Nats Veteran Baseball “Addition’ Hopes To Repeat Previous Success From Atlanta

Nats Veteran Baseball “Addition’ Hopes To Repeat Previous Success From Atlanta

By Jerry Milani.

There is perhaps no team going into the 2012 season looking to nurture and grow its young stars more than the Washington Nationals. The Nats had such an uptick a few seasons ago with the emergence and then injury and comeback of Stephen Strasburg and the drafting and maturation of Bryce Harper to go along with their other young players that time is becoming more and more of the essence for baseball in the Nation’s Capital.

With that added expectation comes added responsibility to make sure that all is going well from every aspect with their younger players, both physically and mentally. So with that in mind, the team quietly brought along veteran sports psychologist Dr. Jack Llewellyn last year to help with the team’s positive growth and maturation above the neck as much as below it.

Llewellyn is no new face in the ever growing field of sports psychology around teams and athletes. A Knoxville, Tenn., native, Dr. Llewellyn was instrumental in the development of Sports Psychology programs at Old Dominion University, Minnesota State University-Mankato and Florida International University – and pioneered sports psychology within MLB in 1975. He is the founder and president of the Center for Winning Performance and has authored five books related to sports psychology.

But most impressive to the Nats and their fans is that Llewellyn’s work over 16 years helped make the Atlanta Braves one of baseball’s most stable and successful franchises in the 1990’s. Working as a “Mental Development Coach” on the field and in the clubhouse, his subtle suggestions and ability to help players overcome challenges was often cited as critical in the Braves’ turn from also-ran to perennial contender, and helped make John Smoltz, one of his most outspoken supporters, into a Hall of Fame caliber pitcher. It is that Braves connection that brought him to the Nationals last year, as Director of Scouting Roy Clark made the suggestion to have him join the baseball staff as a consultant, after having seen his work first-hand in the Atlanta organization.

How can a sports psychologist who has seen success at the highest level (NASCAR Champ Tony Stewart and retired MLB star Paul O’Neil also are strong supporters of Llewellyn’s program) make a difference with the young Nats?

“I actually see a lot of similarities between the Braves when I was starting there and this group in Washington,” he said recently. “Many times younger players are much more accepting of teachable moments, things you see on the field and can help them adapt to with a change in their mental approach, and so far it seems like they are very receptive and have that desire to improve.”

The game has changed in the years since he started working with the Braves, some for the better, some not so.

“I think the way the game is approached more and more as a business is both good and bad from my standpoint,” he added. “The money [that] guys get paid now gives the teams reasons to find every possible tactic to improve on-field performance, and I am here to help. However with that money also comes added layers and maybe some hesitancy, so that can slow down the process. The bottom line is, I am not here to have guys sit on a couch; I am here to make some subtle suggestions to those who would like some help and to be around to assist in any way.”

These days that assistance will come in spring training, where the Atlanta resident will spend several weeks around the field observing and talking to players and staff. He will also spend a good amount of time this summer in and around the minor league affiliates of the team, helping younger players deal with the stress of the way up the ladder. He will also help administer tests to pre-draft players, giving the front office insight into the makeup and tendencies of their valuable potential draft picks. All of this work for Llewellyn comes against a specter of his own; in January 2004, while recovering from an auto accident, he was diagnosed with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis (RRMS).

Instead of dwelling on the negative, he immediately started therapy, which included (and still does) a regimen of 10 pills and a daily injection of the drug COPAXONE® to stem the effects of the disease. “In many ways the diagnosis has been a blessing in my work,” he added. “Bobby Cox and the staff were very supportive at the time, and it gave me a real life example to show the younger players of how a positive mental attitude can overcome a huge challenge in life. It now comes up all the time when I talk to players and I think it enhances the points I try to bring home.”

In addition to the similarity between the physical makeup of the team, there are other lessons he has brought to D.C. hos time with the Braves. “First, you never push any help on anyone, it has to be mutual and understood,” he added. “Second, I try to let the guys know about my baseball background, both with the Braves and in coaching and playing when I was younger. I think those two elements, especially with younger players, makes the work I can do much easier and more effective and helps get them back on track hopefully much faster.”

While pitchers and catchers start reporting the next few days, the hope of a successful and long season for each MLB team is on everyone’s mind. With the addition of another veteran in the front office, one who is a living, breathing model of overcoming adversity in life and with others, the Nats are hoping that their mental game is as solid and supported as everything they are doing to improve their physical game over the course of a long season in Washington.

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