Talking Mental Health and Performance with Dr. Jonathan Fader

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I recently had the opportunity to go one on one with Dr. Jonathan Fader, the team psychologist for the New York Mets for nine seasons. Dr. Fader also spent two seasons as the Director of Mental Conditioning for the New York Football Giants. He is part of The New York City Fire Department (FDNY) Mental Performance Initiative and is a frequent contributor to the national conversation on performance, regularly appearing on Good Morning America, CBS this Morning, CNN, Fox News, Bleacher Report and others.

Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your insights and advice. First things first, how did you become the team psychologist for the New York Mets and the Director of Mental Conditioning for the Giants? What advice do you have for other experts interested in breaking into the world of sports, be it as an employee or as an outside advisor?

Jonathan: When people ask me about how I got into sport and performance psychology, or how I began to work in professional sports, they’re expecting me to have some story of some unbelievable accomplishment or talent. In reality, what initially opened doors for for me in sports, was speaking fluent Spanish. Being a clinical psychologist and sports psychologist, I certainly had some training and advanced experience in working with high level athletes in my practice and doing some work for organizations and teams, but really what got me the job with the New York Mets was speaking Spanish. There was, in baseball at the time, and still is, a need to provide a service for Spanish speaking players both on the mental wellness side but also on the performance side, and helping them play the best they could play while also adjusting to being a professional athlete. Many young baseball players who are coming over at age 16 and 17 from the Dominican Republic and Venezuela really need a lot of help dealing with acculturation. Spanish was that secret skill that I had, that jewel that allowed me to really connect with people. I think a lot of time people think about “breaking into” sporting worlds—I actually think that you don’t need to “break into” these groups, you’re invited in, just like you get invited to a party. I think the elements of getting invited to the party that is professional sport really have to do with what kind of person you are and how good you are at being able to connect with others. 

Also, a lot of my current work in coaching leaders focuses on the concept of EQ—emotional intelligence. There’s so much evidence that EQ bests IQ in a wide range of different environments. EQ predicts how people are going to do in the workplace and people’s income, and all these factors that we pay attention to and utilize as measures of success. And so, I really believe in developing a higher EQ, developing a higher self-awareness and self-regulation. In other words, the ability to understand what you’re feeling and others are feeling or thinking and your ability to self-regulate, to be calm, so you can have access to your skills. Also, empathy and motivation -- understanding what motivates other and how to motivate them – and how to show people that you understand their perspective. These are all things that I think are critical in being able to have access to a new group. So, I think the advice I would give people who are looking to be invited to the party of professional sports is to develop relationships and develop your own EQ. Also, as I did with speaking Spanish, it’s important to develop a jewel, something that is needed at the party. Whether that’s a statistical ability, something financial, or language. What can you bring that is really needed in sports or the arena you are trying to get into? What can you offer? So, rather than thinking about breaking in or getting in, think about what you can offer, what service can you provide to the people in that group?

Adam: What are the job responsibilities of the team psychologist for a baseball team and director of mental conditioning for a football team? What did you do on a day to day basis?

Jonathan: The job responsibilities for a team psychologist or a director of mental conditioning or a sport performance consultant on a major league baseball team or on an NFL team vary widely and have evolved over the years. What I did with the New York Mets or what I did with the New York Giants is different than what’s done, say, with the Patriots or say, what is done with the Yankees. That said, there’s some commonalities. There are two functions that someone works on in behavioral sciences with a sports team. One is more of a mental health capacity. The other one is more of a mental conditioning capacity. There’s some overlap there but they’re slightly different. The mental health capacity is dealing with interpersonal or intrapersonal problems that an athlete has. That may be depression or anxiety or may be a relationship issue or a substance use problem. That’s one component. But, the majority of the work I would say that I’m engaged in and that others engage in, is the other component of mental conditioning, which is improving the mental strength and flexibility of athletes. How well are they able to focus under pressure? How well are they able to overcome negative results or consequences? How “in the moment” can they be when it counts? What is their level of motivation or hunger to win? How good are they at being a teammate and collaborating? These are some of the key features of what a mental conditioning coach works on. And so, in the MLB and in the NFL there are a wide variety of people providing services. I provided both of those services with the Mets with more of a pure mental conditioning sports psychology background. I think the one misunderstanding about sports psychology and what we do is that it's clearly not just about mental health. We’re also working on building mental strength and flexibility, which means we work with people that have no “issue” or “problem” at all. People who just want to get better, who want to get more confident, more focused, more ready for each game. People that want to block out the noise better so they have access to their talents and are able to pull out their best. It's about learning methods of focusing on the right thing, at the right time, every time. 

