Talking Intangibles with Geoff Miller

Geoff Miller is the author of Intangibles: Big-League Stories and Strategies for Winning the Mental Game – In Baseball and in Life. He has worked with the Pirates and Nationals, and is currently the mental skills coach for the Atlanta Braves. A San Diego resident, Miller will be at Barnes & Noble in Grossmont Center on Sunday, October 12, at 2 p.m. to discuss his book. Find him online at WinningMind.com or on Twitter at @WinningMindGEM.

Recently I had the chance to ask Miller a few questions via the magic of email. Here they are, along with his informative responses:

Son of a Duck: When people see “mental skills coach,” they may think you’re a psychologist, but that’s not quite right. What exactly does your job entail?

Geoff Miller: Yes, there is a difference between being a psychologist and employing methods of sport psychology. I prefer the term “mental skills coach,” as it’s important for me to make a distinction between the two fields. I work exclusively with athletes on understanding how to perform under pressure and learning what it takes to use all of their physical talents on a consistent basis in their sports. I don’t do any work involving clinical issues like depression, drug or alcohol addiction, relationship issues, or general mental health counseling. My role is educational and strategic rather than medical in nature and, in fact, a good deal of the work we do at my company is executive coaching. Mental skills coaching could be seen as “executive coaching” for athletes. There’s a big misconception that my work is usually about helping athletes when they have “problems,” but even if that misconception is about helping athletes when they are slumping, much more of my work is helping athletes understand how to be their best and teaching them ways to get to the top or stay at the top of their professions.

SOAD: Merriam-Webster defines an intangible as an abstract quality or attribute. By its nature, it is difficult to quantify. And yet, you are attempting to measure the abstract. What motivated you to choose such a seemingly difficult pursuit?

GM: Well, the pursuit of understanding and measuring intangibles is really my daily work anyway. The writing of the book and the organizing of the information that I’ve used to describe intangibles was a refining of the philosophy and approach I’ve developed over many years of studying the mental game and thinking about how I wanted to help people. Certainly, this has become a timely topic with the rapid advances and acceptance we’ve seen with analytics in baseball in the last few years and there’s an element of trying to shed some light on the field of baseball psychology in a time when we are able to know more and more about how to measure performance. And the book has a strong connection to the analytics world, too. I was so honored that Vince Gennaro, who is President of SABR and a regular contributor to MLB Network’s Clubhouse Confidential show, wrote the foreword for Intangibles. We both thought it would be interesting to have one of the world’s authorities on “tangibles” introducing a book on intangibles. As I’ve written in the book, I believe that intangibles are perfectly tangible when we measure them in ourselves. We all know immediately what it feels like to be confident or focused, or to have or lack intensity. It’s not easy for outside observers to quantify our intangibles, but it’s very easy for us to quantify and measure our own thoughts and feelings. We need to trust those measurements and give them more attention.

SOAD: If you can name names, who have you worked with recently that are success stories, that overcame significant obstacles to achieve success at baseball or in life? If you need to keep it more general, what are some of your favorite player arcs, where there was an “a-ha!” moment that changed everything?

GM: I’m sorry, but I can’t name names of anyone I’m currently working with and that’s an interesting story about how the book was ultimately completed. As I was writing Intangibles, I would finish a chapter and email it to the player I wrote about, asking him to make sure everything I wrote about him was accurate, if he thought anything needed to be added or taken out, and if he would be okay with my using his name and story if and when I ever published the book. Everyone was completely on-board with it and very supportive of what I wrote about them. But when I formalized my agreement with my publisher, he told me I would need expressed written consent from everyone named in the book. I found this out about three weeks before spring training was starting and set off on a mad scramble to locate everyone and get them to fax or scan a consent form back to me before we went to print on the book and our deadline was April 1. Every person I was able to locate provided the necessary approvals and that’s why you see so many real names in the book. Any time there’s a pseudonym in there, it’s only because I had lost touch with the player and nobody knew where to get his permission. I didn’t have anyone turn me down for being named, which I was very proud of.

So as far as “a-ha” moments, that’s really what I pride myself on and I’m aiming for with every client. My approach is first to understand how to help the person, but then second, to find the exact reference or phrasing to help connect new ideas with the person in their language so they have a clear sense of what needs to change and how to change it. I think that’s what keeps some people from making big changes, that they don’t understand how to describe what’s happening or they can’t picture what a new way of thinking looks like. I know I’ve done my job when I hear my clients say something like, “I’ve never thought about it that way before.” And because I love movies and TV and card games, and most baseball players love them as well, I use a lot of references to those things in my sessions. I’ve written about lots of those references and analogies in the book. Again, for me, it’s not just a fun way to make things simple. It’s also a way for me to put an abstract or intangible concept into a very tangible, personal, and meaningful parallel that makes sense.

