None of the 150 Orioles minor leaguers exiled from spring training last month need much coaxing to maintain their baseball skills during the indefinite shutdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Fortunately for Kathryn Rowe, hired this offseason as the organization’s first mental skills coordinator, they don’t need to be told how important this new aspect of their player development plans is, either.
Over the past few weeks, Rowe, 28, shifted the curriculum meant to serve as a spring training introduction for the Orioles’ minor leaguers on the benefits of mental skills to video platforms, teaching confidence-building tactics such as self-talk, mindset work, energy management and visualization that she and the Orioles hope will enhance on-field performance when baseball resumes.
“I had a coach say to me today, ‘We have this downtime and it’s so beneficial that you can still do this,’” Rowe said Tuesday, a day when the minor league pitchers went through their weekly mental skills session. “It gives them something to look forward to and do. I haven’t had to say [anything]. ... I think they’re intrinsically motivated to improve their game.”
“When we think about this, athletes spend hours and hours working on their physical performance,” said Michelle Garvin, director of clinical and sports psychology services at the University of Maryland. “They get a lot of information on nutrition and fueling, coaching, plays, all of those things, and not a ton of time historically has been dedicated toward the mental component. That’s really what this program is about, and this is something great to do when you’re not playing.”
The program was one of many set up last year by assistant general manager Sig Mejdal, who reached out to Jessica Mohler, a clinical sports psychologist at the United States Naval Academy. Mental training, she recalled him saying, was “how he saw the future of development in this organization.”
A perfect fit
Mohler enlisted Garvin, a longtime colleague, and both joined as consultants to work with the Orioles’ choice to lead the program.
Rowe saw the posting online and envisioned a perfect fit. A high-level soccer player, she still has the ball she made when a sports psychologist came to do a workshop on goal-setting when she was playing on an elite travel team in eighth grade. One of her goals was to get better at winning headers. And she achieved it.
While playing at her hometown University of Rochester, she convinced her coach to bring in a sports psychologist for her senior year.
Seeing the work up close set her on this path. She went to Boston University for her master’s degree in counseling, choosing the program because it combined mental health counseling and sports psychology.
Back home, she worked with the Rochester men’s soccer team as a mental skills coach for two seasons while practicing counseling on the outside.
When she realized she’d be working with consultants that would allow her to work with college athletes as well, it was a bonus. So, too, was the openness she said the Orioles had in the interview process, telling her of their growth mindset philosophy and how they’d fully support her as they tried new methods to build her department.
“It really encompassed everything I wanted and who I wanted to work with,” Rowe said.
To the doctors helping craft the program, it’s clear the Orioles found a good fit.
“We don’t want to enter in from just one area, but we really consider developing the whole player on the whole aspect of mental wellness and mental performance, so she really has a wonderful combination in terms of this enthusiasm, excitement, knowledge, and background,” Mohler said, citing how Rowe is a licensed mental health professional and has a strong mental skills training.
“To see how quickly she can develop relationships with individuals is what really stands out for her when we met her and were talking with her,” Garvin said. “She can connect, and that’s the most important part of it. If you can connect and get buy-in from the players and coaches alike, which she can, that’s what’s going to make the program successful.”
A little stigma-busting
Most of Rowe’s winter was spent planning with Garvin and Mohler to help build a curriculum of mental skills work to bring to spring training, which for some Orioles minor leaguers began in mid-February.
She spent a week with the early arrivers at the minor league complex learning how spring training runs, then fine-tuned some of the plans for introducing the players to this new aspect of their development. They were separated by positions for workshops and introduced mental skills training to the players — after a little stigma-busting.
When she asked players what they thought they’d be working with her on, they said, “Well, we come to you when we’re depressed,” Rowe recounted.
Not exactly, she told them, before outlining how mental training and techniques to work on confidence including self-talk, mindset work, energy management and visualization could enhance their physical skills.
“We’re not really separating an athlete into just the physical skills or more mental skills, but really, this is part of the training process to develop the full ability of a player,” Mohler said. “Really, training the mind allows us to get as close as we can to our abilities and our limits. And she’s helping to do that, I think, through both an educational program and what she’s doing, with workshops and skills training all the way down to individual work she’ll be doing.”
There was about a week of those group sessions with the full complement of approximately 150 minor leaguers before the coronavirus pandemic shut camp down, forcing the work to go virtual, like so much else has.
Finding a routine in an awkward time
All ballplayers are dealing with situations in which gyms and training facilities are closed, leaving massive uncertainty as to how they can stay ready for when the season comes. MLB announced Tuesday a $400 per week stipend for minor leaguers through May 31, easing some financial burden, but there’s still a massive gulf in their daily lives.
The Orioles’ minor league coaches are constantly in touch and using technology to keep the players learning and engaged from a baseball standpoint.
On the mental skills side, they’re using the video conferencing platform Zoom to mimic the spring training schedule Rowe made: mindfulness for players, coaches, and staff on Mondays, then mental skills work with pitchers, infielders, then outfielders and catchers spread over the next three days.
“My focus has been getting them on a routine because that helps during an awkward, confusing, scary time like this. It makes it more normal in this awkward time,” Rowe said.
She also has tried to create drop-in times for players who want to talk through the anxieties the pandemic has created personally and professionally, and was even exploring group drop-in times scheduled just so the players can see their teammates and talk the way they would on a regular day.
The goal, she said, is to both continue the mental skills training but also do some “normalizing that it’s OK to be stressed out right now.”
If the players take advantage of the mental skills side during this downtime, which comes just as they were being introduced to it, both Garvin and Mohler believe they can see legitimate benefits once baseball starts back up.
“This is something great to do when you’re not playing,” Garvin said. “I’m a huge proponent of doing this in the offseason and boosting in the offseason. … Similar to any physical skill, you’re going to learn, you’re going to practice it, you’re going to tweak it so when you get to a game setting, you’re ready to really implement it.”
“I think this has the potential to give an athlete something to control, and to begin to train the mind so that when they’re given an opportunity to come back to full practice and full competition, they will be potentially more prepared for that moment because they have worked on these skills that you can work on outside of a specific practice, or specific competition,” Mohler said.