Adam: How receptive were players to working with you? What percentage of the players did you work with? Did a couple of players disproportionately use your services? Did certain players refuse to work with you because of a stigma they may have associated with working with a mental health professional?

Jonathan: I’ve benefited a great deal, a great deal, from the people who have come before me. There was a legendary figure in sport psychology, Harvey Dorfman, who worked with many teams in the 70s and 80s. Also, Ken Ravizza who recently passed away who worked with the Cubs and other teams.  Charlie Maher who’s worked with the Cleveland Indians for about 30 years. Also Ron Smith was a professor of mine in Graduate School who did some of the earliest work with the Houston Astros and Jeff Foote my mentor and predecessor at the NY Mets. All of these people and others paved the way for Sport Psychology. They reduced the stigma to show how the techniques and theories of Sport Psychology can benefit everyone. I have benefited from knowing them and being inspired by them. 

It used to be that the perception was that sport psychologists only worked with athletes with problems. In other words, that we were “shrinks.” I believe we’re not really shrinks we actually should be called a “stretch” (A term credited to Harvey Dorfman. Meaning that what we do is we help people to build better strength and flexibility in their mentality. You can think of it like a continuum of functioning—sometimes we’re not so great, sometimes we’re doing OK and sometimes we are doing really well. In mental health we’re usually working with people that are just not doing very well and in sport and performance psychology, we’re actually working with people sometimes who are doing OK and just want to do better. The stigma and the view towards this has changed a lot over the past 10 years. And in fact, one of my colleagues who’s been at this a long time remembers that-- when working with a professional baseball team many years ago, the team wanted him to tell everyone upon entering the stadium that he was a hot dog vendor and that he should come in the back entrance because there was so much stigma around having someone talk about “mentality” of any sort. When I started there was only around ten sport and performance psychologists in the MLB, now there’s about 60-70 people doing mental skills coaching and performance coaching around mentality with athletes. In fact, in the newest edition of the CBA (collective bargaining agreement) between the baseball players union and MLB, there’s stipulation in there that every team has to provide access to a sports psychologist. Times are changing and most athletes are reading about what’s called “mental toughness,” I call mental strength and flexibility—online, in videos, and movies At press conferences people are naming this idea of mental toughness so it’s becoming a much more widespread idea.

I work with a ton of athletes in my practice in NYC on mental strength. Most of them reach out through their trainers or through their agents or on their own. It’s becoming much more common. I experienced, as the years went by, more and more players would self-refer from their teams to work with me. Initially it was only players. It was mostly players that were struggling or that a coach recommended. But, as time went on, I would develop relationships and trust and at the same time there was a world view change around the idea of having a mental coach that was thought of as being much more normative. And so, more and more, players began to use me. I would say, in general, players in positions in which psychology or mental state is more central would use me more. For example, baseball pitchers, or players who want to talk about hitting because in these areas of baseball, there is so much time to think. Whereas, generally, in fielding there’s not as much psychology involved because you’re acting on reflex. Sport psychologists are more involved in sports where you have to think like serving a ball in tennis, or kicking in football, these are things in which psychology is heavily involved and so, there is much more utilization of the services that I would provide. 

