Mindfulness in Baseball? It’s Not What You Think, Part 1
We all want to know things. Lots of us make lives out of it, say, as accountants who know transactions inside and out for clients, or as school librarians who are up on what kids want to read. Nearly everyone falls in love with something in pop culture and gets a thrill just finding new articles about it online, like the final season of Game of Thrones or what’s coming and going from Netflix this month. Here at Pitcher List? We love baseball, stats, and winning with fake teams—into which we pour near-countless hours of strategizing. In my first two pieces at the site—here on Paul Goldschmidt and here on Lourdes Gurriel Jr.—I dropped 15 different stats in the name of understanding.
The thing about any of these activities, despite how much we may design our schedules around them, or how much we may identify with them, is that they’re all external. They’re not actually us. They’re tangential and ephemeral in ways we don’t get back or often come around to again once they’re gone. You get new projects at your firm, young adult novel trends bob and weave each year if not faster, the series finales come and go, and the games always end. No matter what.
I think about this a lot. What have we prepared ourselves to do at that point? What have we picked up internally that can we use to help us now?
When it comes to pro sports, I try to imagine what it’s like dedicating yourself entirely to a cause for the duration of your cognizant life. I try to imagine the grind and anxiety that could put on a player in any given moment. I wonder what voids are left in the player-development process when it comes to engaging mindfulness—and what internal processes players can use now to help them pave a path to success.
These thoughts, plus other baseball ones, led me to Las Vegas last December for the winter meetings. One thing led to another, and they brought me to Matthew Repplinger. He’s the founder of Pro Positive Yoga, the organization that coordinates yoga promotion days through MLB parks. He also heads up the semi-pro Denver Browns baseball club and worked for years with the Rockies on the sales side. He currently works with teams at the high school level all the way through the majors. His relationship with the game is as colorful as any.
Repplinger and I have spoken over the phone on multiple occasions. He wants to put the tools of mindfulness in the hands of as many players as possible. Blink at the wrong time in a discussion with him and you might miss a crucial piece of information. It’s not that he speaks too fast. It’s that his relationship with truth is calm and without pretense.
“There’s serious fear in being a big league baseball player,” he remarks in regard to the stress the game produces and to which its players submit themselves. That fear can become imbued at a certain point—can become a part of a player’s blueprint for who they are. “I mean, how can it not?” Repplinger asks rhetorically.
That’s why he emphasizes meeting players where they are instead of trying to persuade them to do yoga or implement mindfulness practices. “You’re not having people [meditate and] ‘om’ off the bat,” he explains. “I have to be fluid and dynamic in what I’m providing.”
One player might need a quiet conversation. Another might need something more immersive. Either way, the process is all about quieting the mind.
Fluidity and dynamism may seem counterintuitive as practices that focus on stillness and quieting the mind, but it’s not much different than what goes on in a beautiful swing. It’s all about appropriately employing your mental agility to get you to the place you need to be. When that happens, the benefits of a steady yoga or mindfulness practice can start to manifest.
In a piece for Forbes, author David DiSalvo lays out how to do that by discussing the highlights of various, recent academic studies. In one, more conscious breathing was found to aid the body’s baroreceptor reflex in regulating blood pressure, which can keep stress in check. Let’s think about this like Michael Scott learning what a surplus is: When it comes to breathing, that big artery in your neck—the one you can feel over to the side and under your jaw—can be like a nice pair of pajama pants that adjust to fit however you need them. Or it can be a stiff pair of slacks you’re never quite comfortable wearing. And how you choose to breathe can be the difference.
DiSalvo’s review of studies also includes something else: How the rhythm of our breathing can impact our memory. Professional athletes represent a tiny percentage of people in the entire world who can carry the burden brought on by professional sports. Even the 26th man on the roster for a doubleheader probably has a much higher ability to focus than the average person in the stands. But researchers’ findings suggest that conscious inhaling through the nose activates more electrical activity in the amygdala, which is responsible for recognizing and responding to fear. A 95 mph bullet high and tight from the pitcher prompts a certain amount of alarm. Whether a hitter bails out repeatedly or eventually stands in, opens up, and tries to give it a ride is ultimately a choice. Better breathing may prepare a hitter more successfully for that kind of moment.
There are at least two potential frameworks from which they could work to engage mindfulness. Asanas are poses that require equal parts movement and awareness. Meditation is more about stillness and focusing on a singular object or concern. The importance in a player making the choice to pursue either one consistently is critical because of how the rigor of a season can make it so hard to maintain the practice. It’s not just that the season lasts for months. Most every minute while at the park is planned and curated by selected staff. That means it’s far easier to slip into a compromising position to add stress when not being watched—such as eating junk food or drinking alcohol or playing late-night video games.
Players can often be seen as Tetris pieces who conveniently fit into a tough spot, and they can be dispensed of quickly. Such a grind ingrains a merit-based mindset—one that insists on a hierarchy of skill to the point that it’s almost obsessive. It can become easy to turn inward and question why you aren’t better.
Repplinger has seen it. “The game spits you out,” he relays. Consistent mindfulness off the field can improve a player’s life, so they can improve when they’re on it. It “heightens the senses, plain and simple.”
The games will always end, but we only get the chance to be here now once. People inside the game are becoming more open to different modalities of presence and success in their quest for knowing. The more that happens, the bigger chance players could have to embrace and practice individual mindfulness, leading to better people and better players.
(Photos courtesy Matthew Repplinger/ProPositiveYoga and Katherine Roberts/Human Performance for Sports)