Via phone from the Cleveland Indians Spring Training Home in Goodyear, Arizona, I recently had the opportunity to interview Charlie Maher, PsyD, CC-AASP, who is the author of The Complete Mental Game of Baseball: Taking Charge of the Process On and Off the Field. Dr Maher, who in addition to being Professor Emeritus of Applied Psychology at Rutgers University, serves as the Director of Psychological Services for the Cleveland Indians, and is a licensed psychologist. With over 25 years of working with professional baseball players, Dr Maher is one of the leading experts on the psychology of baseball. —Howard Forman, MD
Question: Can you tell me what you enjoy most about your work with the Indians?
Dr Maher: I have found despite how the media portrays many professional athletes, who of course have personality quirks like everybody, that most professional athletes are very practical individuals. They have limited windows for opportunity to succeed. I enjoy helping players who really have to learn to focus and to make adjustments to their game in very quick timeframes. I enjoy helping players not to get caught up in other peoples’ expectations of them and to focus on their own path rather than to compare themselves to other players. I also really enjoy helping players balance baseball and life. I tell players, “Baseball is what you do, but it is not who you are.” When a player says, “Charlie, you have really helped me,” that is very rewarding.
Question: Your role with the Indians involves helping players perform at their highest level; to that end, do players undergo any routine psychological testing before joining the organization?
Dr Maher: Yes, we do conduct psychological assessments on players for the draft and for player development purposes. There is no one specific test that players receive; rather, we perform a battery of assessment methods that we utilize in evaluating a potential or current member of our organization. These include a personality questionnaire, a mental skills inventory, comments from coaches, comments from scouts, a player interview, naturalistic observations, a background check, and a review of the player’s academic record.
Question: What is the information that you gather used for?
Dr Maher: Well, we don’t use it to predict the future such as saying this guy is going to be an All-Star and this guy a Hall-of-Famer, but rather to create a psychological profile to know what we are working with in terms of a player’s mental and emotional strong points and limitations. The organization considers this assessment information to identify what types of resources will have be put in place to help a player develop most fully.
Question: Are there some general traits that you have found in your experience are found in professional baseball players?
Dr Maher: In fact there are several personality traits that are found in baseball players who make it to the professional level. Players that are low in the area of trait anxiety, who have levels of worry and doubt that are low relative to the general population, and high in what we call “tough mindedness.” There is a great deal of ambiguity in professional baseball and players must be able to manage ambiguous situations efficiently, while tolerating their internal experiences effectively. Players need to be able to separate difficult tasks in to a step-by-step plan objectively without a great deal of emotionality.
Question: A baseball team has so many specific roles and I was hoping that you may be able to take us through a few of those roles and help us understand some of the specific psychological findings that you have found over-represented in people who fulfill those roles successfully?
Dr Maher: Presuming that the player has the physical and technical skill sets to be a major league player: A starting pitcher is somebody who has to be able to stay in the moment, focus on the task at hand, and to recognize when their thoughts drift to the next batter, the next inning, or when they are thinking about how many innings they want to pitch today. They need to be able to recognize drifting thoughts and bring them back to the immediate situation. This is actually the same for a middle reliever. The closer has to be a good separator or to say it differently; they have to have a short memory. If they have a bad day, they need to come back the next day undeterred by it. Alternatively if things are going well for a closer, they need to continue to pay attention to the next pitch while on the mound so they don’t lose focus on the process that is creating the success. A utility player has to be comfortable in their role; they have to be satisfied that they are a professional who is going to contribute. The utility player needs to come to the stadium everyday with the mindset that they are going to play regardless of what happened the day before. An interesting position is the catcher who has a relatively specific profile. Catchers are very good at problem solving, at pattern recognition, low in trait anxiety, and above average in communication.
Question: How many teams would you say have a mental health professional in the organization?
Dr Maher: Well, every organization in Major League Baseball has an Employee Assistance Program, which includes psychiatrists, psychologists, and other professionals to help players and their immediate families if there is a clinical problem. Every team has that; it is a requirement of Major League Baseball. The other level is the performance domain where people like me are involved in the day-to-day operations of the team, and that is very hard to get accurate data on. Right now, I would estimate approximately 40% to 50% of teams have mental health professionals working in the performance domain—and this is growing in number.
Question: You recently wrote The Complete Mental Game of Baseball: Taking Charge of the Process On and Off the Field. What motivated you to write the book?
Dr Maher: Two reasons: First, it is a compilation of a curriculum that I have developed to help players and since so much of it has become standard operating procedure for us and players, I wanted people to know that this did not always exist and that someone actually had to put the time, effort, and expertise into the innovation. The second reason is that it is information that has been considered by major league players to be valuable to them and I wanted to make it available to players, coaches, and others at all levels of the game.
Question: Are there lessons from the book that can translate to those clinicians who don’t typically work with baseball players?
Dr Maher: Yes, although the specific context may be different, anyone working with patients who work in a high-pressure situation such as performing artists, or surgeons, or trial attorneys where there are discreet moments that demand outstanding performance can use the material in the book as they work to help their patients.
Interview conducted, edited, and condensed by Howard Forman, MD.