Physical training is a given in the world of sports. From Pee Wee leagues to the pros, most athletes spend more time practicing and working out than they do actually playing the game. There are numerous off-season camps in nearly every sport, designed specifically to hone physical skills. Fitness and exercise regimens abound, promising to make players bigger and better. Even the shoes are called cross trainers.
What is often overlooked is the mental aspect of sports, which in many ways can be even more important. As baseball Hall of Famer Yogi Berra once said, “Baseball is 90 percent mental, and the other half is physical.” Now, while Berra’s math might have been a bit off, his overall point illustrates the importance of training the mind as well as the body.
Yet not only is there a general lack of emphasis on the psychological side of sports, dwelling on it can even be interpreted as a sign of weakness. So while athletes will train to the point of physical exhaustion, they rarely turn their focus inward and work on strengthening their mental game.
Clinical psychologist Bhrett McCabe is trying to change that. In 2011 he founded The MindSide in Birmingham, with the intent of helping athletes (and business people) learn how to train their mind for peak performance.
“(Psychology) doesn’t need to be something where you have to wait for somebody to have a problem (before using it), ” McCabe said recently from his office, located near Greystone Golf & Country Club. “We don’t look at strength and conditioning that way. A player in high school starts working out in order to get stronger, not because he has a problem. You can do the same thing mentally. You can build patterns and habits that help you find a pathway to success.”
McCabe speaks from personal experience. As a college pitcher at LSU, McCabe struggled through his first two playing seasons in 1992 and 1993. He doubted his ability to compete at the collegiate level, especially when comparing himself to his talented teammates (LSU won the national championship in 1991 and 1993). Then an arm injury further sapped his confidence, to the point that he considered quitting before his junior season.
“I struggled with a lot of my own fears and doubts. Deep down I didn’t think I was good enough, ” McCabe says. “Whenever I went into games, I would worry about what the outcome meant. Not for in the moment, but for in the future. Going out on the mound and being that vulnerable was scary for me.
“Things changed when I took an active, competitive mindset to what I wanted. Instead of being afraid, I was just going to see what I could do with what I had. I was going to take what I thought I could be good at and focus on that, versus focusing on the 15 things I didn’t have.”
This new approached worked. After playing in only 13 games and posting an ERA of 7.20 in his first two seasons, McCabe made 54 appearances over his final two seasons — the most on the team for a pitcher — with an ERA of 3.82. He left LSU with a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and a newfound appreciation for the power of positive thinking.
After completing a pre-doctoral internship at Brown University, McCabe spent a year with Merck Pharmaceuticals before moving to Birmingham to take a job with Bristol-Myers Squibb. Over the years he contemplated ways to combine his psychology education with his love of sports. He began working with local high school and college athletes — mostly golfers — on how to improve their mental approach to the game.
“People would find out what I did and where I’d played, and they’d ask me to help their kid, ” McCabe says. “One kid became two, two became five, and eventually it got to a point where I had more work doing this than at Bristol-Myers.”
And so The MindSide was born. McCabe says his business has grown steadily over the past five years. In addition to working as a consultant for the University of Alabama athletic department, McCabe lists seven golfers on the PGA Tour, three on the LPGA Tour and five on the developmental tour among his clients, as well as three NFL players and one NBA franchise.
Unlike many programs designed to increase physical fitness, McCabe says he does not offer any sort of precise plan to his clients. Instead, his approach focuses on meeting with the athlete and helping the player discover an individual path to improvement.
“I consider it to be individual mental coaching, ” McCabe says. “Finding their strengths, finding what they do well. We still work on their weaknesses, but we maximize through their strengths. Too many people have the mindset that they have to fix all their problems. When they focus on that, they’re ignoring their strengths.
“Self-discovery is one of the most powerful ways for an athlete to learn how to be a master at their sport. I’m teaching them a little bit, but it’s more about self-awareness. You have to know who you are. At the center of all of us is our self-belief. A lot of players don’t know their identity. Great athletes have to figure out their way, and I’m trying to help them find it.”
Mixed Martial Arts fighter Eryk Anders began working with McCabe early in 2016. A former linebacker with the Alabama Crimson Tide football team, Anders compiled a 13-3-1 record as an amateur MMA fighter. He said he felt he had the physical skills to compete on the professional level, but wondered if he was still missing something.
“I wanted to unlock my full potential, ” says Anders, who won his first six bouts as a professional. “Only a small portion of this sport is the physical part. You definitely have to put the mental and physical together and have it in synch while you’re training.
“(McCabe) asks questions that are outside the box, and then he helps you pick it apart in your brain. He said Michael Jordan always played with a chip on his shoulder. He wanted to know what my chip is, what motivates me to train every day. Nobody had ever asked me that, and I had to really think about. Things like that helped me learn how to better prepare mentally for each fight. He’s definitely helped me a bunch.”
Some of McCabe’s advice can be found in his first book, The MindSide Manifesto, which will be released in January. He says the book attempts to show how a person can use challenges and mistakes to create a competitive mindset.
“Usually, the wise old man in the community got wise because he messed up a lot along the way and figured it out, ” McCabe says. “Why are we afraid of risk and taking chances? The MindSide Manifesto is about understanding those risks and how to break those barriers.
“One of my ultimate missions is that all this will help destigmatize mental health. I want an athlete to come see me because they want to be better at their sport. But also, maybe 15 years from now if they’re in a highly stressful environment, they’ll be willing to find someone to help them versus stuffing their feelings or using ineffective coping strategies. Because the fact is, we can all improve mentally.”
Cary Estes and Cary Norton are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Birmingham.