Aberman helps Twins keep their heads in the game
By: Mike Berardino, Pioneer Press
Just because the Twins could soon set a franchise record for losses doesn’t mean their 2016 season has been a complete waste of time.
Dr. Rick Aberman, in his ninth season as Twins director of peak performance, has made a career of helping people recognize silver linings, and here again he believes he has found one.
“I’ve not seen an effort issue at all,” Aberman says during a recent interview at his Minnetonka office. “I think people care. I’ve been part of teams where people don’t care. I’m not seeing that. I think people do want to get better. I think people do want to succeed. Those are things I watch for.”
As embarrassing as this season has been for everyone involved, as much as owner Jim Pohlad’s “Total system failure” comment proved prophetic way back in early May, those in uniform have never capitulated or turned against one another.
Instead, from manager Paul Molitor to the whopping 49 players that have passed through the clubhouse this year, a daily sense of professionalism and purpose has carried the Twins from one painful loss to the next. Even as a search for new leadership in baseball operations winds down, Aberman finds himself encouraged by the individual growth of a mostly young and unproven roster.
“Sometimes winning can mask our weaknesses,” says Aberman, speaking slowly and softly. “Sometimes you win just enough so it looks like everything is pretty good and you don’t have to look inward in ways that you probably should.”
Perhaps that was the case last offseason, when the Twins were coming off a 13-win improvement in their first winning season since 2010 and yet did little to fortify the roster. Similarly, certain players may not have worked as hard as they should have last winter in the wake of that step forward in Molitor’s debut season.
Complacency is no longer an issue for the Twins, who have been jarred to the core across all departments by their fourth last-place finish in six years and their worst home attendance in a dozen years.
“When things aren’t going as well, those things become more exposed,” Aberman says. “And if you see it as an opportunity to become more self-aware, to learn and grow, these are wonderful opportunities. We all care about the results; they’re important, no question. But you really want to help people stay in the learning mode. It’s important not to internalize and think, ‘I’m a failure.’ ”
‘NOT ONE OF THEM’
You can find Aberman, 61, before most Twins home games. He doesn’t have an office at Target Field, but he is a regular presence around the home clubhouse and on the field during batting practice.
That’s him in the longish gray perm and the casual clothes, often consisting of a dark T-shirt and cargo shorts or jeans, leaning coolly with his back against the padded dugout railing as Twins players pass by on their way to and from their daily activities.
Many of them he knows from their time in the minor leagues, where he has made dozens of visits over the years, so the trust factor is high and the exchanges are typically quick and friendly.
“I’ll talk to him, but it’s nothing baseball-wise,” Twins reliever Ryan Pressly says. “It’s more off-the-field stuff, how you handle stuff mentally. He’s a great guy to have around. You can talk to him about anything.”
Fellow reliever Ryan O’Rourke has known Aberman even longer, meeting him not long after the Twins drafted him in the 13th round in 2010.
“He’s very good at knowing what the situation calls for,” O’Rourke says. “If you’re going to him with something really small, or maybe you got hit around the day before, he can be funny and crack jokes about it. And I’m sure guys have gone to him with some very heavy personal family stuff as well. He’s very open to whatever people have going on.”
On a recent afternoon, Aberman strolled through the Twins clubhouse and stopped by several players’ lockers for a quick word. Rookie right fielder Max Kepler, signed seven years ago out of Germany at age 16, extended a hand and smiled broadly when Aberman approached.
“Part of my job is to make it easy for athletes to ask for help,” Aberman says. “It’s being available, and also helping them understand that what we’re doing is not a weakness but a strength. It’s a resource, so you have to, in a sense, demystify some old-school thinking like, ‘Oh, here comes the shrink.’ ”
Familiarly and distance are equally vital to Aberman.
“These guys know I know their world, and that’s very important,” he says, “and yet I’m not one of them.”
‘SENSITIVE AND RESPECTFUL’
Aberman got his start 30 years ago at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he earned his Ph.D. One of the first sports psychologists hired full-time by a major college athletic department, the graduate of St. Louis Park High School returned to the Twin Cities in 1991.
Over the years he has worked with a number of corporations, including American Express, as well as individual coaches and athletes from all major sports leagues. He has worked closely with a number of sports teams at the University of Minnesota, including coach John Anderson’s baseball program, which is how he came to meet Molitor roughly two decades ago.
Since Molitor ascended to the manager’s chair, Aberman has spent the bulk of his Twins time with the big-league club, although he still made three trips to Triple-A Rochester this season. Spend an hour with Aberman, and you will hear several of the same phrases that pepper Molitor’s daily discussions with the media.
