Major League Anxiety: Zach Is Back
As it is often said, Major League Baseball players get millions of dollars to play children’s games. However, no amount of money can make athletes immune to performance anxiety.
As a psychologist, baseball fan, and former college pitcher, I see sporting events as the ultimate goal of reality TV. I’m obsessed with watching games – not just who wins and who loses, but how players overcome obstacles.
Baseball is full of examples of players who succumbed to or overcame performance anxiety.
In the 1970s, Steve Blass was the Pittsburgh Pirates’ pitching ace and led them to a World Series title in 1972. The following year, he inexplicably lost the ability to control the pitch. By 1974, he dropped out of the majors and never came back.
St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Rick Ankiel was touted as “the next Sandy Koufax” in his rookie season. In the 2000 playoffs, he had a meltdown with four hitters and five wild pitches in one inning. That inning marked the end of his pitching career. Ankiel’s story took an unusual turn as he eventually returned to the majors as an outfielder, and he’s still playing.
Many other major league players have a variant of “Steve Blass disease” — Mark Wallace, Dontrell Willis, Steve Sachs, Mackie Suther.
Despite performance anxiety, Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Zach Grinker had success. Glick is coming to the majors for the first time with the Kansas City Royals. He was seen as the savior of a perennially losing team. He has a 95 mph fastball and a huge curveball. After two years, he quit baseball. He was exhausted and diagnosed with clinical depression and social anxiety.
An essential feature of social anxiety disorder is the fear of being scrutinized and judged by others. Obviously, this is a problem for someone who has to show great skill and precision in the most public settings.
Greinker eventually returned to baseball with the help of therapy and antidepressants. He led the Brewers to the National League Central Championship last year. In his first start of the season, he shut down the defending world champion St. Louis Cardinals.
Baseball is a very tough sport. Yogi Berra once said, “Ninety percent of the game is half-brain.” He also said, “You can’t hit and think at the same time.” Berra somehow expresses the paradox of having to be very tense and relaxed at the same time. Only a practitioner can express the powerful Zen so eloquently.
In 2009, Glink was awarded the Cy Young Award as the best pitcher in the AL. Last year, he was great in the playoffs. He has gone from wanting to quit baseball to being one of the top performers. Despite his huge success, he is still quite introverted and doesn’t like talking to the media.
Modern sports, with its “look at me” culture, could use heroes who are more focused on playing the right way and just trying to help their team. In that sense, Greinke is refreshing. I respect him. I also respect him for fighting for his return and earning his success.
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