Pittsburgh Pirates trying to outthink opposition


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Just because the Pirates hired a mental expert from the Army doesn't mean he can turn ballplayers into movie-style "Men Who Stare at Goats."

Men Who Won't Become Scapegoats, so they hope.

But ... Men Who Win Pennants?

Bernie Holliday was named last week as the mental-conditioning coordinator for the local baseball club. For the past five years he worked on the military minds of West Point athletes/cadets and then soldiers across America. But he warned against Pirates followers getting ahead of the curveball.

Anyone expecting, in his words, a "big, gigantic" breakthrough in the 2010 Pirates' record because of his mental-toughness work, mostly with minor-leaguers, "it's probably not going to happen. That's not how this job gets done."

Don't confuse his duties with such mystical stuff as seen in the recent "Men Who Stare at Goats" film about paranormal-military exploits or, say, the stigma of a sports psychologist performing visualization exercises in a darkened room. Rather, his is a long-term, multifaceted, intensified regimen.

"People say, 'You're a sports psychology guy.' No, I'm not," said Dr. Holliday, a civilian staffer who was based at the U.S. Military Academy and since 2006 oversaw the academy's Army Center for Enhanced Performance programs for soldiers at eight bases across the country. "It's much more of a science than people realize."

The science that Dr. Holliday honed with the Army program and that he plans to deliver to the Pirates, beginning this week at mini-camp at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla., sounds simple enough: more composure, concentration and confidence.

While Dr. Holliday said that he has been compelled to explain his more-mundane techniques since the comedic "Goats" came out last fall, he could bring to the Pirates such Army teaching techniques as workshops, simulations, on-field exercises, videos and MP3 audios personalized to each player, attention-control technology and biofeedback analysis. The techniques cover a variety of mental skill sets: from adaptation to analysis, from energy management to establishment of a purpose, from preparation to perseverance, from self-awareness to self-regulation.

"I want the guys to have [goals] in mind worth pursuing so much that the very thought of it happening sends a chill down their spines," Dr. Holliday said. "When this happens, we're on the right track.

"Baseball is a game designed to make you fail, and people play this game even though it makes you look foolish. That, to me, is what mental toughness is all about."

And this equivalent to athletic strength training for the mind is applicable "from the battlefield to the ballfield," said Dr. Holliday, a Kutztown University graduate who got his master's degree and doctorate at the University of Idaho, where he also met his wife, Annie, a fellow volleyball player ("Love at first spike," he called it).

Sports psychologists have abounded on the amateur and professional landscape for nearly a generation. Pittsburgh's most public brush with the science came in 1993. That's when the New York Mets hired a consultant and placed him in the Three Rivers Stadium visitors dugout, causing Major League Baseball types to object and the club to promptly fire him -- spurring the New York Daily News headline, "Mets Shrink Canned."

The Boston Red Sox and Cleveland Indians have mental-skills coaches, and athletes from golfers to the Canadian women's curling team to the entire U.S. Olympic sports lineup have consultants or full-time staff versed in the field.

The Pirates had Geoff Miller, of the San Diego-based Winning Mind, serving as their mental-skills coach the previous five years, predating the administration of President Frank Coonelly and General Manager Neal Huntington. Kyle Stark, their director of player development, last year instituted changes through the minor-league system -- ranging from curfews to an on-field dress code -- and sought an in-house, consistent system. His conclusion: a military approach. In his research, he came across the Army program that started with sports and cadets, then moved to soldiers before and after active duty.

Dr. Nate Zinsser, director of the Army Center for Enhanced Performance, said he was impressed that Mr. Stark came to West Point in late October and "interrogated" military minds. Mr. Stark smiled at the memory of asking officials there, "What happens if I take one of your own?"

Dr. Holliday, 36, was interviewed by the Pirates in late November and again in Pittsburgh earlier this month. His hiring was officially announced Monday along with a couple of minor-league staff assignments and another newly created position: personal development coordinator, for which they brought aboard former Baltimore, Montreal and Texas pitcher Anthony Telford, 43.

"Basically, we're trying to put a little character back in the game," said Mr. Telford, who expects to work closely with Dr. Holliday in primarily focusing on minor-leaguers. "Help the guys along with personal aspects off the field, too. If you want to say, it's like a mentorship program. ... Mentally, physically spiritually -- whatever they need.

"I don't know of another team doing it," Mr. Telford added of his position. "To tell you the truth, I don't know why more teams don't have this with the stigma of athletes now."

Mr. Stark said of the two-pronged strategy to develop players as men and as mentally-sturdy athletes, "We went off the radar here. We have to be creative" given the Pirates' market size, not to mention the 17-year streak of losing seasons.

Mr. Telford, who lives in Tampa, and Dr. Holliday, who is moving to the Bradenton area this weekend, both will be available to the big-leaguers beginning at mini-camp this week, though they expect such relationships to grow over time.

"We're not going to force-feed" a relationship between them and the veteran Pirates, Mr. Stark said. "[They're] going to have to develop the trust of the players."

But, he added, after word got around Pirate City during the Instructional League about an incoming mental-conditioning coordinator, "we've actually had a number of [major-league] guys contact us on this asking, 'Have you hired anyone yet?' "

The Army apparently took to Dr. Holliday's manner. Dr. Zinsser, the superviser and mentor who called Dr. Holliday his finest protégé in his 17 years at West Point, spoke of how the academy's athletes responded to him and how cadets found time in their extremely busy schedules to climb six flights of stairs to his office "to gain a little bit of a mental edge over their competitors."

Army women's volleyball coach Alma Kovaci, whose teams have gone 75-16 the past three years with Dr. Holliday's assistance, said in an e-mail interview from her native Albania that he met with her players in preseasons and throughout each year to form mission statements, set short- and long-term goals, and to achieve those goals -- on and off the court.

"Bernie was a 'hot commodity' " with other Army teams as well, Ms. Kovaci wrote. "Bernie has this tremendous ability. ... to communicate with everyone, no matter the circumstances. I am confident that Bernie will bring the best out of those [Pirates] players. He has a winning attitude, and it is contagious."

Dr. Aimee C. Kimball, the director of mental training at the UPMC Center for Sports Medicine, has spoken at symposiums with Dr. Holliday and is very familiar with the Army's work.

"I model a lot of what I do here after theirs," she said. "They're kind of ahead of the game in anything."

She spoke of the mental edge being the difference between a good and great athlete. As with nutrition and conditioning coaches, a professional to assist with their mental approach is merely another key resource, especially for a team that has not had a winning season for so long.

It goes back to what Mr. Huntington calls that "culture" of losing.

"You expect certain things of yourself. If losing is one of those expectations, it's hard," Dr. Kimball said. "Or you feel pressure to perform because you haven't been winning, the harder it becomes to win."

"It has a lot of similarities," added Dr. Zinsser. "That Pirate ballplayer is just as emotionally invested in his success as a soldier is invested in his or her success. The consequences are a little different, of course."


Chuck Finder can be reached at cfinder@post-gazette.com . First Published January 10, 2010 5:00 AM


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