Adam: What are the concerns of most major league baseball players? What are the concerns of most NFL players?

Jonathan: First and foremost, I believe in treating people as humans first, athletes second. What concerns MLB Players or NFL players first and foremost is what concerns all of us. The thoughts, worries, aspirations, in their mind. They’re very concerned, as we all are, of how they’re being perceived, how they’re doing. They are asking themselves the same questions we are. Are they doing as well as they could be doing? How are they viewed by fans and other friends and family? How are they viewed on social media? People definitely get affected by that. The only difference that I would say is that typically most of us aren’t being tweeted at about everything we say on social media. Our work performance isn’t filmed and talked about on the news. So, it really amplifies all of that judgement and lack of self-compassion that we have for ourselves. The other thing I think that’s different about elite players is that they’re extremely competitive. they have what’s called sometimes, a “rage to master.” There is this intensity of really living up to their talent. They really want to win and they really want to be their best. My experience has been that’s one of the areas in which performance psychology comes in. It helps to have a mental coach to balance all that fanaticism of being the best, which can actually get in your way because being in the zone or being able to bring your highest level of talent when it really counts is also about being focused and relaxed. Oftentimes, if we’re trying too hard we have too much intensity in the wrong moment. We don’t really have access to our skills. It’s about learning methods of relaxation, mindfulness, focus, and also motivation and clarification that helps athletes to mediate that passion that’s usually first and foremost in their mind. 

Adam: What effect has the increased focused on analytics in baseball had on how players think and react? 

Jonathan: Statistics have clearly changed the game of baseball in significant ways. I’ve had the benefit of really being around masters of the fields of sabermetrics like Paul DePodesta and Sandy Alderson. And I’ve seen firsthand the power of how statistics can help make excellent decisions about what to do and who to play and how to play. Most people in baseball have accepted the idea that you can’t just be a “feel guy” now, but you also have to be a stats guy, meaning that you can’t just making decisions on intuition in situations because most front offices are well versed and bought into the idea that using stats to predict things like which pitcher should play on a particular day or what kind of shift to play against a particular hitter, is so common. That said, many coaches and players are still ambivalent about the use of stats, preferring to rely on their gut instinct and there is still somewhat of a battle between people who really believe or buy into the power and importance of stats. In my experience, that battle or discussion is more prevalent in the front office and in the coaching staff of teams. Players, generally are relating to information in a second or third-hand way filtered through how their coaches interpret their discussion with the front offices. There are many players I’ve worked with who get really interested in stats and try, themselves, to learn and interpret what is being told to them in a way that’s beneficial to the choices they make in hitting or pitching etc. That said, sports at the of MLB or NFL are like a battle. While you might learn certain skills or information that might help your battle plan when you get out there, most people kind of forget it all and react in a very deep, instinctual, learned-behavior type way. I think the people that benefit most from understanding and utilizing stats are the people that understand its power and how to use it and when they should deviate from it just like an excellent surgeon understands the data regarding a particular procedure or disease or patient and uses that to make informed decisions and also move away from the data when needed in a particular clinical situation.

Adam: Who were the greatest leaders you were around and why?

Jonathan: I think that one of the greatest leaders I worked with in sports was Sandy Alderson.  Sandy has an unbelievable way of thinking in the big picture. Whenever he was working on a project he would really think three four or five steps down the road and think about the implications of his decisions on the people there. He also had an uncanny ability to think of the thing that was most important. Many times, in meetings I saw him make a comment that highlighted the importance of involving both male and female perspectives as well as hearing from all aspects of the organization. I greatly admire Sandy and his leadership, his abilities across a wide variety of settings. Also, the opportunity to work with and observe Omar Minaya as the former GM of the Mets and then in the capacity where I continued to work with him as an adviser in the MLB Players Association. Omar really demonstrates the power of connectivity and having a unique ability to connect and care for a diverse group of people across different jobs and backgrounds. His ability to do this is something that I most admire and learned a lot from.

