Anxiety in Baseball: Modern Techniques Can Ease the Burden

Jordan BrattCorrespondent IMarch 18, 2010

SURPRISE, AZ - MARCH 05:  Starting pitcher Zack Greinke #23 of the Kansas City Royals sits in the dugout during the MLB spring training game against the Texas Rangers at Surprise Stadium on March 5, 2010 in Surprise, Arizona  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

It has forced Zack Greinke and Joey Votto off the field.

It is currently jeopardizing the careers of Dontrell Willis and Khalil Green.

Anxiety disorders can become such an overbearing burden on the gladiators we idolize that it leads them to hate the game they once loved.  Professional athletes have always had to cope with being in the spotlight, but in our modern information age there is far more coverage and invasion than ever before.

Physical training is commonplace in the daily routine of finely tuned athletes, but often these young and famous millionaires lack the mental preparation necessary to be in the position they are in.  Some individuals are able to block out the numerous distracters and perform at peak levels on and off the field, but many others find that to be a more difficult task. Social anxieties have been around as long as the game, except now the distractions are compounded by internet and television coverage.

In a March 12, 1984 , Sports Illustrated article on the Kansas City Royals, Willie Wilson reflects on his successes and setbacks:

"Everything I did was spotlighted," Wilson says. "No one remembered the regular season I'd had in 1980. And in 1982 they should have been writing that I gave Robin Yount a chance to win the batting title—not that I chickened out. I took cocaine after that '82 season, but I was involved only during the winter. Before I played baseball I never smoked or drank or took drugs. People think the game is glamorous, but I never wanted the attention —good or bad. I felt a lot of pressure trying to satisfy the club, the public, my parents. People wanted me to be a role model; even the judge said so when he sentenced me. I always felt your parents should be your role models."

There are numerous parts of this quote that raise a flag, but two remarks make the situation Wilson was dealing with a bit more transparent.  The fact that Wilson had never "smoked or drank or took drugs" suggests he was relatively balanced as a human—in that his brain function was satisfactory and he did not require drugs to "normalize"—indicating he was likely not genetically predisposed to this behavior.

"Detoxified addicts have been shown to have significant alterations in brain electroencephalographic (EEG) patterns and children of addicts also exhibit EEG patterns that are significantly different than normal (Sokhadze et al., 2008, for review). This indicates that, not only are we dealing with the neurological consequences of drug-related behavior, but there appears to be a genetic pattern as well, that places certain people at greater risk for addictive behaviors." (Stephen Sideroff, PhD )

Some would argue that Wilson’s issues stemmed from situation instead of predisposition, but he admittedly made it out of Montgomery, Alabama without any alcohol or drug abuse history.  So why did he begin abusing drugs?

Wilson stating that he "never wanted the attention" is indicative of his need to shield himself from the public eye. Hiding in a drug-induced haze is an effective method to cope with this unwanted side-effect of success.

All of these anxieties were able to mount on a tier two star playing on a small market team before the present information age.

Nowadays, the drugs abused by anxious athletes are typically legal and designed for those diagnosed with ADD/ADHD; they improve focus so the athlete can block out distracters and find “the zone”–Ritalin and Adderall are a couple of the more commonly abused mental performance enhancers. 

Ironically, in a game that revolves around stats it is the statistics that prove the league-wide abuse of these stimulants. “It is now known that these symptoms continue into adulthood for about 60% of children with ADHD. That translates into 4% of the US adult population, or 8 million adults .” WebMD   However, the rate of baseball players being diagnosed with ADD/ADHD has steadily risen since the steroid era was exposed; to a rate of almost 8 percent of all players, or double the national average for adults.

2006 = 28 players given therapeutic exemptions
2007 = 103 players given therapeutic exemptions
2008 = 106 players given therapeutic exemptions
2009 = 108 players given therapeutic exemptions

Unfortunately for these athletes, the abuse of these drugs can also cause the following :

Considering the important role of cognitive and emotional processes involved in the predisposition for drug abuse, the development of nonpharmacological interventions (e.g., CBT, stress management, neurofeedback) is a feasible strategy. (Sokhadze, Cannon & Trudeau )

At the highest levels of competition, it is often the strength of one’s mental game that makes the difference between winning and losing. The abuse of these drugs does provide an edge; what many of these substance-abusing players do not know is there are holistic alternatives that provide the same benefits as these drugs, without the debilitating side-effects.

Neurofeedback is a mental training technique used by top athletes such as former Cincinnati Reds and Major League Baseball All-Star Sean Casey , current Los Angeles Clippers and National Basketball Association All Star Chris Kaman , the AC Milan World Cup soccer team and Olympic gold medalist, Hermann Maier . Most recently 2010 Olympic hopefuls from Canada incorporated Neurofeedback training into their preparations for the 2010 Winter Games.

Neurofeedback is a simple tool that measures electrical signals produced by one’s brain “activity” and projects them onto a computer screen in a way that allows users to train their minds to be quiet, focused, and in “the zone”. Neurofeedback is thought to work much like the learning process for any other new skill–by creating new signal pathways in the brain through repetition and practice. Often these new pathways are visible on an fMRI.

Once I started doing (the Neurofeedback technology) for a few months, it changed my life, the way I act and the way that I think, and it’s helped my game so much. 

– Chris Kaman, Los Angeles Clippers

When the quiet and focus Neurofeedback provides is enhanced with imagery and visualization exercises, residual thoughts remain positive. When this positivity is combined with various sport psychology concepts, like goal setting and self-awareness exercises, an athlete is put into an optimal position to succeed and the need to abuse drugs for the purpose of coping and focusing becomes eliminated.

Our modern era has placed unprecedented attention and pressure on professional athletes; it has also provided many legal, drug-free alternatives to enhance performance.  Often these alternatives are not only more effective, but also provide a boost to quality of life. 

While the abuse of medication can lead to a laundry list of ailments, holistic alternatives like neurofeedback, imagery/visualization, heart rate variability, hypnosis, and interactive metronome can be paired with various sport psychology concepts to create a life-altering improvement both on and off the field of play.


The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.