A Brit Learning Baseball Through Books: Is it really Ninety Percent Mental?

Paddy Johnston returns for his second column, “A Brit Learning Baseball Through Books”. Read his first here.

“Point is, some nights in the big leagues, flowers work. Others, you need beer. Whether you’re Jon Lester, Roger Clemens, or me. But always, you need to slow down and breathe.”

– Bob Tewksbury, Ninety Percent Mental

I’m writing this the day after I attempted to put some of the lessons and tips I’d scraped from Bob Tewksbury and Scott Miller’s book on mental skills in baseball into practice with my softball team. I gave them a good captain’s speech, was asked jokingly by our shortstop when I’d be doing my TED Talk, and I think they bought it enough to apply themselves to the mental game and perform well on the field. Nonetheless, we suffered our first loss of the season in a close and low-scoring game, breaking a two-game winning streak.

At times like this I understand why baseball has a history of unhealthy skepticism about mental skills, but I’m a big advocate of mindfulness, meditation and generally keeping the mind in good shape, and Ninety Percent Mental is a book that demonstrates both why this is a critical thing for the game of baseball and how far the game has come in addressing mental health and skills recently. Most MLB organisations employ at least one full-time mental skills coach, and Tewks (if he doesn’t mind me calling him that), who is currently the mental skills coach for the San Francisco Giants, is confident that it won’t be long until they all do. I definitely agree, especially after reading his book, which made me feel like I’d been with him on his career journey from successful pitcher and All-Star through qualifying with a master’s degree in psychology and becoming a mental skills coach who has helped a huge number of players to perform at an elite level.

The book is a curious but highly coherent mix of reflections, anecdotes, technical descriptions, game walkthroughs, and nuggets of wisdom. Rather than being a highly practical guide to mental skills, as Tewks could easily have written (I imagine that he may have been tempted to create his own contemporary version of Harvey Dorfman’s seminal The Mental ABCs of Pitching, which he references a number of times), Ninety Percent Mental has a smooth and easy narrative flow and a relaxed pace, much like an early March Spring Training game. Tewks’ career is the thread through the book, but it diverts when it needs to and keeps things fresh with its pacing, switching seamlessly from anecdotes about Tewks’ own folly in trying to climb a mountain alone in the desert on a Cactus League off-day to how some of today’s prominent players like Jon Lester and Anthony Rizzo employ mental skills programmes and techniques that Tewks has put together for them, each one individually tailored to the player’s needs.

Tewks’ own struggles on the mound, as well as some of his victories, are chronicled in the book and give context to the later parts of the book in which he goes deep on mental skills coaching. Interestingly, there are a significant number of quotes about Tewks and his work from the players he has coached, as if mental skills coaching still needs to be sold or legitimised to the reader. I guess this is necessary, in a way, as not every MLB team employs a mental skills coach, but the quotes here serve to enforce Tewks’ wisdom and to make the reader feel as if they’re getting an exclusive look behind the scenes at success and performance in baseball, and mental skills coaching always feels vital throughout the book. The role of the coach in general – and each MLB organisation has a lot of coaches in so many different roles – is rarely fully acknowledged, and to read players talking positively about their coaches is refreshing and enjoyable. As well as the aforementioned Lester and Rizzo, Tewks also has significant input from Andrew Miller and Rich Hill, whose perspectives are certainly valuable.

The central idea of Tewks’ approach to mental skills coaching is dealing with “The Little Man,” the negative voice inside all our heads. Reading about the techniques Tewks learned himself and that he has sharpened to share with other players, which include visualisation, replacing negative thoughts with positive ones, and (most importantly) taking time to breathe, is engaging and enjoyable, and it certainly got me thinking about my own mental skills and those of my my peers, as well as my favourite MLB players, and I finished the book yesterday feeling buoyed by it.

Our starting pitcher told me on the way to last night’s game that he thought he wasn’t one of our most mentally skilled players. A few short hours later we were in the pub celebrating the best game of his career, in which he pitched a complete game and struck out a similar number of batters to those struck out by the Blue Jays’ J.A. Happ in Tuesday night’s victory over the Angels (including superstar hitter Mike Trout), which broke the Jays’ losing streak. I’m celebrating the Jays’ victory and my softball team’s loss right now, and both feel alright, for different reasons. Tewks’ book reminded me how much of the game is built on failure, but also on redemption, and for that reason, I recommend it to any baseball fan. Even if you don’t play baseball or softball yourself, there are life lessons in it that can be applied broadly, in a similar but less overt fashion to Stacey May Fowles’ Baseball Life Advice (as covered in my last column). Tewks’ persistent assertion that “thoughts become things” is something that’s true on the field, and is something we can all learn from. If The Little Man isn’t cheering you on right now, he will be when you’ve read this book.

Ninety Percent Mental is published by Da Capo Press, an imprint of the Perseus Books Group. In the UK, it’s probably easiest to get it from Amazon.

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