Great Read on How Dansby Swanson Addressed His Mental Health and How It Impacts Player Performance
We do touch on it more than we used to as sports fans, but it still probably doesn’t come up often enough: mental health unquestionably has a dramatic impact on a player’s ability to perform to the best of his abilities.
The relationship is more or less obvious at this point – the yips being an extreme, but illustrative, example – but it’s rare that we even get a chance to discuss the direct impact. Understandably, it’s still a sensitive thing to talk openly about mental health struggles, especially in a world where players might fear that doing so could wind up used against them on the open market some day (or in the clubhouse, if not everyone in there is sufficiently compassionate).
So I very much appreciate Dansby Swanson’s willingness to discuss his battles with anxiety, how it impacted his performance, and how he worked on it:
By the end of the 2019 season, Swanson was really having trouble managing his anxiety. That’s when he got some outside help, according to the article, realized that he had some unresolved feelings associated with being drafted first overall but then traded almost six months later (it sewed doubt about how good he could actually be or whether he could lead anyone else). Any time he would struggle, it sounds like Swanson would unconsciously go back to that place of doubt.
He pointed the finger at himself, wondering what he did wrong to become the first ever No. 1 pick traded within the first year of his pro career. The stress of being traded to his hometown team only increased the tension. When he scuffled for extended periods in the majors across his first four years, his anxiety about the move and his early struggles crept in. It made solving his slumps a near-impossible task.
“Dansby was playing in that space over and over, and then going home and obsessing about the results because he cared so much,” [mental wellness coach and therapist Armando] Gonzalez said. “Not just about Atlanta being his hometown but just that he for once in his life wasn’t delivering on his standard. And he was terrified of that outcome. So his brain went into survival mode searching for any adjustment he could make, anything he could change to get back to himself.”
In order to heal that part of himself, Swanson had to relive moments where he struggled. Moments when he felt as though he’d let down his team and the people who believed in him. Gonzalez and Swanson worked on flushing out that trauma and redirecting his thoughts during their first three-day immersion in Nashville. By the end of it, Swanson felt like he’d cleared a hurdle. Gonzalez noticed the difference immediately in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season.
You don’t want to suggest TOO perfect of a line of demarcation, but it’s notable that, in his career prior to 2020, Swanson hit .245/.318/.385/80 wRC+ with 5 total DRS. In the three seasons since getting his anxiety under control, Swanson has hit .265/.324/.451/109 wRC+ with 9 total DRS. Much of that player development, of course, but maybe the ability to better handle the lows that come with this sport have also served him well.
Give the article a read, as there’s a lot in there about Swanson as a leader, too. He came to the Cubs clearly looking to continue growing as a leader, and the timing is perfect.
You would hope that these mental skills would do Dansby Swanson well in his transition to the Cubs, too. We’ve seen it many times before: big-time free agent gets a huge contract with a new team, and immediately puts too much pressure on himself to be incredible out of the gate. When the inevitable slump hits, the unhelpful pressure comes, and it can create a spiral of underperformance.