Suffering From Performance Anxiety in Sports
By Patrick Saunders
The Denver Post
LAGUNA HILLS, Calif. — On Sept. 5, 2014, at Coors Field, Tyler Matzek pitched a three-hit shutout against the San Diego Padres. Poised and confident, and throwing a 94 mph fastball with graceful ease, the Rockies’ rookie left-hander was dominant. Over his final six starts, Matzek went 4-2 with a 1.55 ERA. He looked like the Rockies’ ace of the future.
Yet demons lurked in the corners of Matzek’s mind, and by the time he took the mound for the Rockies’ 2015 home opener April 10, he was headed for trouble.
“Even when things were going the right way, there was this overwhelming stress inside me that just kept building and building and building,” Matzek said recently while sipping coffee at a Starbucks in Southern California. “(Then) I just couldn’t hold that stress any longer and my game collapsed.”
Matzek was suffering from performance anxiety.
It wrecked him on the mound and even began to creep into his everyday life.
“My wife, Lauren, said it was our worst time, relationship-wise, because I was so tight, so stressed, just waiting to explode from this thing,” Matzek said. “She knew it wasn’t about her, but it was hard.”
But the quiet, intelligent 25-year-old confronted his condition head on, confident he will fulfill the promise that prompted the Rockies to make him the 11th pick in the first round of the 2009 draft. He is determined to compete for a job in the Rockies’ starting rotation in spring training.
“I look at it like this: Sure, I had a few bad months, but in the grand scheme of things it’s not that big a deal,” he said. “I don’t think this is going to define me by any means.”
Twenty-six days after the home opener against the Cubs, it was clear Matzek was in a downward spiral. Pitching against Arizona, he walked six in two innings, throwing just 20 strikes in 58 pitches. Subsequently sent down to Triple-A Albuquerque to regroup, Matzek crash landed, giving up seven hits and seven walks while recording only three outs.
Where once he fired the ball to the plate with conviction and precision, now his mechanics were a mess and he was slinging the ball across his body and behind hitters’ backs.
“I look back at (the home opener) and see that it wasn’t a bad start, but I felt miserable afterward,” he said. “I felt like a failure. … It became pitch-by-pitch anxiety and then it was overall anxiety. Now it was there leading up to the games.”
“Used to be taboo”
As defined by the National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety disorder is an umbrella term for an array of emotional ailments that annually affect about 40 million American adults — filling them with uncertainty and fearfulness.
Baseball players are not immune.
Zack Greinke, one of the best pitchers of his generation, walked away from baseball for two months in 2006 with what was diagnosed as social anxiety disorder. He received treatment and three years later won the American League Cy Young Award with the Kansas City Royals.
In June 2009, Cincinnati Reds slugger Joey Votto revealed publicly that he was battling depression and crippling anxiety that surfaced several months after the sudden death of his 52-year-old father, Joseph. Votto suffered from panic attacks that led to two hospital stays. He rebounded in 2010 to win the National League MVP award.
“Anxiety and the mental side of the game used to be taboo in the big leagues; nobody wanted to talk about it,” Rockies general manager Jeff Bridich said. “Now we realize that it’s part of the game and we address it in a more organized way.”
Now, every major-league club is required to have a program to assist players with behavioral health issues. The Rockies previously employed Andy McKay, who joined them in September 2012 for a position they call “peak performance coordinator.” McKay left the Rockies in October to join the Seattle Mariners. The Rockies have not yet replaced him.
“Doubt and fear is something that virtually every ballplayer has to conquer,” Rockies manager Walt Weiss said. “I think in our sport, in particular, there is a fear of failure, because there is so much failure in baseball. Your confidence is tested on a daily basis.”
Matzek had suffered through bouts of wildness before. In 2011, pitching for High-A Modesto, he struggled with 46 walks in 33 innings, his ERA ballooning to 9.82. The Rockies sent him home to California, thinking it was best to remove him from competition. Matzek insists that rough patch was about bad mechanics and faltering confidence. Anxiety, he says, was not the root of his problem at that time.
Curiously, the fear and negative thoughts began rearing their ugly heads after his breakout rookie season with the Rockies.
“From the day the season ended, I started putting all of this stress on myself,” he recalled. “I told myself I had to become one of the best pitchers, one of the top 5 percent.”
Rather than building on his success, Matzek, who admits he over-processes things, started burying himself with a negative self-critique.
“At the end of ’14, I was thinking that my mechanics were as good as they were going to get,” he said. “I thought, ‘All I need to do is get better mentally and stronger physically.’ “
But as spring training neared, he realized his mechanics were “out of whack,” he said. When he turned an ankle during spring training, that added to the problem.
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