In my view the greatest leaders, coaches managers are able to listen well. They are able to develop strong relationships by connecting with empathy and showing the person they are talking to that they really understand them. I go into detail about methods for doing this in my forthcoming book, Coaching Athletes To Be Their Best: Motivational Interviewing in Sport. 

Adam: What should fans better understand about professional athletes?

Jonathan: I think there’s a lot of misunderstandings between fans and professional athletes and I think that there are things that professional athletes should understand about fans. There are things that the fans misunderstand about pro athletes but there’s also misunderstandings that athletes develop about fans. I think the core misunderstanding has to do with empathy. As I said before, you know basically, people I think get along better if they think of humans first and athletes second. Most fans forget that athletes are humans. They see this bigger than life character. They don’t realize that these are people with families and fears and hopes and dreams and are human beings who experience being scared and vulnerable as well. And so, we feel it’s alright sometimes to criticize them because we’re paying them to do a job and they’re getting paid a ton of money but their lives are full of stress and doubt as well. So, I think, taking the time to wonder what it’s like for someone to be facing the stresses that they feel both on the field and off the field and putting our self in the perspective of what it might be like for them, could really create a deeper level of understanding and empathy that might help you to understand and connect to what their challenges are. In reverse actually, I think athletes could do a better job at understanding fans. In my experience, athletes get frustrated with fans quite a bit and in my mind that could be changed radically by remembering what it was like to be younger person or a fan themselves. Athletes could take more time to think about how fans look at the athletes lives as a way to escape. I think a lot of athletes think their job is just to go out on the field and play and I don’t believe that’s the case. I believe that if you choose a life of being a pro athlete, you have an obligation to your fans, and to fans in general, to be able to demonstrate a certain kind of character and relationship that inspires them on the field and off the field.

Adam: Where is sports psychology headed? Can you describe the typical infrastructure for a pro sports team today and what you believe it will be in five years? What is the primary focus today and what will it be then?

 Jonathan: It’s a truly exciting time for sports and performance psychology. And that’s because sport performance technology is moving away from just working with athletes and using the transferrable skills from the field or the court to other areas. There’s a lot of work being done in mental training in the military and in medicine. I’ve worked with the New York City Fire Department (FDNY) in taking the transferrable skills from sport performance psych and applying them to firefighting. I think the most exciting field of sport and performance psychology is being applied to you, the reader of this blog.  The techniques can be applied to every non-athlete in the sense that I believe we really, as I talked about in my book, ‘Life as Sport’, that there’s an application to performance coaching in every business, family, and every relationship. Our ability to bring the best version of ourselves to each situation depends on our ability to use particular skills. Sometimes we talk about them as micro skills and macro skills. Micro skills are skills that help you in the moment to deal with the stress which we all experience at work and in relationships.  The macro skills are the ones that help us to inoculate ourselves, and develop mental strength and flexibility, so that we have the ability to self-regulate and see that ability a practicable skill. I think the exciting thing about sport psychology is certainly growing in professional sports. As I said, when I started there was basically no one in the NFL and there is a handful of people in the NHL, and in the NBA. Today the MLB has upwards of 60-80 professionals working in the area of mental skills and mental health wellness.

Adam: If you were commissioner of the NFL for a day, what would you do to improve the overall mental health of players? If you were commissioner of MLB for a day, what would you do to improve the overall mental health of players?

Jonathan: If I was the commissioner of the MLB or the NFL I would really work more towards developing programs that recruited former professional athletes and gave them extensive training and financial remuneration for becoming both mental health counselors and also mental conditioning coaches. There are plenty of excellent master’s programs in those fields and there are plenty of retiring Athletes that are looking for that next career. My belief is one of the things that could increase the utilization of mental skills techniques and coaches is more and more credible providers of those services. 

