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The psychology of baseball isn’t all that different from the psychology of dating.
Stay with me.
My college Sport Psychology class taught me about the expectancy-value theory. The Dictionary of Sport and Exercise Science and Medicine defines expectancy-value theory as “the theory that behaviour is a function of the interaction between a person’s expectancies about the outcomes of actions and the value they place on those outcomes.”
Here’s an easy way to think about expectancy and task value. Have you ever sat down to play with a dog, one that really wants to play with you?
If you decide that the game is to put his favorite toy on the highest shelf in your house and wait for him to jump up and get it, the task value is super high. It would be amazing if he could! However, the dog is going to take one look at that shelf 8 feet off the ground and know he has no chance. His expectancy of success is low, so he’s going to be disinterested.
If you decide to play tug-of-war, he’s going to be really interested, but not if he wins every time. The expectancy of success becomes high, but the task value is low – he doesn’t need to work for his win.
But when he’s giving that best “please, play with me” face, and you make the game challenging enough that he can get the toy from you, but has to work for it, then it becomes fun.
Creating a somewhat equal amount of expectancy and task value in any game is where the Goldilocks zone is for achievement motivation.
Like dogs, we are achievement-oriented beings, and baseball gives us a good backdrop to explore this. Say I’m asked to face three pitchers. My sister, a professional baseball player and the Nolan Ryan model of the Terminator. Even though my sister is a great athlete, I think we know where all these opponents fall in terms of expectancy and task value.
Now, expectancy and task value are dynamic. They change. Beating the Nolan Ryan Terminator seems like an impossible feat at first, but what if I was told of a flaw in his programming that I could exploit to improve my chances? Now my success expectancy is higher than before.
Let’s say in my first at bat of a game, I have no doubt in my mind that I’m going to hit the ball hard off of the guy on the mound. Three pitches later, I’m back in the dugout wondering how that guy got me out. Am I going to be as confident going into my next at bat against him?
Our knowledge and experience plays in, but so do the people around us. Expectancy and task value are influenced by other factors. Psychologist Albert Bandura identifies four factors: personal experience, vicarious experience, social persuasion, and physiological factors.
So now let’s circle back to the question you’re all waiting for. What does this have to do with dating?
Have you ever been out with your friends, and you all notice the girl at the end of the bar? You’re pretty sure she’d have a great smile, but not a single person there is talking to her, so you don’t know for certain.
Here’s a common conversation in that scenario:
Your buddy with 20/20 peripheral vision comments on the girl’s attractiveness saying, “Hey, check out that girl over there. She’s pretty cute. What do you guys think?”
FOMO guy adds, “Damn, she’s gorgeous.”
1-Up man escalates the stakes with “Wow, she’s like a 10…way out of our league. She must have so many guys bothering her anyway.”
Mr. Periphs, who was initially planning to go to talk to her, is now discouraged and agrees with them saying, “Yeah, she probably just wants to be left alone.”
FOMO guy ends up conversing with a woman that he’s less interested in, and 1-Up man gets rejected by the smoking hot bartender who doesn’t want to be bothered at work.
Meanwhile, the guy in the corner no one noticed walks away with the girl’s phone number. “How’d he get her number? Why not me?” someone from the group adds.
Now you’re left with only your great 20/20 peripheral vision and no number from the girl with the great smile. Oh, not you… I meant your buddy, right?
you your buddy and the entire group were influenced by the expectancy-value theory. Personal experience may have taught FOMO guy and 1-Up Man that the expectancy of success was just too low, even though the task had high value, and discouraging social persuasion has Mr. Periphs giving up as well.
Your friends, FOMO guy and 1-Up Man, are what you could consider low-need achievers, or those who avoid challenging tasks because their fear of failure is greater than their expectation for success. They are examples of the two types of fear of failure:
FOMO guy chose the easy task because he was more likely to succeed, and 1-Up Man went with the impossibly hard to get bartender because it’s less shameful if the goal isn’t reached.
Mr. Periphs should take some notes from the guy who ended up getting the number from the girl with the great smile. Instead of saying, “how’d he get her number?” Mr. Periphs should be saying, “if he can do it, I can do it as well,” which would be considered a vicarious experience.
Vicarious experience isn’t as influential as direct experience though. That’s why I think it’s important to be less like the fear of failure duo, FOMO guy and 1-Up Man, and more like the guy who got her number–not just in dating.
