I have played or coached baseball most of my life starting at five years old. I love everything about the game. I have always been enamored with getting better, whether on the field as a player or as a coach. Every time that I think I know everything there is to know, I learn something new from someone who knows more. I love applying those new things that I learn.
I could go on and on about every element of baseball that I love. However, my absolute favorite thing about baseball is being in the dugout. If I’m being honest, I probably feel the most comfortable, the most “myself” when I’m in a dugout. It’s a cocoon of baseball. There is no place better in my estimation.
In the dugout, I’m among 15 or 20 like-minded people that share the same goal. I can express myself in a way that is natural and unfiltered. In the dugout, we can be serious trying to solve on-field puzzles, or we can be goofy joking about something totally irrelevant to the game. In the dugout, there is good old-fashioned ribbing that is not only tolerated but invited.
When something good happens, grown men hug or pat each other on the rear end. Again, this isn’t frowned upon, but it’s invited. There are high fives and fist bumps. There are encouraging words and the sincerest type of empathy because every individual in that dugout knows what it’s like to be in a crippling slump or feel the unvarnished glory that comes from a big hit.
In the dugout, arguments and fights happen. They don’t happen very often in my experience, but they happen, nonetheless. And when they happen, they are usually forgiven quickly because we need to get back to business, because teammates are tight, and because we can’t afford for negative emotions to hang around.
I can rarely recall a time in over 30 years involved in baseball when I had a bad experience in the dugout even when I was at my worst. I remember the laughs, the jokes, the hugs, and the triumphs. Maybe it is just revisionist history on my part, but fondness for being in the dugout is almost inexplicable.
In my role as a mental performance coach, I find myself in a dugout less frequently. When I’m in the dugout now, it requires a certain type of discipline that I rarely needed to demonstrate as a player. I’m at my best as a mental performance coach when I’m unemotional, objective, and observant. My job is the focus on the nuances of player behavior, whether on the field or in the dugout. What does their body language look like? What do their facial expressions look like? Are they consistently applying their routines?
Maintaining my composure in the dugout or watching a client’s game is just flat out hard. It isn’t natural. During my time in baseball, I’ve been conditioned to react emotionally. Share teammates’ outrage at an awful call. Let out a primal roar when someone gets a big hit or a big strikeout. Go out of my way to fire someone up when they need it. Sometimes those things still happen even though it’s not my desired approach. It’s just a natural reaction.
Now, I need be a role model. If I react poorly to a bad call, then I’m letting the uncontrollable visibly get the best of me. If I let out that roar, then perhaps I’m showing favoritism to the player who made the play. If I try to fire someone up, it may not be what they need in that moment.
My default now must be to observe with intense focus and to ask questions to understand what a player is experiencing. I use that information to develop impromptu mental strategies that will help them perform or cope better. I use that information to inform our next individual session together. I use that information to simply be better at my craft.
I believe that a mental performance coach needs to be in the background. I’m only important if a player deems me to be important. Imposing my will or suggestions on a player is not my job. I’m not the same as an on-field coach. I’m a resource, not a rule-maker. I’m a confidante, not an outspoken leader.
Serving in this support role can be unnatural for me. I still love the dugout. I want to be one of the guys. I want to give my opinion. I want to clown around. I want to berate an umpire now and then. However, that’s not my job. My job is to be silent, to be in the background, and only come forward if there is a good reason. Put much more plainly, I need to check my ego at the dugout opening.
Despite the challenge of checking my ego, I still love being in the dugout even if I’m just only hanging in the background. I love the energy. I love the collective pull of the team. I love all of it. Baseball is the greatest sport of them all and the dugout is the greatest place to be in all of sports.