If I was the commissioner I would enact an initiative so that we’re really recruiting retiring athletes at the highest levels who are interested in their next phase or career and help them to go back and get their education to become those counselors. In addition, I would mandate that each team had a mental skills coach on the team and put that in part of the regulations and not as someone ancillary as it is in some situations but more like what I was doing with the NY Giants in the sense that coach would fly with the team would be on the sidelines and would really be part of every engagement and interaction, not just there when there was a problem but there in a proactive way giving active talks to the team where I'm building more strength of mental strength and flexibility. 

Adam: What are your best mental health tips for non-athletes? What should we be doing to live happier and healthier lives?

Jonathan: It's a wonderful question and it's a difficult one in that the answer is different for each person. I think with mentality and mental training people are looking for quick fixes and easy-to-understand tips and that's understandable. But just imagine if I asked you this, “what are the best general health tips for you?” That's a conversation that would last hours and would be very individualized depending on your current state of health and your goals. With mental performance tips and mental skills it's even more complicated. That said, there are some very clear things that people can do to be more focused, motivated athletes and there are some things to that you can do and apply to other aspects of life as well. The first idea that I think is important is to first and foremost ask yourself what are you doing every day for your mental fitness? What are you doing every day to increase your mental health and wellness? Most times people just wait until stuff goes wrong but you can be doing a lot to improve your mental health and wellness by having a daily routine that incorporates some level of mental skills training. So, for example, what most people do is they learn a little something about self-talk or imagery. They try it once, it doesn't work they stop. But you never approach working out on your physical being in that way. You never go to the gym and do a few curls and then look at your biceps and ask yourself why your muscles haven't they changed or do a few squats and say, “why haven’t my quads changed.” It takes time and focus and practice to change the way we view the world and to change the way that we respond to stress. So, my one recommendation is trying to find a routine that helps you to work on those things. First, have something that I call, macro conditioning, meaning that's going to be something you do every day. That's going to help you to feel more present in your life to embrace and handle stress better. I think the thing that stands out to me that's one of the best things to do is some kind of practice of relaxation or mindfulness. Every day I spend about 10 or 15 minutes a day meditating and I believe in that. So that's helpful for anybody in any situation. One way to think about mindfulness is that it's kind of like fire proofing your house. You don't know when your house is going to be on fire, but certainly, you want to fireproof it. Having a practice of relaxation or mindfulness is like fireproofing your house so when the stress comes or when the high-performance situation comes, you're more ready for it. You could also think of it as a seatbelt for life. You don't know when you're getting in that fender bender. When there's going to be a tough situation, the more you spend that time really building your mental strength and flexibility so that when you have performance stress you're ready for it. That's what I call a macro conditioning technique. Another macro mental conditioning technique would be a practice of gratitude just spending time every day writing down what you're grateful for. Texting others what you feel thankful for or even just simply saying to your partner, your friend, or your kids, or your parents I feel really lucky that ________. Doing that on a regular basis can be extremely helpful for inoculating yourself when things don't go your way. That will prevent you from having a view, a perspective that is negative and unhelpful. 

I also think it's helpful to have some micro conditioning skills. These are skills that you use in situations when things don't go your way, How do you reset? There are many things that are helpful for people there. One could be just actually learning how to breathe in a way that brings you back to baseline. It can be a statement that you say to yourself. I actually use the Billie Jean King quote “pressure is a privilege”. Whenever I'm giving a talk to a corporation or I'm in a situation where I have a tense conversation perhaps with a coach or even a family member or friend what I say to myself is that “pressure is a privilege.” That phrase helps me to look at the stress in a different lens and to really embrace my life, really stay in the moment and make the best out of whatever situation I'm encountering in my mind. Life truly is a sport and our ability to use the same techniques that elite athletes use to refocus to energize ourselves and to bring the best version of ourselves to each moment whether we're an athlete, a parent, a partner or an entrepreneur can really be very helpful.

Adam Mendler