As we reach the end of spring training, the reality of the business of baseball for many players starts to settle in, as teams set their rosters, leave players behind rehabbing for extended spring training, set their minor league rosters and for many, hand off an outright release from the organization. In past years, many of these players, even at the highest levels of the game, have had to deal with the stress and anxiety and the pressure alone.
However today, as a way to make sure their million dollar investments are well protected, teams employ a series of “Mental Development Coaches” to keep their players sharp and focused on the field and give them a safe haven to relieve the pressures and challenges off the field.
One of the most respected in the field is Dr. Jack Llewellyn, now in his first full season with the Washington Nationals. The Atlanta resident will be tasked this year with helping keep the young Nats at every level focused as the rigors of the regular season and the microscope of professional baseball gets turned up even higher.
Dr. Llewellyn is no stranger to the mental side of sport, having helped develop Sports Psychology programs at Old Dominion University, Minnesota State University-Mankato and Florida International University – and pioneered sports psychology within MLB in 1975. He is the founder and president of the Center for Winning Performance and has authored five books related to sports psychology.
But most impressive to the Nats and their fans is that Llewellyn’s work over 16 years helped make the Atlanta Braves one of baseball’s most stable and successful franchises in the 1990’s. Working as a “Mental Development Coach” on the field and in the clubhouse, his subtle suggestions and ability to help players overcome challenges was often cited as critical in the Braves’ turn from also-ran to perennial contender, and helped make John Smoltz, one of his most outspoken supporters, into a Hall of Fame caliber pitcher. It is that Braves connection that brought him to the Nationals last year, as Director of Scouting Roy Clark made the suggestion to have him join the baseball staff as a consultant, after having seen his work first-hand in the Atlanta organization.
His work is made even more significant to young players because Dr. Jack has overcome some great physical obstacles himself, namely multiple sclerosis, for which he takes a daily treatment of the drug Copaxone to stay physically sharp.
How can a sports psychologist who has seen success at the highest level (NASCAR Champ Tony Stewart and retired MLB star Paul O’Neil also are strong supporters of Llewellyn’s program) make a difference with the young Nats?
“I actually see a lot of similarities between the Braves when I was starting there and this group in Washington. Many times younger players are much more accepting of teachable moments, things you see on the field and can help them adapt to with a change in their mental approach, and so far it seems like they are very receptive and have that desire to improve.”
What will you be doing with the Nats to help them improve?
“My role here will be different from what it was in Atlanta. As I will spend more time with their younger players than in Washington. They have some great talent, and that mental adjustment to help the coaches get the physical tools just right is so important. So I will spend much more time on the road, visiting each affiliate at least four times this summer.”
Even if you are around, you can’t force a player to open up correct?
“First, you never push any help on anyone, it has to be mutual and understood. Second, I try to let the guys know about my baseball background, both with the Braves and in coaching and playing when I was younger. I think those two elements, especially with younger players, makes the work I can do much easier and more effective and helps get them back on track hopefully much faster. That being said it has to come from the player, and there is no reason he should not want to help make some adjustments or talk things through like he would with any skills on the field. It is up to him.”
Has management been supportive?
“Very mush so. This is a business and the management team with the Nats understands the value they have, especially with their younger players. Their future is very bright and they are going to make sure that that investment is well prepared for what is coming. It’s great to be a part of the organization and watch it grow, just like I did with the Braves.”
The game has changed in the years since you started working with the Braves, some for the better, some not so. How have you seen it evolve in your work?
“I think the way the game is approached more and more as a business is both good and bad from my standpoint. The money [that] guys get paid now gives the teams reasons to find every possible tactic to improve on-field performance, and I am here to help. However with that money also comes added layers and maybe some hesitancy, so that can slow down the process. The bottom line is, I am not here to have guys sit on a couch; I am here to make some subtle suggestions to those who would like some help and to be around to assist in any way.”
Does having MS hinder your work in any way?
“In many ways the diagnosis has been a blessing in my work. Bobby Cox and the staff were very supportive at the time, and it gave me a real life example to show the younger players of how a positive mental attitude can overcome a huge challenge in life. It now comes up all the time when I talk to players and I think it enhances the points I try to bring home. Now sometimes it may slow me up, but they see if I can do it, they can too.”
Recently the Nats let you throw out a first pitch against the Yankees as part of MS Awareness Week in Viera, what was that like?
“It was a great experience, although now I had to stand in front of the mound and I can’t lift my arm so high but I got it there. I’m going back there this week to participate in an MS Walk and then will be on hand for extended spring training when the teams head north, because that is when my work really begins, with the guys who have some disappointment coming out of the gate.”
The Nats have some great young stars, is that where your focus lies this time of year?
“It is really for whomever needs help. Heck everyone is great at this time of year it’s all new on opening day, and everyone can win 20 games or hit .400, right? It’s really a month from now, in the minors, in rehab, during slumps, that I can start to help the organization more. I’m here to be support for the great work our coaches do on the field, and to help the organization improve in the standings from the low minors to the top. It is a great challenge to be part of the business, and I’m looking forward to the season and helping however I can.