SOAD: In the book, you advise people to “stay focused on a process you can control completely instead of a result.” What are some quick and dirty strategies for maintaining focus in a world that demands results?

GM: I’ll use an example of someone who wants to hit 30 home runs to explain how this works. I sit down with a hitter and ask what he wants to accomplish this season, and he tells me that he wants to hit 30 home runs. Hitting a home run is a result, though, and not completely in his control. So I’ll ask him how does he hit a home run. Not surprisingly, most people will tell you that they hit them when they aren’t trying to hit them. Looking for a good pitch to hit and making hard contact are typical phrases you hear a lot when a hitter describes his approach on a pitch that goes out of the park. So you look for the root causes and the starting behaviors that will produce the results you’re looking for. If you want to hit 30 home runs, you’ll do better by measuring success on how well you see the ball or how well you stay disciplined and only swing at pitches you can drive. The quick strategy for any result would be to start with the end result you want to accomplish and then work backwards in thinking about what produces that result, then measuring your effort on the root cause.

SOAD: You also note that “overusing our greatest strengths is one of the most common psychological reactions to pressure” and that “when you overuse your greatest strength, it becomes a weakness.” How do you convince people to develop their weaknesses, areas that fall outside their comfort zone?

GM: I actually don’t focus on the areas outside of comfort zones as much as I try to convince people to see that backing off of their strengths and staying adaptable to the situation can make a big difference. But if you do want to improve on an identified weakness, the best way to do it is to work on being comfortable and keeping stress and pressure levels down. What I mean is that our strengths and weaknesses really get accentuated under pressure. So if you can reduce your stress level, you can feel more comfortable in general and then you’re psychologically in a better state of mind to handle any situation. That’s why when coaches reference playing like you did when you were a kid and going out there and having fun or some of those other cliches, athletes get better results. Taking yourself back to when you were a kid and life and sports weren’t so serious makes everyone feel more relaxed, and that makes it easier to execute on any skills.

SOAD: Believe it or not, one of my favorite parts of the book is your closing line in the acknowledgments, which ends with “love is meant for people, not sports.” This is something I have forgotten at various points in my life, even as a spectator. For practitioners, it must be difficult to find the right balance between work and life. Assuming this falls within your purview, how do you advise players to find that balance?

GM: I do believe it, and it’s one of my favorite lines, too. That was written for my wife as I thanked her for her support and encouragement, and I saved my most important acknowledgment for last. The lack of life balance in baseball is something I think that gets extremely overlooked by media, fans, and even the players themselves. This is an incredibly hard game to play, but it’s even harder if you have to do it thousands of miles away from home and without your family by your side. Our players from Latin America have to deal with this constantly, and it’s even more difficult and sometimes heartbreaking for Cuban defectors who leave their families to come to the United States to play. Of course, all of this gets easier for big leaguers because they have the means to have their families with them more often, but there are many established big leaguers who have school-aged children and whose families are settled in schools and communities in other states. For those families, they have to sacrifice time spent together for playing the game. I’ve dealt with this quite a bit myself in my career as well. The best advice I can give to players when they are struggling with life balance is to make sure to stay connected with the people who are important to them during their free time each day. Build a routine of when you’re going to call or FaceTime so you know when that’s going to happen and keep perspective on the time you’ll have with family in the off-season.

SOAD: Where is the study of intangibles headed? What are the next big questions you’d like to see answered?

GM: Vince Gennaro and I did some preliminary research on studying team chemistry last off season, and Vince presented a progress report with some starting points at the SABR Analytics Conference in Phoenix last March [ed note: Vince’s presentation is available here; it’s about an hour long and well worth the time]. I’m not exactly sure where we’re going to take that next, but I really enjoy collaborating with Vince and being able to blend my perspective on intangibles with his knowledge of analytics. You may see more from us in the future.

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Thanks to Geoff Miller for taking the time to chat with us about Intangibles. If you’re in town, swing by Grossmont Center on Sunday and hear what he has to say. Otherwise, pick up a copy of his book wherever you prefer to buy books. It’s a fascinating read that has applications in baseball and other aspects of life.

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