Among them: “Staying present” and “mindfulness.”
“I think Paul has a good sensibility of understanding it is as much of a psychological game as it is a physical game,” Aberman says. “He is very in tune to the players as people. His desire is to be helpful, and he can do it while being sensitive and respectful to where they’re at. There’s not much benefit in helping people to not feel confident or not believe in themselves.”
As the losses have mounted and the Twins have seemingly fallen off a competitive cliff since the middle of August, some in a frustrated fan base have wondered aloud whether Molitor is too passive or too willing to offer his players latitude to keep making the same mistakes.
Aberman, who authored a book called “Why Good Coaches Quit,” doesn’t see that.
“We need to have an environment that people feel safe in making mistakes,” Aberman says. “We’re not saying it’s fine if you fail; we’re not saying that at all. We understand that’s part of life. People are going to make mistakes.”
Especially those near the start of their career arc.
“If you’re trying to learn something new, you’re going to make mistakes,” he adds. “You don’t just automatically become the best in the world at what you do the very first time you do it. If I’m not willing to make mistakes, I’m not going to take the risks necessary to be at my best.”
ANYONE CAN LEAD
Despite his relentlessly even-keeled approach, Molitor did seem to use the media to deliver a public warning to young third baseman Miguel Sano in early August. Choosing his words carefully and calmly, the manager suggested a demotion to Triple-A could be next if Sano didn’t improve his work ethic.
Sano quickly responded, and the issue went away.
“There is acceptable behavior and unacceptable behavior,” Aberman says. “So we have minimal expectations. To say that I’m making mistakes and not meeting minimal expectations, that’s not good enough. That’s not what I’m talking about. I want to be really clear about that.”
That’s when a clubhouse runs the risk of becoming a country club.
“I wouldn’t want people to think that we’re saying it’s OK to fail,” Aberman says. “What I’m talking about is creating an environment where if somebody makes a mistake, they can ask for help. If I feel like if I make a mistake you’re going to yell at me, I’m not going to tell you I made the mistake, right? I’m going to cover it up. Therefore, as a leader, I can’t fix the problem because you’re not being honest with me.”
Leadership is something Aberman tries to draw out of each player. The best team dynamics, he has found, are the ones in which contributions flow from all corners on and off the field.
“It’s giving them a new way of thinking about it so they can take some ownership,” Aberman says. “If the team is going to win, you can’t just have one guy hitting 40 home runs, as we see. You need everyone to contribute.”
Seeing Torii Hunter back in the Twins clubhouse for a couple of days last week offered another reminder of the void his retirement left. It was painfully evident during the Twins’ 0-9 start this season, and it was one the Twins must train themselves to better fill next season and beyond.
“There wasn’t anybody who played 20 years, so that piece is missing,” Aberman says. “It’s not here. I talk about self-motivation but also self-leadership. Leadership needs to come from within. We all are responsible for being leaders — all of us — not just one person.
“Because when you have one person, that might be fine, but look what happens when that person isn’t there. You inadvertently create a dependency, and that’s not good. It’s great while it’s going for you, but my belief is we want to develop everyone to be a leader — not just the best player or the loudest or the biggest or the strongest.”
He pauses briefly to let this notion sink in.
“Everybody’s watching us all the time,” he adds, “so we’re leading whether we like it or not.”
Sports psychologist Rick Aberman, in his ninth year as director of peak performance for the Twins, offers several ways for his clients to “quiet the mind” and deal better with work stress. Here are three of them:
1. Belly breathing — Gently place your hands over your upper stomach area. Feel your diaphragm expand as you inhale to a count of four. Hold your breath until the count reaches seven and then exhale slowly. “What that does is it resets our physiology,” Aberman says. “We start feeling less. Our minds get less busy. It’s about slowing things down.”
2. Quiet time — Whether it’s between innings or even during lulls in the action, Aberman encourages players to focus on a specific object for a few seconds to help relax. “They’ll look at the foul pole or the flag or they’ll come out to the stadium early,” Aberman says. “It gets them anchored when the game starts speeding up. Sometimes it’s just to remind yourself, ‘You’re prepared. You’re OK. You’re going to make mistakes. It happens.’ ”
3. Recovery day — When you have a chance to unwind, use it fully without feeling guilty. “This can allow our bodies to heal, to recover, to regenerate — not just physically but emotionally, as well,” Aberman says. “Sometimes getting people to back off is the hardest part of their training. Working harder is not necessarily better. We want to work smarter.”