‘I think now they're realizing the next edge is the six inches between the ears’
Image via Flickr user Rooneg
The Chicago Cubs are the favorites to win the World Series this year, led by an overpowering starting rotation and the National League’s best slugger. But the team’s success also can be attributed to something beyond the field: an organizational commitment to players’ mental health. Like an increasing number of MLB teams, the Cubs—whose National League Divisional Series Game 3 on Monday coincides with World Mental Health Day—employ a psychologist.
“To me, it’s just another coach, another skill,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon explained last spring. The club launched its “mental skills program” in 2014, directed by a former IMG mental conditioning consultant, with help from Dr. Ken Ravizza, a professor of kinesiology and applied sports psychology at California State University at Fullerton.
The program aims not just to treat players’ mental health issues like anxiety and depression, but to destigmatize and normalize the process. Theo Epstein, the Cubs’ president of baseball operations, describes mental health care as, simply, “player development—understanding that your young players are human beings.” This mindset has spread across the league and has led players like Zach Greinke, Evan Gattis, and Ben Zobrist to open up to the public about their own mental illness.
[quote position="right" is_quote="true"](Mental health care is) player development—understanding that your young players are human beings.[/quote]
The Cubs have long been at the forefront of sports psychology. In 1938, gum magnate and Cubs owner Philip Wrigley hired University of Illinois professor Coleman Griffith to apply his research on the mental aspects of college sports to the struggling Chicago club—the first time a professional sports franchise employed a psychologist. But Griffith’s tenure with the team was short-lived and unsuccessful. Players and coaches actively undermined and ignored his recommendations, while manager Charlie Grimm called Griffith a “headshrinker.”
Despite this early failure, Major League Baseball has outpaced other professional sports when it comes to mental health. In 1981, the league became the first to mandate team employee assistance programs for managing personal issues—originally with a focus on substance abuse but eventually developing into a framework for psychological care.
These programs are covered by confidentiality, but experts estimate at least 19 MLB franchises currently employ baseball psychologists, while eight clubs employ someone who travels full-time with the team.
“People realize now that we've tapped the physical conditioning aspect. We've tapped the mechanics aspect. We're tapping the computer aspect and all the numbers,” Ravizza told USA Today. “I think now they're realizing the next edge is the six inches between the ears.”