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The Mental Game: Bob Tewksbury

Featured Photo by Sporting News via Getty

During his 13-year Major League career as a pitcher, Bob Tewksbury was known for his control. In 1992, his best year in the big leagues, Tewksbury walked only 20 batters in 233 innings, one of the best walks-to-innings pitched ratios of all time. Throughout his career, Tewksbury always appreciated the importance of an athlete’s mental approach. In fact, when he retired, Tewksbury  earned a master’s degree in psychology at Boston University and went on to become the sports psychology coach of the Boston Red Sox. Now the mental skills coach of the San Francisco Giants, Tewksbury’s new book, Ninety Percent Mental looks at baseball from inside the mind of an All-Star athlete.

What inspired you to write Ninety Percent Mental?

Immediately after my career ended, I had some stories that I could share, purely from a pitching perspective. When I went to graduate school and got my masters in Sports Psychology, I thought the combination of both my experiences would really be a good story, so it enhanced the project even more.

How has baseball changed since you first became a Major Leaguer?

When I signed in 1981, you really didn’t have any strength and conditioning programs. I don’t think we even had shoulder programs or preventative stuff. It was kind of like, “go play, run and throw,” and we just played baseball. Then in ‘86, when I went to my first big league spring training, that’s when strength and conditioning started to come around. So that went through the 80s and into the 90s. Now, mental skills have really come on.

Why did mental skills become such a critical part of baseball?

Ken Revizza, Charlie Maher and Harvey Dorfman, were all pioneers in getting mental skills into baseball. Back then, it wasn’t a collective position amongst the teams, because I think every team either saw value to it, or didn’t value it, or even want to fund it to begin with. We also had to break through stigmas around the term psychology or mental performance. I’m happy that it’s now in the collective bargaining agreement, and that teams must have this resource available to the players. We all know Yogi Berra’s quote (Baseball is ninety percent mental. The other half is physical.) For years, we’ve said that baseball is a mental game, but no one’s ever really done anything about it. So now people are being hired and put in positions to facilitate that side of the game.

Do you think that your own career would have had a meaningful benefit from having a mental skills coach?

I was always going to be a good pitcher. I don’t think I would have ever been great, but I could have been better. I could have won more games. I probably would have had less lonely nights of fretting about my existence as a baseball player or what I did wrong, if I had someone to talk to about the things I was feeling, especially as a young player.

You mentioned the benefit a mental skills coach would have had on you during your younger days. Do you think a young player or a veteran player benefits most from having a mental skills coach?

Veteran players have already had success. They understand their own challenges and how to overcome them. It’s the young players, the players that are rookies up until probably their third or fourth year in the big leagues that are still trying to find their way. They’re the ones who still aren’t quite sure that they belong in the big leagues. They’re the ones that have options to get sent down to the minor leagues. They’re the ones that aren’t making the big contracts—they’re making good money, but they’re not making megabucks. So the ability to help those players settle in is incredibly important.

In your book, you mention that Joe Torre was as close to a skills coach as there was back in the early 90s. Was there anyone during those earlier days of your career that you felt functioned as a mental skills coach without necessarily being one?

Yeah, I’d say some of the veteran players, that’s naturally what they try to do. When I was with the Twins, as a veteran player, LaTroy Hawkins was just a rookie. He went on to have a great long career, and I used to mentor him because people mentored me. But to be honest, you had to figure it out yourself and survive and it (mental skills) wasn’t talked about then. I would have really benefited from somebody to help with that. I think a lot of that comes from the manager too, especially as a young player. The reason I said that about Joe Torre, is that as a young player, I came up with Lou Piniella.

What was it like coming up under Lou Piniella?

Lou really didn’t like pitchers, especially pitchers who didn’t throw hard. So I made the team, but I wasn’t on his list of favorites. Then I went to the Cubs, and I was hurt and never really gained the confidence that I needed. When I got to St Louis and I was healthy, I had the opportunity to work with Joe Torre. He gave me permission to be successful.  I think that’s something that has to come from somebody that you respect and that believes in you. Other players can do that, but they have their own stuff going on. I think you almost need an elder.

Do you find more players being willing to discuss their mental health issues than in the past? It seems that athletes are beginning to speak publicly about their struggles with playing in such a pressure-packed environment.

In a general sense, yes, more players are admitting they may need help with a mental health issue such as depression or anxiety.  Teams have been more active in addressing the mental health area by hiring resources for the players.  These resources are “go-to people” in the organization, and they are there so players don’t suffer alone as many have done, and unfortunately, still do.

Do you have a favorite part of your job now as the mental skills coach for the San Francisco Giants?

When you connect with somebody, when there’s that one guy that comes in and says, this really helped me. That’s what keeps me going. It’s such a great feeling to help somebody in that way. And that may only happen after one visit. You may talk to a guy one time, I may make a difference in one day, and that feels good.

What do you hope the reader takes away from your book?

The mental game is an important part of the game that hasn’t been talked about, at least not openly. In the book, there’s some big-time players that are really successful at talking about how important mental skills are. I want the reader and the fans to have an inside look into the mental part of baseball, from my experiences as a former player, and then my second career of helping the players of today. I think it’s a unique look inside the game.

Bob Tewksbury’s new book, Ninety Percent Mental (Da Capo Press) is available at Amazon.com.

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