Rost: How a coach helps Mariners navigate baseball’s mental side

Jun 13, 2023, 4:00 PM | Updated: 4:02 pm

Seattle Mariners...

The Seattle Mariners celebrate a home run by Ty France on June 12, 2023. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

(Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

Two outs in the bottom of the ninth. A crowd of 47,000 fans are roaring, hoping and praying that you can drive in a runner from second. The stadium is so loud you can feel the vibration. Ninety feet in front of you is a guy who can hurl a 90 mph slider and has a four-seamer that can touch three digits. You’re desperate for a hit and a way to help the team after going 0 for 3 on the day. Strike one touches the insider corner of the zone. You swing and miss on the second pitch.

Now what?

A lot of baseball happens between the ears. Every player at the major league level has the skills. Some have far more than others, of course, but the potential to succeed is there for any big league bat or arm. Players can make adjustments to their mechanics and put in the work, but sometimes a mental hurdle – anxiety, frustration, fear or panic – is what stands in the way of finding a rhythm.

Teams recognize that, which is why as a continued trend in the evolution of MLB training teams employ mental conditioning coaches.

Adam Bernero is the Seattle Mariners’ mental skills coach, and his own path to helping players learn to manage their own emotions during games began with his experience as a major league pitcher.

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“I really struggled with the mental side as a player,” Bernero said when he joined Seattle Sports’ The Dugout during Tuesday’s edition of Bump and Stacy. “And it took me a few years to get over my career…

“Whatever you see happening on the field happens in the person’s mind first. I just remember getting into high-pressure situations. I’d be in the middle of my delivery and right before I threw the pitch I’d be like, ‘Oh man, I don’t know if I should throw this pitch.’ And you throw it right down the middle, it gets hit for a home run, and everyone thinks, ‘This guy sucks.’ It’s like, yeah, my mind sucks. Physically I was good but I just had something going on that I couldn’t quite get my mind to focus on consistently throughout my career. So those are the battles that guys are going through every day while they’re out here. Whether it’s physical fatigue or the mental drain of showing up every day with full intention, it’s really hard to do.”

Several athletes have spoken about the struggles of working through high-pressure situations. Mariners general manager Justin Hollander praised outfielder Jarred Kelenic’s growth in that respect this offseason. During Julio Rodríguez’s April struggles, critics openly wondered whether he was feeling the weight of expectations as the new face of the franchise. For that matter, the club as a whole was facing the weight of new expectations – this after breaking a two-decade playoff drought.

That pressure mounts in certain situations. Whether it’s the first week back from injury or finding a way to dig out of a slump, or perhaps a pivotal moment in a playoff game for a superstar, athletes will find themselves thinking through a moment. And that means training and controlling their processing.

“Let’s say you’re a hitter,” Bernero said. “You go out there with a plan and the plan might get taken away pretty quickly. The plan is to hit a fastball, and the first two pitches are sliders right down the middle and you take them and you’re like, ‘Those would’ve been really great to hit.’ So you lose emotional control. Now whatever comes close, I’m gonna swing at. And you can see that show up for guys. So I try to get them to understand themselves and we do that through a lot of physiological work.”

Players might practice meditation or breath work, or even work on walking – literally and figuratively – through what they’re experiencing at the plate.

“Athletes understand how they feel more than they know how they think,” Bernero said. “So I try to get them to feel as much as possible. I know it looks kinda funky sometimes but we’ll walk barefoot in the outfield and they can experience what they’re going through internally that way. And once they understand that at a pretty good level, then it shows up pretty good for them on the field.”

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