Toronto Blue Jays focusing on mental performance throughout organization

Toronto Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins holds his season ending news conference in Toronto on Monday, October 24, 2016.
Toronto Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins holds his season ending news conference in Toronto on Monday, October 24, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

TORONTO – The so-called mind gym is one of the first places new draft picks go at the Toronto Blue Jays’ training facility in Dunedin, Fla.

It’s a group workshop where they learn the importance of mindfulness and get an introduction to the Blue Jays’ mental performance coaching staff. Like meeting with the organization’s strength and conditioning co-ordinator or nutritionist, Toronto general manager Ross Atkins sees mental performance as critical to every player’s development.

“Thinking about performance, thinking about being an elite athlete, we feel as a department that you have to have every resource possible for them to realize their potential,” said Atkins.

“You think about an athlete fundamentally, which is the more skill-specific coaching, you think about them physically, which is on the strength and conditioning side, and then you think of them mentally.”

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When Atkins became Blue Jays GM in December 2015, he and director of high performance Angus Mugford made hiring sport psychologists a priority. Starting with Mugford, who is a former president of the Association for Applied Sport Psychology and has a PhD in the discipline, Toronto went from having no mental performance coaches to six, the largest such department in Major League Baseball.

The Blue Jays want players to develop healthy mental routines as early as possible. The idea is to make players mentally strong before there’s an issue.

“From the very get go, like the draft class that just came in, they were exposed to some workshops in Dunedin around mental performance,” said Mugford. “We have a mind gym, which is also teaching them about mindfulness and the role of the mind-body connection and being able to be present in the moment, which we can all appreciate in baseball but also in life it’s a really key skill.

“I think skill is the operative word because skills improve with repetition and deliberate practice.”

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That belief in developing healthy mental routines means that every player in the Blue Jays organization, from low A ball to the major league team, is expected to participate regularly in group workshops and also meet with mental performance coaches one on one.

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“Traditionally, some see sport psychology as a fix, as opposed to a tool that helps you become better and make it an integral part of your routine and a part of your foundation and something to fall back on,” said Atkins. “Because if you are thinking of sport psychology as ‘all of a sudden I have this mental issue I need a sport psychologist,’ quite frankly, it’s probably too late.

“It’s not unlike developing your swing, it’s not unlike developing your pitching delivery, you have to develop your mental routines that help you not only cope but also help you deal with success.”

If a player does find himself in a crisis of confidence – or is struggling in his personal life – Toronto also employs Sam Lima, a former United States Marine Corps officer, as a therapist. If a sport psychologist is like a strength coach, Lima is like a physiotherapist, helping his charges heal.

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Atkins has found that younger players in the minor leagues are more receptive to mental performance work than their senior counterparts, in part because they’ve been introduced to it earlier in their lives. However, he’s been pleased to see that a pair of veterans in the Blue Jays clubhouse have really taken to Paddy Steinfort, head of mental performance, and are encouraging their big-league teammates to engage in the process as well.

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It also helps that there’s a growing conversation surrounding mental health in society as a whole. Atkins points to Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson and Toronto Raptors all-star DeMar DeRozan as positive examples of athletes opening up about mental conditioning and clinical issues like anxiety and depression.

“When you have elite athletes on such elite stages that are willing to talk about, whether it be a hurdle mentally or finding a way to make sport psychology a part of their routine, then it makes it less intimidating for any athlete to approach it,” said Atkins.