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The Real Brain Exhibit @Bristol Science Centre

Miller Time: The role of Geoff Miller, the Phillies' mental skills coach

Baseball players: They're just like us, only under intense pressure and skewering scrutiny on a large stage, most of the time.

Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images

"I’ve never found a better way to get through to a player than to simply make it clear to him that I believe in him."

"Even though I know most of their dreams won’t come true, I can’t help them if I don’t believe that each one of them will."

Geoff Miller, "Intangibles: Big-League Stories and Strategies for Winning the Mental Game-In Baseball and in Life."

On November 8, the Phillies brought in Geoff Miller as a mental skills coach.

With a roster full of not just ball players, but fathers, sons, providers, and competitors on the sports’ highest, hottest stage, Miller is here to try and massage the slumps, yips, hiccups and guilt off of the minds of the Phillies' tenderfoot brigade. Despite the human brain being the most complex, intricate glob of wet noodles on the planet, simple remedies can be used to untangle its tighter knots.

Baseball, a multifaceted sport threatening failure at any moment, needs someone pushing back against the fear, the doubt, the anger.

So in Philadelphia, Geoff Miller is going to be exhausted.

***

Not too long ago, intangibles weren’t something around which we could wrap our little baseball nerd-brains.

"Intangibles?!" we’d scoff, looking up from our calculations of UZR and VORP and FFVII. "What do you use to calculate those? A human heart?!"

"Well, yes, in fact, there’s an MLB award celebrating that very organ--ow," others would say, a hurled calculator bouncing off their heads as we all laughed and attempted some weak, uncoordinated high-fives.

It was a battle long fought on the internet, but we've settled into a time of peace in which both modern baseball statistics (but not all of them) and intangibles (but not all of them) have a place. In retrospect, it's slightly insane to think that the immeasurable aspects of human nature wouldn't play a role in the evaluation of a human player's production. Life, on top of baseball, can get an extra layer of bleakness - Geoff Miller refers to where he may end up with a player as "virtual hospice." He knew this when he had his book, "Intangibles: Big-League Stories and Strategies for Winning the Mental Game-In Baseball and in Life," published in 2012.

As fans, we don't need too many poor outings to reclassify a player. "The guys sucks," we'll explain to passersby as we stand in front of a display window TV. But get this: Occasionally, when a player is struggling, it can be not because he "sucks." It can be the result of a mental strain that has left him so rattled, he can't find the plate or get in a groove.

The output of one John Smoltz is the most cited version of this story. The 24-year-old was already an All-Star entering 1991, his fourth year in the big leagues, but the sport's astute minds noticed his 2-11 record and 5.16 ERA to start the season that year, and considered that perhaps something was amiss. In came sports psychologist Jack Llewellyn, who became so comforting a presence to his client that he would attend games in a red shirt and sit where Smoltz could see him.

It's easy, as Phillies fans, to think back to who on this team, from our limited perspective as fans, seemed like they could have benefited the most from an injection of professional-grade positivity: Cole Hamels in 2009. Phillippe Aumont in 2013. Vince Velasquez in 2016. Players who had plenty of raw talent but struggled, at times, to execute; who, in some cases admittedly, had so many thoughts trying to come out at once that none of them could get through the door.

Smoltz explained the time he spent with Llewellyn boiled down to "...focus on the good and forget the bad." The Phillies' new man Miller slims his own creeds - that of course vary from player to player - into brief clips; advice that could be put on a note and send to the dugout:

  • "Don't be afraid to make a mistake."
  • "Stick to the plan."
  • "Quit drawing dead." (This being repetition and association, as he got a player to relate baseball to a simple poker game)

Plenty has been written exemplifying high profile stars like Zach Greinke, Joey Votto, Dontrelle Willis, and past players like Smoltz, A-Rod, and Pete Harnisch, making use of the benefits of sports psychology. The Cubs engaged this facet of sports a year ago, and all it got them was the destruction of a 108-year-old curse. The Red Sox employed psychologist Bob Tewksbury in 2004; the Astros had a mental health specialist around in 1994.

A central hub for this practice exists right around the corner: A block from Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia sits the Center for Sports Psychology. Dr. Joel Fish, a Lower Merion alumnus and member of the Philadelphia Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, has consulted for the Sixers, Flyers, and Phillies in the past. And plenty of Phillies players have made use of the field in effective and less effective forms.

In their careers, Roy Halladay and Jamie Moyer both had conversations with the prolific mental skills coach Harvey Dorfman, who died in 2011. Former Phillie Jim Eisenreich once tried, and eventually disregarded, the aid of a self-educated hypnotist. This is an area in which the Phillies seem to have maintained a healthy skepticism; local hypnotist Todd Stofka went on Good Day Philadelphia in 2012 to diagnose the downward spiral of the Phillies' offense and pitching staff.