Understanding that failure is part of the learning process makes it easier for us to embrace it when it happens to us. When we have a combination of successes and setbacks, that means we are challenging ourselves in that goldilocks recipe of expectancy and task value for achievement motivation.
And there you have it. Playing with a dog, hitting bombs, and success in love all come back down to the same basic psychology. Now you just have to stop reading about it and go execute.
Living a life of authenticity is now a right, not a privilege with yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling. While it was a huge milestone, we’re not done yet. Next on the agenda is acceptance and equality in other areas, like sports.
This repost is in recognition of two very important people in my life, Frankie Paré and Steve Buckley.
My brother, Frankie, is the greatest brother on Earth. He’s never been “my gay brother.” He’s just one of my best friends. Likewise, Steve is one of my closest friends, a mentor and one of the smartest people I know. He also happens to be gay.
I would introduce both Frankie and Steve as my heroes, and I’m proud to share these thoughts in their honor.
The day I almost quit baseball was the same day that my older brother, Frankie, decided he didn’t want to play anymore.
It was 2001, a beautiful New England spring day, and my brother and I were playing in the purple lilac bushes in our yard with our next-door neighbor, Jason. Most likely, we were playing some type of sword-fighting game with wiffle ball bats.
Our mother came out from the house to tell us to stop whatever we were doing because we had to leave for Little League tryouts.
My brother and I, as well as our sister, Katie, are very close in age. Being the middle child, I’m 18 months apart from both of them. Because of this small age gap, Frankie and I pretty much did everything together — baseball being one of those things.
Growing up, Frankie was much more athletic and naturally talented. He was fast, had a great arm, and actually put the ball in play, unlike me. After a successful 2000 season in “minors” at Deering Little League, when I didn’t swing the bat once (yeah, literally not once), it was time for 10-year-old me to move up to play with kids my brother’s age.
I would be leaving the Hall Elementary School field, where the “minor league” teams played. I’d be traveling down the street to the “major league” fields, near the high school I would eventually attend.
Leading up to the day of tryouts, I had been hoping my brother and I would be picked by the same major league team since we were on different teams in the minors. In my mind, the main reason I loved baseball was because it was something I could do with my brother.
After being told multiple times to go inside and put on baseball clothes, my brother said he didn’t want to go to the tryouts. I always did whatever my big brother did, so I didn’t want to go either.
When our mom asked Frankie why, he said the kids who played baseball were mean and that he didn’t fit in with them. It would be many years later before I understood what he was actually trying to say.
I somehow mustered enough courage to go to the tryout without him, and eventually was picked by Pat’s Meat Market, a team that had a couple friends of mine on it. At that point, though, Frankie and I started to take on different interests.
Fast forward a few years. Frankie attended a private high school his freshman year. He was brave enough to join the ski team even though he was a novice, while the majority of kids had been in ski clubs their whole lives.
That school was short lived for Frankie. As he described it, “If Mean Girls was going to have a sequel, that school would be the perfect setting.”
His sophomore year, he transferred to Portland High School, which proved to be a diverse environment with 1,000 students coming from 41 countries and speaking 26 languages.
He took up lacrosse and track & field. He loved music and was an extremely talented pianist. I’ll never forget attending a production of the musical South Pacific, in which he had a supporting role. Playing the part of a Cuban waiter, he actually stole the show with his acting and singing abilities.
I was pretty much a one-trick pony, playing just one sport and strumming a guitar at a below-average level. I was in awe of Frankie. He tried so many different things, and in my mind he excelled at all of them. Although he was talented in many activities, he kept bouncing from one to the next so often just to try to find a place to “fit in.”
Even though Frankie was a natural athlete, he still felt like he didn’t belong in a sports environment. The other day, I asked him his thoughts on this and he said, “In high school, I was just trying to fit in. I was trying to prove to myself that I could be like everyone else.”
One day in May of 2006, my brother showed more courage than I could ever dream of having. I had just gotten back from school and saw piece of paper with my brother’s handwriting on the kitchen island.
It was his coming out note to our family. He wrote it as if we would reject his sexuality.
I did the first thing any adolescent does when they don’t know what to do next — I called my mom. When I told her the contents of the note, she completely ignored the part about him being gay, as if she had already known (a mother’s intuition, I suppose). She was only worried that Frankie, who was planning to attend a cousin’s graduation party in Massachusetts, would be making the 150-mile trip alone.
