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Some think slump is all in Ortiz's head

By Shira Springer
Globe Staff / June 7, 2009
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With shoulders slumped and lips pursed between mutton-chop sideburns, David Ortiz is a hulking picture of frustration after recent strikeouts. The familiar picture hints at the psychological toll his slump has taken. And Ortiz may need more than an eye doctor to cure what ails him at the plate.

Batting .196 with two home runs, the Red Sox designated hitter is experiencing what sports psychologists call a performance block. Did Ortiz stumble into the perfect storm of outside distractions, physical decline, and bad luck at the plate? Did last season's wrist injury leave lingering doubts in his head or deficiencies in his swing? Just what is he thinking?

"Just put down, 'Papi stinks,' " said Ortiz after he went 0 for 7 and left 12 men on base during a 12-inning loss to the Los Angeles Angels last month.

Those words raised red flags with sports psychologists and professional athletes whose careers were sidetracked by performance blocks. Simple, repetitive motions become impossible to execute properly. By the time negative self-referencing creeps into the equation, a return to normal performance seems unlikely.

"He's hating himself," said former major league second baseman Steve Sax. "I went through that, too. I hated myself. I would curse myself. I would say, 'I'm not worth anything. I'm lousy.' Then, you start really doubting yourself."

Sax, who won National League Rookie of the Year honors for the Dodgers in 1982, then lost his ability to make routine throws to first base the next season, found his self-doubt compounded by the attention placed on his problem. Sax received mailbags full of well-meaning suggestions and death threats. Fan opinions aside, Sax had to find a reserve of self-confidence and stop pressing.

"Top-level guys know what they're doing," said sports psychologist Dana Sinclair, who treats MLB, NBA, NHL, and NFL players, but has not worked with Ortiz. "When you get down to it, they know how to hit, they just start to think about too many things and try to do too much and try too hard. It's a process of getting them from distracted thinking to normal performance characteristics."

According to the experts, the longer Ortiz goes without a consistent string of hits, the less likely he will emerge from his slump in any meaningful fashion. Without consistency, big hits - a homer on May 20, a bases-loaded double against the Tigers last week - become statistical blips, not slump busters.

"What's going to happen to Ortiz is, one of these days, he's going to go 4 for 4 or 5 for 5 and then he'll never think about it again," said former catcher Mackey Sasser, who struggled with throwing problems during his nine-year major league career. "You hope, if you're from Boston. He's probably trying to make it happen instead of letting it happen."

Trauma issues raised
A mental block caused Sasser to pump his wrist multiple times before throwing the ball back to the pitcher. While throwing problems and hitting slumps represent opposite ends of the baseball skill set, they are psychologically linked because both should be second nature for major leaguers. A slugger in a slump experiences the same performance-related stress as a pitcher who cannot find the strike zone or a catcher who cannot throw properly.

When his throwing problems threatened his career, Sasser worked with six professionals on a regular basis, including psychiatrists and a priest who tried hypnosis. Teammates put orange dots in their gloves so he could throw at a target. The theory behind the dots was that Sasser could correct his problem if he narrowed his focus to one element.

Recently, Ortiz began rhythmically tapping his bat against his left shoulder to get back his timing. It follows a similar narrow-the-focus principle.

Nothing was helping Sasser during his major league career. While coaching at Wallace Community College in Dothan, Ala., he visited psychotherapist Dr. David Grand in New York City in 2006. During a three-hour session, Sasser dissected past traumas. He talked about his difficult childhood, a shoulder injury suffered in the minor leagues, and a collision at the plate that severely damaged his ankle.

"Sports performance is generally looked at in terms of cognitive processes and conscious awareness, but [sports psychologists] really don't look in depth at what makes the athlete tick," said Grand. "When it comes to performance blocks or performance anxiety like the yips, my approach looks at the traumas the athletes had on the field and life issues they carry with them.

"When I met with Mackey Sasser, I took a personal history, sports performance history, and a trauma history. No one had ever asked him these questions."

