline — a few months before he became a free agent for the first time — the veteran reliever was having trouble sleeping, feeling the pressure of free agency compounded by a change of place and role. Campbell helped him find more peace.
After reliever Austin L. Adams walked two batters and hit another without recording an out in his major league debut, he too relied on mental coaching to help him overcome the inconsistencies that have prevented him from harnessing his elite strikeout stuff. He still does, along with a targeted flexibility program and other physical training methods outside the normal strength training realm.
Earlier this year, Adams said he noticed a difference in himself, in how he deals with failure, in how he puts pitches behind him. But the world of professional baseball — a world of media, of scouts, of constant evaluation — does not let players put much behind them in their own time, and Adams has yet to establish himself in the majors enough to eliminate that debut from the collective memory.
"I get asked it in every interview,” Adams said in spring training. “Every. Single. Interview. I just don’t want the narrative to become this is the guy who had the bad debut. That’s not who I am. If anything, it should be, he bounced back now. He’s learned from it.”
A few hours after being asked those questions, Adams walked four batters in an otherwise meaningless March 15 inning. Perhaps the rough day was just coincidence. But the baseball world forms conclusions of its own about a player, fairly or not, when it observes coincidences like that. Hence the long-standing stigma around mental coaching, and the importance of its recent disintegration.
Sean Doolittle, the Nationals’ all-star closer, never worried about the stigma. He talks with Campbell regularly. He learned techniques that help him slow down innings before they consume him, the step-off-the-mound-and-tie-your-shoe move, the deep breaths before taking the rubber, and so on.
“I had a really bad habit, considering my job, of imploding,” said Doolittle, who explained that while his statistics indicated consistency, he had not really mastered it. Bad outings would be really bad, and often would result from one small misstep that sent him spiraling — spiraling so badly he couldn’t stop the churning negativity when he left the field.
“After a good outing or two, I would feel really good. But after a bad outing, I would take that home, I would take it really hard. I would beat myself up over it. I was attaching like so much into it, like who I was as a person, self-worth,” Doolittle said. “[Mental coaching] helped me get off that roller coaster and create more of an even-keeled mind-set off the field. I think it's helped a lot.”
Doolittle is one of the faces of the Nationals’ new-look clubhouse, a progressive thinker who pushes for something different in a sport often paralyzed by tradition. But on this point, on the value of mental coaching, he is not a lonely visionary.
“It’s stupid that there is [a stigma]. I think it’s the reverse. I think there’s actually strength in asking for help,” Doolittle said. “For you to be secure enough in yourself and comfortable enough in yourself and have the self-awareness to be like . . . ’I need help with this,’ whatever it is.”