Change can be uncomfortable. Sometimes the fear of change keeps us locked into habits and ways of thinking that are no longer serving us. Thriving requires pushing through that discomfort. Yesterday, I made the case for why we should reimagine the schedule for relievers to reduce volume and improve performance and health. I focused on the physical benefits and potential reduction in days lost to injury. As it often is, however, the psychological challenges may be the most difficult to solve for.
We discussed the typical schedule for relievers and how they’re generally breaking themselves down by performing at 3pm essentially the same work they might do in that night’s game. Relievers are walking out to the pen for that night’s game with less than a full fuel tank.
Every reliever knows this scenario. The phone rings, and your bullpen coach says you’re up. You’re gonna post, and you throw at max effort, because that’s all you know how to give. And when you’ve done your job, it’s, “tell him what he’s won!” (Another inning).
This is a bigger challenge than it seems, because it’s not just the additional workload that makes this difficult. Going back out after your offense has had their rips means you’re going back out after the spiked adrenaline has worn off and the body has cooled, after the big outs were recorded and the 40,000 fans roared their approval. Imagine you just crushed it, thinking you’re done for the day, then having your manager ask you to go back out and do it again as you’re walking out the door, perhaps unexpectedly. It’s a matter of ramping up and cooling down, with rapidly climbing stress and adrenaline, releasing it all, then walking back into the fire. And you’re tackling all of this after the substantial arm work earlier in the day, already fatigued, whether you feel it or not.
Why do we do it this way? There are a couple of reasons. I’m sure after reading I’m recommending banging pregame throwing, some major league vets and coaches across the league collectively rolled their eyes. In fact, as I was discussing this with a very talented veteran reliever, he said, “I have to throw before the game to feel like I’m prepared to help the team.” I asked him if it’d ever been raining all day and he didn’t get to throw until he warmed up for the 8th. He acknowledged it, so I followed up to see how he did. He said that he’s performed well. It isn’t the actual performance, but rather the display of “helping the team” that’s at stake.
Suppose we have a day game following tonight’s game, and we’ve got a reliever opening in front of the starter tonight. If I say to that reliever, “we’ve got an early start tomorrow. You’re done after the 1st inning, so go spend the evening with your family, get a good night’s sleep, and we’ll see you tomorrow so you’ll be better rested to give us a few hitters then,” I’ll inevitably be met with, “I can’t do that, I have to stay for the game to support my teammates,” or similar.
The translation of that, of course, is “my teammates will question my commitment.” Silly? Yes. But he’d be correct. I’ve seen it play out that way many times. Culturally, in baseball, we prioritize performative acts too much over what will actually help us win. We’d rather have our players out there throwing together before the game or staying in the dugout rather than going home and getting a few extra hours of sleep.
If I’m your teammate, I don’t need you to be here tonight wishing you were home, I need you to pitch well tomorrow. This is a cultural shift that needs to happen. It can only happen when we start to understand what being a good teammate actually is. An 80 teammate takes care of himself and is obsessed with every opportunity to do so. That’s the best way to protect the other guys in the same uni and their livelihoods. High quality team bonding events and moments are plentiful and even more can be curated. It’s lazy to insinuate that the most important ones start with, “if I suffer, you suffer.” We don’t need martyrs, we need performers.
But it isn’t just for the team that we do it this way. As I’ve discussed this concept with people around the game in the past, pitchers tend to say they throw before the game to know how their bodies feel. I understand this concept, having spent countless hours trying to feel things in the cage as a hitter. As players, we want to believe that our mechanics are sound and use practice time to find lots of things. Sometimes it might be a feeling we’re searching for, or if we’re using technology, we may be trying to hit certain arm angles or pitch characteristics.
As a player who came off the bench for a large chunk of my career, I felt like I needed to do everything possible to prepare. That preparation meant taking early BP, then regular BP, then hitting all the way through the game to be ready for the big at bat. I needed to “feel it,” and that meant working to know where the sweet spot was on the bat, where my elbow connected with my body and a handful of other crutches. I believe now, however, that we overtrain. We trick ourselves into believing we’re helping the team, but we’re likely doing more harm than good. Our bodies have been practicing these moves for our whole lives, and we’re not actually as dependent on our routines as we think we are.
When I was a kid, I spent countless hours jumping off things. Like many other kids, I taught myself to flip and twist and risk injury in all sorts of crazy ways. I’ll get into skateboarding exploits at a later date.
Here in Tulum, I visited some cenotes. (A cenote is a natural pit resulting from the collapse of limestone. They’re beautiful and mysterious and said to be quite significant to the Mayan people. Cenotes were their main water source; they were also considered to be the entrance to the Xibalba, or underworld, and a place where the Mayan gods would visit, especially Chaac, the Mayan god of rain, lightning, and thunder.)
I was swimming in a beautiful open air cenote, and my guide pointed to a platform built to jump or dive off of. After a few jumps and dives, he suggested I try a backflip. I hadn’t done a backflip in a decade or more. I’m 48, and I had no idea how my body would handle it or if I’d remember how to do it at all. But I felt a little challenged and put on the spot, so I said fuck it. I did a backflip off the platform. This was no Olympic masterpiece, but I performed the move just fine. My body remembered how to do it. When we compete and free up our minds, our bodies organize and deliver for us. We’re capable of so much more than relying on a pregame routine that only serves us because we’re convinced it does.
I even proved this to myself during my career, although I didn’t acknowledge it at the time. When I was with the Rays in 2009, I played several weeks with walking pneumonia. I didn’t have the energy to do my lifts and normal pregame routines. My days were out of whack. I showed up later and spent my pregame time in the training room. In addition to feeling like a truck hit me, I was worried that this lack of routine would do me in. Shockingly, I played well during that stretch. Prior to it, and if I’m honest, even after, much of that pregame activity was aimless hitting and throwing from anxiety.
Often we’re no better off mentally than we were prior to the activity, domed up about our mechanics because “something feels “off.” Rituals are important but not always the best way for players to perform and stay healthy when the game begins.
The morning shootaround is one of those NBA rituals that has been around longer than anybody in the league even if nobody is entirely sure why. The players trudge into cold, empty arenas. They get warm. They walk through some plays. They stand around shooting. For whatever reason—and that reason might be making sure everyone is awake at a reasonable hour—this is the routine that NBA teams have adopted without stopping to think about it.
But once they thought about it, the Rockets started to think it was unnecessary. So they decided not to do it. They have spent the last two seasons reaping the profits of their latest counterintuitive idea accomplishing more by working less. It’s rare for them to have a shootaround these days. Since they shortened their workday, though, they have won the most regular-season games of any team in the NBA.Wall Street Journal: The Team that Comes to Work Late
Currently, the system may be setting players up for fatigue, injury and worse performance. This is all for the sake of the placebo effect, tradition and a culture of “good teammate behavior” that is rooted in some self destructive or at least misguided ideas. Of course change in sports can freak us out. Our routines are often protective. But we’re served well by leaning into adjustments because challenging ourselves feeds confidence. Working to eliminate the insecurities and inefficiencies can lead to better health, performance and mental well being for players and more wins for teams. And all it will cost is ridding ourselves of some outdated thinking.