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Mental conditioning pro discusses evolution of mindset-focused approach

Brian Hartz

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Derin McMains, a former pro baseball player, coach and manager, has joined Tampa-based ReliaQuest as its director of mental conditioning. Courtesy photo.

After initially working with the company in a consulting role, Derin McMains, a former professional baseball player and manager, has joined ReliaQuest, a fast-growing Tampa cybersecurity company, as its full-time director of mental conditioning, a position that will see him work with the firm’s executive team, their direct reports and other employees who need help understanding the psychological components that influence performance.

McMains was drafted by the San Francisco Giants in 2001 but never played at the major league level. He advanced as far as AAA in 2006 before retiring in 2007 because of injuries, but he went on to manage in the Giants organization in 2012-13. He has worked as a mental performance coach for the Giants, Arizona Diamondbacks and Seattle Mariners, as well as Notre Dame University’s athletics department.

“In 2006,” McMains told the Catalyst, “I was a non-roster invitee to major league camp and had a good enough camp to win the Giants’ Harry S. Jordan Award, which is for the best rookie as voted on by the players. So I had a really good camp but didn’t make the team, and then I got hurt that season, so that was kind of the end. It was a bummer, but I definitely got a taste [of the big leagues] in spring training, playing alongside Barry Bonds and Omar Vizquel.”

McMains said he had undergone five surgeries during his playing career, but it wasn’t necessarily the physical setbacks that led to his retirement.

“I just wasn’t very good anymore,” he said. “I was a switch hitter, but because of some shoulder surgeries, I had to hit only right-handed one year. And that was the first time I ever felt fear in the batter’s box. It was like I didn’t even want to hit, and you can’t play in the major leagues if you don’t want to hit. I started to realize, ‘Oh my gosh, my mindset has changed and my performance has changed as well.’”

As McMains transitioned to a coach and then a manager in the minor leagues, he began to take a keen interest in how mindset impacts performance. He said he would routinely work with players who were consistently among the best at their positions in high school and college, but yet would struggle in pro-level games, while others would flourish.

“How you think really impacts how you perform,” he said, citing, as an example, a ReliaQuest employee who had been struggling with a presentation that was to culminate in asking for a sale.

“He knew the importance of making the sale,” McMains said. “At the end of this presentation, there’s a buyer on the other side that is going to decide whether or not they want to buy what he was trying to sell. And all his focus was on wanting to make the sale. That makes sense, but what I said was, ‘There’s a difference between what matters and what’s helpful. What matters is the sale — no doubt about it. But what’s helpful is focusing on your process.’”

He added, “The process is, ‘Hey, your only job is to prepare for this presentation and give it the best way you know how — that’s it. And then afterward, you’re going to learn something from it, but you can’t control whether the person is going to say yes or no.”

Putting too much energy and focus into a specific outcome creates doubt, McMains explained, and doubt affects confidence. “You’re not going to perform the way you should perform,” he said. “If you’re focused on the things you can’t control, it’s going to create doubt because your mind knows you can’t control that.”

During his coaching and managing years, McMains went back to school and earned a master’s degree in sport and exercise psychology. He also became a certified mental performance consultant via the Association for Applied Sport Psychology. The Giants took an interest in what he was doing and in 2012 launched a mental skills program.

However, baseball in general has been somewhat slow to accept what McMains does. As recently as 2017, when he was with the Mariners, he had to meet in secret with a player who didn’t want anyone to know he was speaking with a psychologist.

“We’re in Cleveland, playing the Indians, and we had to go into a grounds crew closet at the ballpark [to meet],” he recalled; however, the tide began to turn not too long after that episode. With McMains leading the way, the Mariners would hold a daily meeting for hitters in which they would openly discuss their mindset and focus for that day’s game.

“Professional athletes are more outspoken about it,” McMains said, “and people have really started to see the value in it.”

McMains said he has tried to be part of a shift in the conversation about mental health and psychology that has helped his area of expertise became more sought after by rapid-growth, high-performance organizations like ReliaQuest.

“What’s really helped is when people see mental health in a spectrum where it’s not just black and white — you know, you’re either broken or you’re great — but rather, it’s a lot of shades of gray in there,” he said. “Maybe you don’t need to see the psychiatrist or psychologist, maybe just a mental skills coach who understands the value of routines and the importance of being able to reframe something and how that’s going to impact thoughts and emotions, and ultimately going to impact actions.”

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