September 27th, 2011

Psychology at the ballpark

When the pace of work in the psychology department of a busy psychiatric hospital becomes almost too hectic to manage, I watch a baseball game. On a special occasion, I go to the ballpark. It wasn’t always so. A few years ago, I would have said that baseball is too slow but now it is deliberate and reflective. It’s funny how a game can change so quickly.

Of course it is not the game that has changed but my own preferred tempo. When my professional life allowed me the time to be more reflective, I sought balance in the speed and intensity of faster sports. Now with scarcely time to think during the workday, I appreciate the pace of America’s time-honored summer pastime. When I think of all that psychology and baseball have in common, I am surprised it took me so long to catch on.

Both psychology and baseball value sensory stimulation and provide it in the ambiance of the ballpark or the accoutrements of what hospitals now call sensory rooms. There is no better time than summer to appreciate baseball played in the open air on sunny days and balmy nights. The stadium in summer delights all of the senses. Visually all the elements of this classic American pageant stand out against the bright green grass of the playing field and the seats of different colors corresponding to the price of your ticket and the quality of the view. Under the afternoon sun or especially the evening floodlights, the scene sparkles with the colors of the players’ uniforms, the electronic scoreboards and the fans’ apparel.

As the stadium gradually fills before game time, the noise level rises like a tide with the pre-game chatter of the growing crowd. Smells of hot dogs, pizza and sausage waft from the concession stands and, if you are sitting close enough, so does the heat from the grills. Away from the shelter of the grandstand roof, there is nothing but sky and on good days a breeze that marks the best of summer.

We psychologists know how helpful it can be to distract ourselves from troubling thoughts and to improve the moment by engaging our senses in pleasant experiences. At a hospital where I used to work, our patients enjoyed an annual outing to a Red Sox game without a single emotional or behavioral crisis. The sights and sounds of the ballpark and the pace of the game were enough to quell the turmoil of mental illness at least for an evening.

Psychology and baseball share the illusion of a placid surface and a languid pace with most of the drama and intensity occurring in the interior life and in the small signs of deeper unseen events. On the surface baseball is slow or, if you prefer, deliberate, but there is a lot more going on than the casual observer sees. Pitchers, catchers, coaches and managers are constantly communicating with one another with an intricate system of hand signals or words muttered behind raised gloves to thwart the lip readers on the opposing team. The fan sees the pitcher throw a mix of fastballs, curves, sliders and cutters, fast or slow, high, low, outside, inside and straight down the middle. The more knowledgeable you are about the game, the more you understand the strategy behind this duel where the pitcher tries to catch the batter off guard, to entice him into an ill advised swing or a poorly placed hit that can easily be turned into an out.

You can almost see the wheels turning in the players’ heads at every position as they decide when to hold their ground and when to run, when to lean to the right or to the left, to move up or back in order to be ready for a ball that may or may not come their way. This is the kind of interior action that a psychologist and a therapist can appreciate, mimicking as it does the chatter in our heads as we scramble through the branches of our own decision trees in our consulting room dialogues. That kind of mental scrambling can be exhausting in the office but the nice thing about baseball is that there is always a break in the action to chat with a friend, stand up and stretch or just appreciate all that is going on around you. The psychologist in me is tempted to think of this as an opportunity to practice mindfulness but in the ballpark, I don’t think of it as anything at all.
Finally, as a lifelong friend who is also a die-hard Yankees fan recently observed, the great thing about baseball is that no matter how many games you have seen, you can always expect to see something new. Maybe that’s another reason I started watching baseball. I know it’s what keeps me coming to work.

By Alan Bodnar Ph.D.

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