As the latest issue of the Atlantic Magazine crossed my library desk this month, I had the good fortune to find an article titled The Secret Life of Pitchers. Written by author Will Leitch, the piece highlights the new book The Phenomenon by Rick Ankiel. Ankiel, who may not register with non Cardinal fans, is known for being a top Cardinal pitching prospect, who basically lost his ability to pitch. Physically, Ankiel was fine, but at the root, his mind betrayed him and commandeered his arm. Not being able to recover his stellar pitching stroke, he reevaluated his life and switched to the outfield, where after toiling in the minors, he found major league success in a new role. It's a truly crazy story.
I have to admit, at the time this was happening, I found it all amusing. I can't stand the Cardinals. I'm a Brewers fan and it's a 1982 thing for me. So, any misfortune to fall upon St. Louis was nothing but sweet justice to a team that always seemed to catch every break in the book. Luckily, I've outgrown this animosity, sort of, and switched my severe dislike unto the Cubs. The story of Ankiel goes beyond team grudges, though, and is just a fantastic story of an athlete overcoming a personal struggle.
Ankiel's book was on my highly anticipated order list for the summer, so I was very interested to read Leitch's piece, which goes in depth about this mental tug of war athletes often find themselves in. Baseball is a mind game, and so is every other sport. As a coach of runners, I've known runners who have had a bad race and never recovered the confidence in their stride. Heck, last year Aaron Rodgers was getting lambasted for having "lost it" for my beloved Packers. Normally a sure cannon, Rodgers was missing targets, overthrowing, underthrowing, lacking velocity--you name it. Whispers of "the yips" were being thrown around and it was suggested that he was thinking too much or trying too hard. He'd lost the magic. Of course, we all know what happened when his confidence returned and he set out to "run the table." Some people are lucky enough to reel in their thoughts. Some, like Ankiel, have to take a less direct route.
This fascinating look at the mental side of sports is a real winner for your library. Teenagers are at that age where they begin thinking too much about their sporting craft. They get beat, they get shelled, they can't hit a shot, they lose the touch they had in grade school, and suddenly there's a hormonal mind run amok. I've seen it too much--and it's not pretty. The mind is the greatest betrayer of the athlete. A book like Ankiel's would be a great read for a teenager to gain an understanding that sports is as much an exercise of the mind as it is the body.