I wasn’t a great baseball player. But in 2008 with the Brewers and 2009 with the Rays, I had my niche. I was an objectively good offensive player versus left handed pitching. I put up a 161 wRC+ versus L in 08. In 09, it was 144 wRC+ with more walks than strikeouts.
In 2010, my wRC+ against L was 58.
What changed? I was just as physically healthy. I was eating as well. I was working out as hard or harder than ever. From all outward appearances, nothing changed. But mentally, I was a wreck. My relationship with my now ex-wife was strained, and I wasn’t coping well. I was 3000 miles away from my family and thinking about them every minute. I wasn’t present. I wasn’t sleeping. I would be standing in the dugout having a full conversation with a teammate, but I wasn’t “there.” I was sick, but I’m confident there wasn’t a player on the team who knew I was struggling. I smiled, I played cribbage, and beneath the surface, I was drowning.
I was spending all of mental energy trying unsuccessfully to block out the thoughts of not being present for my family and how I could save my marriage. These thoughts were both distressing and distracting on the field and in pregame work. I’ve loved the ballpark nearly every day of my life. In 2010, I hated the ballpark.
I was conditioned to appear bulletproof, and this conditioning runs through all of us. Athletes are told to “suck it up.” We’re taught to hide pain of all kinds and particularly any emotional or psychological pain. Take a 95 mile an hour fastball to the ribs? Jog to first base and don’t show a sliver of the anguish we’re feeling. Feeling some pain and need to come out of the lineup? You better have tangible evidence of injury, or you’ll be labelled “soft” (or worse). Do something great on the field and want to celebrate? Tone down the joy and act like you’ve been there, or maybe you’ll be wearing one of those fastballs.
It’s not just athletes. How many women have experienced being told to smile, regardless of what they feel, because it’s not ladylike? How many teenage boys transition into adulthood understanding that becoming a man means pushing down emotional displays other than anger? Why do we greet each other by asking how we’re doing, but look down on people who share real answers?
When a player is physically injured, we see it. If we have a broken bone, a torn ligament, a pulled hamstring, we limp. We wear a boot or sling. We need crutches. We use therapies to recover from those injuries. But when we’re going through a divorce, a child’s hospitalization, a parent’s death – those injuries are less visible. We’re less likely to seek out the appropriate therapies to recover, and we’re less likely to get support when we do. When someone has diabetes, no one questions the medications used to treat the condition. But when someone has depression or anxiety, we question the need for medication for a chemical imbalance.
Let me be clear. We need to discard the bullshit narrative that toughness means hiding mental illness with a chin up, chest out bravado. Ultimately this leads to a mess of a person when nobody’s looking and guarantees that issues aren’t addressed. Sports, as an industry, care for physical injuries because there is an incentive to do so. There is a reason why a football team doesn’t ask a wide receiver to run routes with a pulled hamstring. The receiver has no chance of making a chance or a block. They’re likely to make their condition worse. They’d affirmatively hurt their team. The decision would be irresponsible in the short and the long term.
You can’t compare a hamstring tear to chronic clinical depression, severe anxiety, suicidal thoughts. But mental health issues can be debilitating in a way that inhibits performance similarly. Just as teams care for players’ physical health because they want their players able to perform at their top capacity, they should care for mental health in the same way. Further, they should incentivize players to seek out help when they need it.
When serious physical injuries occur, there’s a very specific roadmap for return to play. It typically includes, in order, a period of allowing inflammation to subside, various treatment modalities involving not stressing the injured area, weeks or months of physical therapy, more general strength and conditioning training, field work, rehab reps and finally, game action. There’s an entire group of people involved in overseeing this work to get a player back on the field. We can put this same level of thought and work into our players and teammates facing mental health issues and get healthier, better performing players and higher quality teams as a result.
Most importantly, eliminating the notion that concealing emotional and psychological issues is appropriate or valuable for us will make us stronger people.
I want to thank Drew Robinson for sharing his story with all of us. I’m inspired to share my thoughts on this subject because of his courage. And I know that Drew’s wish is that we both amplify his voice and help his story carry.