When my brother returned, we embraced his sexuality. His fear came from the uncertainty of acceptance, which is something we all fear, regardless of sexual orientation.
If I didn’t even know my own brother was gay, how would I have known the sexuality of other people in my life — such as one of my teammates?
A few days ago, Billy Bean, MLB’s Ambassador for Inclusion, spoke to us at the Giants’ Minor League Complex. He is one of only two major league baseball players, current or former, to be publicly out as gay.
His job is to help Major League Baseball connect with the LGBTQ community and create programs to prevent homophobia and sexism in the sport.
From his talk, I had two major takeaways that can be applicable to any individual’s life, regardless of sexuality. First was to utilize your support systems. Bean said the one regret he had was that he didn’t turn to his family, friends and teammates when he was struggling to understand his sexuality.
The other point he preached was acceptance. If there is not a quality environment, then no player will feel comfortable coming out to his teammates and coaches.
I’m going to take this one step further and add a third point that he did not discuss — eliminating “casual homophobia.”
“Words and phrases like ‘faggot,’ ‘dyke,’ ‘no homo,’ and ‘so gay’ are used casually in everyday language, despite promoting the continued alienation, isolation and — in some tragic cases — suicide of sexual and gender minority (LGBTQ) youth.
We no longer tolerate racist language, we’re getting better at dealing with sexist language, but sadly we’re still not actively addressing homophobic and transphobic language in our society.”
If my brother had played in a more accepting sports environment with less casual homophobia, I wonder what kind of athlete he could have become. Those are the kind of “what ifs” that I want to help eliminate for other athletes.
I want to apologize for not posting as frequently as I had been earlier this season. A lot has happened in the past month that made it difficult to write. I’ll do better.
A couple weeks ago, I was demoted to one of our teams in Augusta, GA, home of the Masters golf tournament. It’s also the residency of the Low-A minor league team, the Augusta Greenjackets.
At least, that’s the traditional thinking. Honestly, it doesn’t feel like a demotion to me. In some ways, it feels like a promotion. Right now, you’re thinking I’m crazy. How could going down a level possibly be good for my career, regardless of the conditions? I believe this is the best thing for my development as a player. Let me explain.
In the Sports Gene, David Epstein explains how athletes come to master their craft. He says that some athletic skills require gifted “hardware,” or natural talent, like speed, but other skills like reaction time and vision are dependent on learned “software.”
An athlete downloads this software to reach mastery through repetition of that skill. Epstein cites the case of Jennie Finch striking out every Major League Baseball player she’s faced.
When pitched to overhand, these baseball players have a huge mental database they’ve downloaded through repetition. They’ve seen hundreds of thousands of pitches throughout the majors and minors. Their bodies begin to react without conscious thought.
However, when facing off against Finch, these big leaguers, with their amazing hand eye coordination, weren’t able to come close to a pitch she threw. It’s not because they lacked talent but because they did not have the cognitive software for how a ball moves when pitched underhand. Their reaction times and ability to respond to the softball pitch became essentially like any average Joe.
Back to my story. My role in San Jose was to start one or two games a week. We typically play seven days a week, so I spent a lot of time on the bench. I certainly had no complaints about my role and did everything I could to stay locked in regardless of whether I was in the dugout or at the plate, but I wasn’t building my mental database as quickly without consistent plate appearances. In Augusta, my playing time has increased to about five games a week. I’m able to use those games to enhance my cognitive software and progress further on my quest for mastery.
Of course I’d rather be getting every day at-bats at the highest level. But ultimately, we may not have control over a particular situation. We can choose how we view it, however, and that is the real determination of whether it will be good or bad for our long term goals. If I focused on seeing the move as a setback or a demotion, my frustration and bitterness undoubtedly would be bad for my career. Seeing it as a positive allows me to concentrate on improving my skills and getting better every day instead of spiraling into self-doubt and fatalistic thinking.
You don’t have to be a minor league baseball player to spin a demotion into a promotion. Our moves up and down on the career ladder are more public than most people’s, but everyone has faced similar situations. No one wants to be fired or lose a big contract. But your attitude and perception of the circumstances will affect your future much more than a temporary title change. Take some time to identify the areas you can improve. The demotion may not have been because of something you did wrong, but there are still ways you can get better. Making those incremental adjustments is the key to having a positive experience. You’ll be better equipped to handle future challenges and tackle new opportunities.