Bob Tewksbury has been to the top of the mountain. He appeared in over 300 MLB games and was third in the 1992 NL Cy Young voting behind Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine. He’s also faced challenges that countless athletes deal with such as being released, dealing with injuries, and battling confidence issues.
Instead of resting on his laurels and enjoying the spoils of retirement, Tewksbury earned his master’s degree and has become on of most prolific performance skills coaches in the sport.
With the release of his new book; Ninety Percent Mental: An All-Star Player Turned Mental Skills Coach Reveals the Hidden Game of Baseball, he takes us inside the mind of the athlete and the psychology of baseball.
The GM’s Perspective: For people unfamiliar, you were a MLB pitcher for 13 years, achieved over 100 wins, and appeared in the 1992 All-Star Game. After your playing days were done, you went a different route than most retired players. Can you elaborate?
Bob Tewksbury: What I really wanted to do when I retired was to finish my undergraduate education. I enrolled in a January term course here at New England College in New Hampshire and finished my undergrad work which I’d started at Saint Leo University.
I finished that after about a year and while I was doing that I was hired by the Boston Red Sox as a pitching consultant. I wasn’t necessarily focusing on the physical side of pitching, but as a mentor. A baseball counselor is a better term. I’d help with life issues and a little bit of the mental stuff. Mostly, I’d help with the life of a player.
During that time I was introduced to a guy that had gone to Boston University and had his PhD in Sports Psychology. He told me about the program at BU. I thought that would be a great thing to have. I could carve out my own little niche. I waited two years before going to graduate school, but finally pulled the trigger. It was a one-year program (now a two-year) and in 2004 received my Master’s in Sports Psychology and Counselling and started working with the Red Sox in their mental skills program. A lot of players go back and finish their undergrad, but not many go back and finish a master’s. In that way I’m unique and am glad I did it. I have taken walks in the parks near Boston but I never imagined I’d come this far.
GMs: What exactly is mental skills and was sports psychology something you were always interested in?
BT: I had struggles during my career like most athletes; confidence, negative thinking, the game speeding up, not reaching goals, being injured…I learned to cope with that during my career. I read a lot of books and was always drawn to the self-help section with regards to performance or imagery or positive thinking. I was always interested in it as a player, but didn’t really know of it as a field per se. I think we knew of mental skills, but thought it was geared toward Olympians and golfers and individual sports. It really wasn’t something team sports were doing, especially baseball. I figured I’d go back to school and learn the science behind all those components.
GMs: When you say mental skills coach, what does entail?
BT: Mental skills coaches teach performance techniques for relaxation, to improve confidence, to improve concentration, goal setting, use of journaling, and imagery. Having been on the mound and having pitched in numerous games over the years, I feel like I can really connect with the baseball player, especially the pitcher to teach those things and understand when they may be used the most.
GMs: Over the years the stigma associated with the mental toughness and athletes has changed. During your time as mental skills coach with the San Francisco Giants and formerly the Red Sox, have you seen the change with players and their ability to open up?
BT: I think it’s a change of the guard if you will. Players who have been in the big leagues for five or 10 years probably didn’t have the exposure to mental skills that the guys do these days. The younger players are generally more receptive to it than the older guys. Not to say the older guys don’t believe in it. I think they do, but I think that when you get to a certain point as an athlete you begin to figure stuff out on your own. Over time something will happen and your confidence returns or you get out of that slump.
I think players getting to the big leagues now are getting the exposure to that. There’s still some hesitancy because they’re unsure of what mental skills coaching is. I think they have a perception in their mind what it is. We’ve made strides, but it’s still a work in progress.
GMs: I’m very excited to read you book. Can you elaborate on the book and what you want the readers to learn from it.
BT: Having played in the big leagues for a long time, getting my master’s degree, and being able to work with some some of the games prominent players like Anthony Rizzo, Jon Lester, Rich Hill, and Andrew Miller, I think I have a story to tell!
People have been very complimentary toward the book saying that it’s a book about success with a baseball background. There’s techniques in there people can use in their life no matter what it is.
The book talks about my background and how I got to the big leagues, but also about my struggles with two surgeries (one being a major surgery), seven demotions, a trade, a release, pitching in an all-star game, winning 100 games, and losing 102. There’s a lot of perseverance throughout that and hard work so I could maintain that length of a career.
It then gets in to the aspects of performance that players use. For Lester it was imagery and how imagery helped his performance. For Andrew Miller it was what he was saying to himself and how he controlled that inner voice. Rich Hill was confidence, and Anthony Rizzo would listen to an audio program that I made when he was 18 and still listens to. Much is about accomplishment, perseverance, hard work, and determination that teaches us that mental skills can be applicable to almost everybody.
GMs: I had the opportunity to speak with Rick Ankiel around this time last year when his book was released and much of that conversation dealt with the mental side of the game in addition to off the field struggles. How do you approach those scenarios when the situation in front of you goes beyond normal circumstances?
BT: No one really knows why those throwing issues happen and no one really knows how to fix them. I think you can help people manage, but I don’t know if you ever cure it. You approach these scenarios very carefully, very slowly, and almost always there’s something in the past that’s happened to trigger some sort of physical or physiological response to having difficulty throwing.
It’s such a fascinating, and at the same time, unfortunate situation that players deal with. It’s something that’s really hard wrap your arms around. The player has to be the one to initiate the dialogue as the player is the one who has to do the work and feels the pain of what’s going on.
GMs: For those athletes that are hesitant opening up, what’s some advice you can leave for them?
BT: With talent being equal, the mental game of performance is the separator. You shared about your time playing in the Frontier League and you knew there were players better than you, and that’s why I say with talent being equal… Talent will overcome mistakes and will overcome negative thinking. If they’re in a group of people that they’re better than, they’ll out perform them.
Athletes at all ages have to understand that mental skills is a tool and a resource to help performance regardless of talent, but especially when your talent is equal with those around you.
Secondly, the book provides life skills. We can all use them. We all have that little voice in our head that directs us. Everyday we have 50,000 thoughts or some out there number and if those thoughts aren’t productive, they’ll lead us in a certain way. If they’re good, they’ll lead you in another way.
Whether you’re in a boardroom giving a lecture, if you’re a teacher, or if you’re a young student doing a oral presentation for the first time, understanding how those thoughts work and how to change them are all ways to improve your performance.