The Power of Athlete Vulnerability

In the cutthroat environment of Major League Baseball, it’s Darwinism at work: kill or be killed. Perhaps not literally, but certainly in terms of who makes the team and who gets cut, whose contract gets renewed and who has to fight to continue their career as a free agent. Then there are the rookies striving to make a team or minor leaguers fighting for a chance to get sent up to the majors. If you show weakness, you’re dead. But what happens when that mentality forces a player to hide his problems, weaknesses, and doubts to the point that they consume him?

That’s where Mike Mombrea, former EAP director for the San Francisco Giants, comes in. Here, he talks with his old Giants colleague and Champion’s Mind co-founder Jim Afremow about getting players to open up, the power of being vulnerable, and more.

What do you enjoy most about helping baseball players work on their mindset?

There are many levels to get up to the big leagues in baseball. Even if you're a high draft pick, you're going to spend a minimum of two years grinding it out in the minor leagues. As you progress, you're hitting more and more challenging levels of competition. Whereas you started out being the best of the best, all of a sudden, you're in the same boat with a lot of very high performing athletes.

Talent will get you a long way, and those with the most talent have the best chance of really making it. But I think the psychological and emotional aspects of becoming a peak performer can be very challenging. If there's a fear of looking weak, if there's a fear of looking vulnerable, that ultimately undermines your capacity to grow. Many of the limitations that these athletes are facing are self-inflicted.

Right now, a lot of sports psychologists are focused on motivation and maintaining a positive mindset. That’s critical in any level of athletic endeavor, but it's not the only thing. Often, people aren’t helping athletes deal with their doubts or fear of failure. If players don’t deal with this stuff, they end up putting a level of pressure on themselves that tightens them up.

At the Giants, Jim and I would get back to basics and ask a player, “How much fun are you having?” When kids are growing up, sports are about the joy of playing. As a child, you’re not worried about getting to the next level, falling short, and so on. You just like to play. But often when athletes reach the elite level and are fighting for a roster spot or their next contract, these concerns are brought to bear. They might have a young family to support. What I try to do is create a safe space to explore those issues and areas that feel unsafe for them to talk about. That’s the same for the executives that I work with.

What are some of the tactics you use to dig into their fears and self-doubts?

I'm working on a holistic assessment that helps me really get to know who they are as a person. This involves asking a lot of questions, like who are the most important mentors in your life, what is your family situation, and what are your values? Others might include what are your major obstacles to performing well, how do you prepare, and how do you react to in-game challenges? I also want to know how they debrief after games, and the things they’ve done to tackle adversity in the past.

An athlete’s answers to these questions allow me to get a feel for who this person is and what they’re all about. I want us to go beyond what they're trying to accomplish as an athlete, and then make sure that whatever aspects of their lives are key, we’re going to track their progress in those things, as well as in sports. Sometimes their sense of who they are is merged so closely with what they do on the field that performance becomes everything. The combination of self-pressure and expectations from fans and the media can crush a player. So we need to improve their ability to perform and function in an emotionally healthy way as a human being.

If a player will open up to you and discard their fear of appearing weak, what benefits can that have on their game and life?

The majority of athletes who are struggling to succeed have a tremendous amount of room to grow. But they need to become more aware of their own fears and the things that they're worried about that get in the way of them reaching the next level. My observation – and this is true for both executives that I've worked with and athletes alike – is that there's a tremendous amount of guardedness around owning those areas of vulnerability. But getting them to talk about their doubts and fears in detail and work through them can make a huge difference. Those who are more grounded and have a greater sense of security tend to be best at dealing with the obstacles standing in the way of their success.

Want to work on your mindset like Mike does with the pros? Download the Champion’s Mind app now for your Apple or Android phone.

Check back soon for part 2!

Phil White

Phil White

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