02/23/12 9:13 PM EST
Orioles add sports psychologist to staff
By Brittany Ghiroli / MLB.com
"It's mental toughness," Duquette said of the lessons that Kaplan -- who also worked with the 82nd Airborne Division based out of Fort Bragg, N.C. -- will bring to the Orioles. "Mental toughness training. He's going to concentrate on the pitchers. The idea is to help them prepare mentally to prepare physically. It's a key component."
Kaplan's initial meetings over the first few days of camp have been with groups of pitchers, and the plan is to tailor individual sessions in the future. Thursday's group included Jason Hammel, Tommy Hunter, Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta and Zach Britton -- five pitchers who figure to factor heavily into the rotation this season.
"We never had anybody we could really go to or talk to [like this] before," said Britton, part of a young and inexperienced staff that finished last season ranked last in the Majors in several key statistical categories.
"You know, we always talk among each other, but if we are all having a tough stretch, you are all thinking negatively, you don't really have someone outside the situation you can go to and talk to because he has a different perception," Britton said. "[Kaplan] was working with the military and stuff, so he was obviously doing something right if they trust him with people who put their lives on the line."
Kaplan, who earned his degree from Springfield (Mass.) College, launched a mental consultant company called Elite Performance Coaching a few years ago, and Duquette brought him in to speak with some of the campers at the Dan Duquette Sports Academy in Hinsdale, Mass. When Duquette took the reins in Baltimore, there was no mental coach/sports psychologist on staff, so he reached out to Kaplan.
"He will be with us all year," Duquette said. "I think it's good for the pitchers to focus on that part of their game and really incorporate [visualization techniques] that they can translate to the physical part."
"It can't hurt you," Hunter said. "I'm all for it. I'm going to listen, I'm going to try to get it, like all the dot things we put all over our arms."
Those "dot things" are sensors used for biomechanical analysis, another cutting-edge component the Orioles have added to Spring Training under Rick Peterson, their new director of pitching development. Peterson, who has a background in sports psychology, has already had several conversations with Kaplan and is a firm believer in the power of mental coaching.
"It's huge," Peterson said of the edge that can be obtained. "When you look at our peak performance triangle, there's three sides: fundamental skills, physical skills and emotional skills."
The Orioles are hardly alone when it comes to incorporating psychology. Though organizations aren't always forthcoming about officially having sports psychologists and other mental consultants on staff, more than half of Major League Baseball's teams have one in some capacity, with some having multiple psychologists, including for their Minor Leaguers.
"It's really important to have an ABC of mental skills," said Peterson, who has taught similar practices and is an advocate of applying science and other research techniques to avoid injury and improve pitchers' performance. "What, actually, is motivation? What are the motivators for worry and doubt? What is goal-setting? It was really educational for the players to talk about it, now that you had a definition of what these things were."
The presence of Peterson and Kaplan, along with new bullpen coach Bill Castro and pitching coach Rick Adair -- who is in his first full season in that role -- has fostered an environment focused on helping each player reach his maximum potential.
"It seems like the organization is taking a lot of pride in their assets," Hunter said. "It makes us feel good. We are not all going to like all the things, of course. Older, veteran guys who have been through all the ups and downs over a 10-year career, maybe those guys might not have as much excitement about [the mental training]. But with a younger core, the oldest starter [Hammel] is 29. I mean, it can't hurt. So we're up for it. Let's do it. Let's see what happens."
Added Britton: "It will help us when we get in those situations this season. Obviously, you are going to have bad games, [but this is] going to help prevent things from snowballing. I think it's going to be a good tool."
Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Britt's Bird Watch, and follow her on Twitter @britt_ghiroli. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.