"Have the Phillies called you?" Good Day co-host Mike Jerrick asked during the interview.

"Not yet," Stofka confidently replied.

Whatever version of his practice Miller is going to focus on with the team isn't certain. But clearly, the realm of sports psychology has been crucial to key figures in the past, and a modern practitioner with a deep background is a great resource to provide a youthful roster. No one who values intangibles could complain about Miller's work, and no one who leans toward statistics could scoff at his results.

Not being able to be themselves

There are certain aspects Miller cites as hindrances to a players' - often young ones' - success.

Let's talk about Odubel Herrera, because we haven't in this post yet. Before he even returned from the 2016 All-Star Game in San Diego, people - including coach Juan Samuel - were talking about squashing any of Herrera's brash cockiness that may have been a result from his selection. While I would laugh each time he'd point off the plate to indicate to an ump where he believed a pitch had been, I also felt my skin crawl, knowing that inevitably, it was going to lead to some cranky umpire ejecting him on a bad day.

"That type of over-the-top confidence is not necessary in order to be an elite athlete; in fact, it can really backfire and work against you," said the aforementioned former Phillies consultant Dr. Fish in a 2014 interview on WHYY.

But having to put a cap on exuberance is going to put added stress on a young player. Not only are we going to need you to hit better, kid, but you're going to have to change who you are fundamentally, to fit our vision of a 'respectful' player. Thanks. Suddenly, a hitter has to balance putting his bat on the ball with smothering a part of himself.

Miller, who has worked personally with the somewhat brash Nyjer Morgan, is quite familiar with this concept, and views it as a problem. He says the "pressure to be someone he isn't on the field" is a clear detractor to a player's performance, so while radio callers may eat a pencil when a pop-up isn't run out, perhaps it's okay if Herrera flips his bat on a moonshot. There must be an avenue through which the Phillies get the most out of a center fielder they've locked up for five years while also not stifling his enthusiasm, and knowing Miller is here to help find that avenue if called to do so is comforting. The last thing this team needs is to throw a blanket over its most exciting player of the past two years.

Volunteering as an antidote

Phillies players have certainly taken part in the franchise's volunteer work over the years - I talked about Andres Blanco's chilling speech to some local school children in his exit interview - but there certainly seems to be one employee pulling most of the weight.

phanatic quad

Working for the Pirates' minor league system, Miller started giving players a ten-hour volunteer quota to reach, sending them into the hospitals, shelters, senior homes, and Boys & Girls Clubs of their communities. The experiences obviously brought aid to fans and people who needed it, but also gave players so wrapped up in self-critiques something outside of baseball to think about, offering a new perspective and easing the frantic flow of their minds.

With the Phillies having a litany of established volunteer opportunities available, this is probably an area into which Miller has already looked.

Guilt

For guys who spend over half the year away from their families, missing birthdays - or in some cases, births - weddings, funerals, first words, first steps, get-togethers, shindigs, bashes, blow-outs, functions, feasts, and festivities, all in the name of playing ball, guilt is inevitable.

"It requires only a simple understanding - that playing baseball is so important, and you love it so much, that you are willing to miss out on other experiences with family and friends."

--Miller

Being haunted by a sense of dread doesn't make anyone's job easier, especially one so performance-based. In his book, Miller talks about a minor leaguer whose father passed away, leaving him with a sense of obligation to his family that he couldn't fulfill in the middle of the season. Drained by the passing, the player found himself paralyzed emotionally, unable to pitch, unable to cry, and seemingly stuck in a place that didn't allow him to think, let alone heal.

While MLB teams have someone on staff to coordinate between players and clinical professionals - Miller is quick to clarify that he is not a trained grief counselor, and got one involved in the aforementioned situation - Miller offered some advice to the player during a phone conversation. By simply putting aside time every day to temporarily abandon the intense focus required of a professional athlete and talk to family and/or let his emotions out, the player felt the guilt of enjoying his job in the wake of a tragedy lift from his shoulders, and was able to pick up and throw a ball again.

***

We're all just sweaty meat sacks housing an unstable cluster of nerve cells in our heads.

The simplicity of life when most people first pick up a baseball lets the game become a priority. But as childhood is left behind for the inevitable dread, anxiety, and responsibility of adulthood, it makes sense for a child's game to feel more trivial, even for those who professionally play and love it. Stacking the flash and pressure of being a pro athlete on the relentless rigors of human life is enough to break many players who have come and gone. The Phillies are smart to tap a specialist of Miller's type, and whether they did so knowing a younger roster in mid-development may be in more need of him, or they just felt he was a good fit, having a guy who's job is to be a pressure release valve on staff seems more and more crucial the more I learn about it.

Miller, and the work he does, serves as a reminder: That athletes, too, are meat sacks, just like the rest of us.

Albeit, slightly sweatier.

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