While Grand hasn't treated or spoken with Ortiz, he believes the slump is trauma-based.

"How is it possible that a hitter of that talent and track record can be clueless up there?" said Grand. "What's going on in his brain and his body when he comes up to the plate is reminding him of a whole host of other things, going back to early in his life when he first picked up a bat. It has to be trauma that has taken over for him.

"He's been able to compensate around it up to this point. He may well come out of it on his own, or with more conventional sports psychology. But this has sometimes heralded the end of a career for an athlete.

"I'd sit down with him and take a history and find out what's going on in his life. So often, you have a guy like this and you interview them and you find out one of their parents has Alzheimer's disease or they're having a divorce."

Using "the Grand System," athletes process traumas by talking through them and learning relaxation techniques. For Sasser and other athletes, a mind cleared of traumas translates to a body cured of performance blocks and performance anxiety.

"It was like 250 pounds off my shoulders," Sasser said.

Wrist injury a trigger?
Amherst-based sports psychologist Dr. Alan Goldberg also addresses athletes' traumas. Goldberg suspects the partially torn left wrist tendon Ortiz suffered last season may be contributing psychologically to his slump.

"I would be willing to bet that's the trigger to this," said Goldberg, who is not treating Ortiz. "He's not in a slump out of the clear blue. If you hurt your wrist swinging a while ago and you're now up at the plate swinging again, you're returning to the scene of the accident and your body gets triggered.

"How does that get played out? He might be altering his swing in really subtle ways. He might be holding back. I don't know. But this is the kind of stuff I see with athletes who have this problem."

Grand and Goldberg acknowledge their trauma-based approach is much different from traditional sports psychology, though Goldberg said he would also treat Ortiz with more common methods.

Generally, traditional sports psychologists develop strategies to combat overthinking. They help struggling athletes improve their focus and eliminate distractions. They emphasize the process, not the outcome. They develop strategies for managing stress.

Sinclair, who works with the Dodgers, first assesses players' performance styles, learning what types of competitive situations produce anxiety and more emotion. When injury and technical adjustments are not involved, it often comes down to emotional control under pressure

To achieve that emotional control, Sinclair develops simple plans for her clients. Typically, plans relax an athlete with something as simple as breathing exercises. Then, when tension is reduced, athletes focus on one or two helpful strategies. Hitters might think about being smooth, staying back, or watching for the release of the ball. Above all, the thought process should be simplified.

"People always say, 'Hey, relax, have fun, just don't think about it,' " said Sinclair. "Well, that's a lot easier said than done.

"You'd be amazed at how many top-level athletes can't really articulate what they do when they're playing well. If you cannot articulate it, how can you repeat it?

"At some point, everybody is going to have a decrease in confidence or they're going to get a little bit anxious or they're going to overthink it. To be able to slow down, back up, and have a quick look at what you're doing, what you're not doing, and be able to get some insight into that is pretty important."

A simple solution
Whether sports psychologists advocate a more or less traditional approach, they agree that Red Sox manager Terry Francona has handled Ortiz as well as possible. The best strategy is to support Ortiz by any means, stay positive, and avoid adding pressure.

Sasser recalled his minor league manager and former Red Sox coach, Wendell Kim, fining him every time he flipped the ball improperly back to the pitcher. That response exacerbated the problem.

Sax believes Ortiz should listen to only one person: Ortiz. Never putting much stock in sports psychologists because they didn't play the game, Sax cured himself by practicing fundamentally-sound throws to first base. Eventually, the throw became instinctive again.

"With David Ortiz, if there's a mental block when he's at the plate, I'd say, 'Make it as simple as possible. See ball. Hit ball,' " said Sax. "Forget about the mechanics.

"He knows all about that stuff. His body and mind are already programmed to do this a million times. It's just a confidence thing.

"There's nothing wrong with him. Hitting is just relaxation and rhythm. When you're in a good zone, it's a feeling. That's what he has to get back."

Shira Springer can be reached at springer@globe.com.

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