North Texas

Strengthening the Mind: How Mental Skills Coaches Impact Pro Sports Teams in North Texas

Life as a pro athlete often comes with big money and big fame, but, as hard as it might be for fans to believe, players are still vulnerable to anxiety and depression.

"Whether you want to call it performance anxiety or just the pressures that these athletes face, they are very real," said Rangers General Manager Jon Daniels.

Very real, with many pro sports teams now proactively involved in preparing players for psychological battles by employing full-time mental skills coaches.

"I think the most powerful thing is when that athlete looks at you in the eyes and says thank you," said Rangers Director of Peak Performance Josiah Igono. "You see them as they go from a session with you and you see the vision has changed because it's made a difference."

The difference might go unnoticed to an untrained eye, but many Texas Rangers players say their growth has been tremendous since Josiah Igono began working as the team's Director of Peak Performance last year, making the club one of 28 teams in Major League Baseball with a full-time mental skills coach.

"How much have you seen this industry, this profession grow in the last few years?" asked NBC 5 reporter Pat Doney.

"Exponentially," said Igono. "I've seen it grow exponentially. There's going to be, I hate to use the term copycat movement, but that's going to exist because of how valuable it is and how much it's helping players, helping organizations, helping coaching staffs, and we have seen it grow."

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And it's grown beyond baseball, with the NFL now requiring every team to have a Behavioral Health Team Clinician by the start of training camp this year, and NBA commissioner Adam Silver recently speaking to NBC's Today show about the current mental health struggles for young, pro basketball players.

"More players are privately telling me that they're dealing with issues of anxiety and stress in a more pronounced way than I recall historically," said Silver. "A lot of people think of these macho players that they can take it when people are screaming at them or on social media the haters are out there criticizing them, their looks, the way they go about things. It affects them. They're just like everybody else."

It's why Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has been on the forefront of mental health training for his players, having employed a mental skills coach since 2001, and now, with a mental skills team with a specific approach to helping players handle psychological adversity.

"My guiding philosophy is helping people just be in the moment," said Franco. "Because if we're in the moment, we're not worried about the past, we're not worried about the future, we're just right here and right now and that's the place where you can make a play. That is the skill and it's easy to talk about, very hard to do."

Hard to do, and hard for Mavs mental coach Mike Franco to believe fewer than ten NBA teams currently employ full-time mental skills coaches.

"Proactively trying to build mindsets to perform under pressure is huge," said Franco. "It does take a while, but absolutely it's a big advantage."

A similar advantage the Rangers are trying to capitalize on with Igono, whose skills are being used a lot more often under first year Rangers manager Chris Woodward.

"I think I had more classroom time with our big-league team in spring training than I had all of last year," said Igono.

A buy-in approach from the top down, as the Rangers try to improve the organization's mental culture, handing the keys to an expert who is working to help athletes handle the anxiety that comes with being a professional athlete.

"I think Josiah is putting in place some things that we can have a legacy going forward that our guys from a mental strength standpoint have an ability to handle adversity, an ability to handle failure, an ability to handle pressure, focus and the tools to handle those things," said Daniels. "He's been really invaluable for us."

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