How MLB teams are adjusting their approach to mental health: ‘It’s part of the human experience’
Without fail, there is always one uncomfortable moment when Ed Chavez meets with the Colorado Rockies during spring training camp.
“One of the first questions I ask is, ‘how many of you have experienced physical injury?’ And of course almost everybody raises their hand because they’re ball players,” Chavez, the Rockies’ clinical psychologist, told CBS Sports.
“Then I ask, ‘how many of you guys have experienced a mental health issue or mental health challenge? Raise your hand.’ You can feel the tension in the room.”
A few players slowly raise their hands, Chavez said. Others look like they are unsure whether or not they should.
Chavez acknowledges the tension in the room and asks the players if they feel it too. They always nod in agreement.
“I know some of you guys may have been unsure whether your condition qualifies to be a mental health challenge. Or maybe you were fearful of being judged,” he tells them. “Let’s talk about this.
“We all deal with mental health challenges. It’s part of the human experience. We are all going to experience whether it’s a mild degree of depression or anxiety, or we might feel overly stressed. We all feel that.”
Chavez compares it to when someone asks you how you’re doing. The default response is usually “good” or “fine.” But that’s not always true. When asked about how they feel physically, on the other hand, people tend to be more honest.
“Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could have honest conversations about mental health just the same way we would about physical health?” Chavez told CBS Sports. “Our goal with an organization like the Rockies is that, when a player is struggling with mental health, I want them to get the support just as easily as if they pulled a ligament or sprained an ankle.”
To make it easy for players to visualize the things that impact their minds, Chavez likes to use what he calls the mental health bank method. Things that affect you negatively, such as not getting enough sleep or comparing yourself to others on social media are “withdrawals.” Positives like hobbies and a good night’s rest are “deposits.” If you keep withdrawing without depositing, eventually you find yourself in trouble.
It’s a simple concept, but sometimes it’s easier said than done. While playing professional baseball seems like a dream come true, the pressures are unimaginable.
“You never really make it in Major League Baseball. You feel like you have to prove yourself every day,” former MLB outfielder Billy Bean, who now works for MLB and helps with the mental wellness program, told CBS Sports.
Bean – who played for the Detroit Tigers, Los Angeles Dodgers, and San Diego Padres – pointed specifically to the financial stresses. Superstars may be locking up contract extensions, but most players are fighting daily to keep their job and guarantee a paycheck for next season. Constantly having to prove yourself means it’s easy to get in your head, Bean said.
“Every day won’t be perfect,” he said. “Even guys like Mike Trout, he went 0-for-26 last year.”
Like trainers to heal a sprained ankle, MLB teams employ specialists who help players mentally prepare to perform at their best when their best is needed. For the Rockies, that’s Douglas Chadwick.
“Baseball is so difficult because of the amount of failure involved,” Chadwick told CBS Sports. “Dealing with that effectively and being able to be consistent under the heavy stress conditions of the game requires understanding where to draw confidence from. It’s about being in the moment, being present, letting go of the last pitch and being able to focus on this pitch right now.”
Chadwick teaches players how to focus on their confidence and reframe their thoughts effectively. On the mound, for example, he works with pitchers to develop a routine that involves physical actions and thoughts that help them come back to the present moment.
He also makes sure players have identities that don’t completely depend on their performance as an athlete.
“If your whole identity is tied to what you do and not who you are, you can get into a lot of trouble dealing with adversity,” Chadwick said.
But what happens when you feel who you are as a person is not accepted? That isolation is what Bean experienced in his playing days.
The high school valedictorian and college baseball all-American began his career after being selected by the Tigers in the fourth round of the 1986 MLB Draft. Within two years, he was called up to the majors, then bounced around several MLB teams and Nippon Professional Baseball. But off the field, Bean was dealing with something far greater than his playing time: he was secretly gay, hiding his truth because, at the time, that seemed like the only option.
“I felt like someone like me didn’t belong in Major League Baseball,” he told CBS Sports.
His partner, Sam, died of HIV-related complications a day before Bean began the 1995 season with the Padres. He suffered the loss in silence.
“When my partner died of HIV, that felt like the final example of me not belonging,” Bean said.
Bean came out publicly in 1999, four years after retiring. Now, he serves as the MLB Senior Vice President of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion. His goal is to make sure no player feels the same isolation he felt.
The league has changed significantly since the 1990s, as has society and the culture in the United States overall. The approach to mental health isn’t perfect, but there’s been an overhaul. Today, players are encouraged to not go through their struggles alone.
This season, three players have gone in the injury list for mental health reasons: Oakland A’s reliever Trevor May, Detroit Tigers outfielder Austin Meadows, and Rockies closer Daniel Bard. For a player to do so, he “must be evaluated and diagnosed by a qualified mental health professional as suffering from a mental disability that prevents a player from rendering services,” according to the league.
“It’s a hard thing to admit,” Bard, who previously worked his way back to the majors after overcoming the yips, told reporters in March. “But I’ve been through this before. I have enough going on outside the game to realize what’s important … I’m extremely grateful to be in an organization that understands these things and is accepting.”
Chadwick pointed out that mental health struggles are nothing new, but players used to (and probably still) hide what was really going on, instead just attributing their absence to an injury. Players who have been brave enough to discuss something so personal in public deserve a lot of respect, he said.
“I think the coaches in particular have become much more sensitive to that,” Chadwick told CBS Sports. “The sort of old school mentality of grinding it out, survival of the fittest, has really been replaced by a more humanistic approach.”
Chadwick travels with the team and, thanks to a new MLB rule, sits in the dugout with the players during games. He forms relationships with them and helps them figure out how to get mental help. But he doesn’t diagnose them – that’s Chavez’ job.
Veteran players are still less likely to talk about their issues, but younger players seem to be more willing to share, both Rockies specialists said. Even though the new generation is more open, Chadwick and Chavez both said that mental health resources are still very much underutilized by athletes. However, the progress they’ve seen through the years is making them optimistic about the future.
“We have to make it a way of living, something we talk about everyday just like we think about our physical health,” Chavez said. “We think about the food we put in or our bodies, as well as our workouts. If we do the same thing with our mental health, we are going to be thriving. We’ll feel strong.”
If you or someone you know is struggling, MLB has a free Crisis Text Line (“MLB” to 741741) available 24/7 in English and Spanish for anyone in need of confidential mental health and crisis support.