Setting: Sports psychologist James Smithson's office. Cambridge, MA. Monday, August 5, 2019. Very tall professional baseball pitcher waits in the lobby of the office suite. Smithson walks out into the main room.
Smithson: Come on in, Chris.
Chris strolls hesitantly, holding something in his hand. They enter the small, dark office. Old leather couch lines one wall. Smithson sits down in a padded armchair and opens his notebook.
Smithson: Let me start by saying I’ve been working with athletes of all ages for over 20 years. I’ve worked with professionals and Olympic hopefuls. I’ve even worked with teenage chess prodigies. Do you have any questions before we begin?
Smithson: Okay, with positive self-talk.
Chris: (Stares at wall above Smithson) I don't need a shrink. I need my fastball to go where I tell it to go.
Smithson: Right. I’m here to help you help your fastball by thinking through some of the obstacles.
Chris: I don’t need a shrink.
Smithson: Chris, you're here because your strike zone seems to be shrinking.
Chris: (stops staring off into distance, slowly smiles.) Good one, doc. Fucker.
Smithson: Let's try again. Start with something small but positive. Doesn't have to be about baseball.
Chris: Small but positive? I'm making enough money to never worry about that again.
Smithson: Okay. How about something less external and more internal?
Chris: Internal? Like my organs?
Smithson: (slightly irritated grimace) Umm. No. More like internal as to to your current state of mind, how you view yourself.
Chris: I told you. I SUCK right now. I'm an embarrassment. I'm not earning my salary.
Smithson: You didn't earn the contract you signed? In my experience, most guys never even have... think of it this way: every pitch you will throw after you signed the contract is less important than every pitch you threw before you signed it. All those pitches added up to the contract.
Chris: That's fine, but I want to show everyone that I deserve it. After last year, winning it all, and I pitched alright in October, last year and the years before showed it, but now I have to earn the paycheck.
Smithson: I see. Your self-worth is directly connected to your performance and your performance is measured by your salary. But let me ask... is anyone really worth millions of dollars? Athlete or not?
Chris: (Silent for a few minutes, then he gets up, all 6'6" of arms and legs. He paces around behind the couch where he'd been sitting.) Fuck! Motherfucking strikes and balls, we have no control over anything anyway. I just have to command my shit again.
Smithson: (takes a sip of water, writes something down in his leather notebook) Can we rewind a minute? Sit back and relax. Have some tea or water.
Chris: Yeah, yeah. Some nice green tea. Let me put my feet up.
Smithson: What do you mean, “We have no control?”
Chris: Throw the ball. Even if you throw it exactly how and where you want it. Even if you follow the scouting report verbatim, you have no control once the bat hits the ball. Zero. You just hope for the best. Now, strikeouts and walks, those you have some control over. You need an umpire with good eyes and a catcher who frames it, but you have some control.
Smithson: I understand. That feeling that whatever you do, you can’t guarantee any outcome.
Chris: Exactly. Only a strikeout is a guaranteed out.
Smithson: Well, what can you do with that fact? 27 outs. You won’t get 27 strikeouts.
Chris: I’ll take 10.
Smithson: And what happens in your mind when the ball goes over the fence for a homer?
Chris: I failed. First there’s the knowledge of the failed execution. It used to be that sometimes those became lucky misses, long foul balls, or guys swinging too hard and striking out. This year, about 70 percent of them leave the damn yard. I have to pretend it didn’t happen. Next to impossible. The crowd murmuring if you’re at home. The crowd going nuts if you’re on the road. But you have to block it all out.
Smithson: Do you know the concept of tabula rasa?
Chris: Heard of it. Forget what it means.
Smithson: It’s the idea that there’s a kind of pristine, empty state of mind. Like the mind can be a blank slate, upon which your new thoughts can emerge. A blank canvas.
Chris: Great. Now I’m a painter?
Smithson: If you can visualize that empty space, that clean white nothingness, you might be able to let go of that immediate emotion of failure.
Chris: Jedi mind tricks. That’s why I’m here?
Smithson: I’m sorry, that’s our time for today. I’ll send you a link to something and you can work on it before our next session.