MLB: Los Angeles Angels at Toronto Blue Jays

The Mental Side of Sports During a Disappointing Season

A season with high expectations after two consecutive seasons appearing in the American League Championship has not gone according to plan. As a result, the Blue Jays were sellers (somewhat) at this non-waiver trade deadline. The trades of pitchers Joe Smith and Francisco Liriano netted three prospects with two immediately being ranked in top 30 in the Blue Jays organization. Many baseball people praised Toronto’s management for the returns of the two pending free agents but there was a group that didn’t feel the same, the Blue Jays players.

Rosie Dimanno of the Toronto Star wrote about how the players were impacted by the trades. The writing may have been on the wall, but on Monday the reality set in the clubhouse. A season that started with much potential was finally lost.

What happened?

Injuries? Yes, 19 player injuries (Travis, Sanchez, Happ) have made it difficult to be successful. Poor performances? Yes, many players (Donaldson, Bautista, Estrada) are having seasons below their recent norms. Bad luck?  Yes, for example, the team’s performance with runners in scoring position ranked last in MLB (.223).

But are these the only factors that have impacted the overall performance of the team? The Blue Jays performed well in the month of May during a stretch with numerous injuries. And as there have been poor performances, there have seen extra successful ones like Roberto Osuna, Marcus Stroman, Ezequiel Carrera, and most notably, Justin Smoak.  So what else could have impacted the Blue Jays season?

Baseball is a game that is filled with failure at a greater rate than most other sports. A successful hitter fails 65% of the time, closers need to have short memories after blowing a game, and starters have to grind through a game facing a lineup multiple times. Baseball is as much a mental game as it is physical.

In recent years, sport psychology has experienced tremendous growth.  The number of athletes, teams and front offices utilizing sport psychology services continues to grow. It is very common to hear or read about an athlete or team employing a sport psychology consultant to help improve their performance.  The most notable example for the Blue Jays has been Justin Smoak.

Smoak’s breakout season can certainly be attributed statistically to making more contact, better plate discipline and reworking the mechanics of his swing. But in an article by Shi Davidi at Sportsnet from July 10th, the tall first baseman discussed working with a sports psychologist which helped him “fix his mental approach to a relentless game of failure.” A combination of an improved mental and physical approach has benefitted Smoak in 2017.

This application of sports psychology to training and development has become a focus of the Toronto Blue Jays through their high performance department.  At the beginning of spring training the players completed psychological profiles with the goal to help them understand themselves in how they click physically and mentally as players and as people.”  The use of imagery, mindfulness, and ability to recognize factors of stress and determine optimal level of arousal during play help to better prepare players for the natural failures of the game.

The process of psychological profiling has also reached scouting and player selection. Herb Brooks, the head coach of the 1980 USA Olympic Gold Medal Hockey team, used profiling in the selection of his team. Also at the 2016 PrimeTime Sports and Entertainment Management Conference and Trade Show during a panel discussion, Calgary Flames president Brian Burke and Dr. Dana Sinclair a sports psychologist, discussed using psychological profiling with player observations and advanced statistics to draft players.

So with an increased focus by teams, management, and players on the mental approach and aspects  in sports it must be true that lapses can result in poor performance. It is easier to explain failure based on injury, statistical analysis and age because they are quantitative and easier to observe, but does that discount a poor mental approach to the game?

In 1972 Ivan Steiner developed a model that explained why teams failed. His model suggested the following equation:

Actual productivity = potential productivity – losses due to faulty group processes.

A team’s potential productivity refers to their best-possible performance, or how good they could be. That would be the highest percentile statistical projections that are printed to begin the season. So, according to Steiner’s Model, talent and individual ability are important factors for overall performance. However, a team will not always reach their full potential; their actual performance is dependent upon two things: coordination and motivation losses.

Let’s focus on coordination losses, they include situations where players are unable to coordinate their movements or work together. For the Blue Jays that would encompass the injuries to their players resulting in inferior players getting regular playing time. But it would also include not consistently hitting with runners in scoring position, a general lack of an effective approach at the plate, a notable decline in team defense, and more frequent moments of base running fundamentals are missing.

Did the team become bad? Did a top ten offense lose ability to hit overnight? Did a defense that was second in defensive efficiency a year ago simply get really old? Did they forget how to play disciplined baseball? Was it just a coincidence that every time they could have reached .500 they failed? Or are they human, feel pressures as we all do, pressing harder to perform as the loses piled up in June and July and the season started to get away from them?

We can never really know the answer to these questions because the mental aspect of the game is a part that we are not privy to or are made aware of.  It is possible to have had a role in the disappointment of the 2017 season of the Toronto Blue Jays, we know it has had a positive impact with Smoak.

Now the Blue Jays biggest challenge will be to keep motivation loss to a minimum. In the past we have seen many teams slide even further in a lost season as the motivation is harder to find as the season continues.  Most players will stilll have that intrinsic motivation, but for some it will be a challenge. Infusion of young players brings an infectious energy to a team and that could come in September, but until then the Blue Jays will have to grind for the last two months and come prepared to start the process next year with a clear mind, body, and spirit to contend in 2018.

Lead Photo © Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

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