Q&A: Brian Peterson, the Tigers Mental Edge
You probably haven’t heard of him, but Brian “Pete” Peterson is an invaluable member of the Detroit Tigers organization. Working within the realm of sports psychology, and alongside Dr. George Carlo, the 58-year-old Peterson is heading into his 10th season as the team’s Performance Enhancement Instructor. It isn’t a unique role — a handful of other teams employ someone in a similar capacity — but thanks to his background and experience, few, if any, are better at helping players gain a mental edge.
David Laurila: How would you define your role with the Tigers organization?
Brian Peterson: My title is Performance Enhancement Instructor and my job is to help all of the players, in the entire organization, be clear of mind while they’re going about their business. That’s probably the easiest way to describe it.
DL: How did you get involved in professional baseball?
BP: I was a minor league pitcher for four years. My first year was 1976, in the Northwest League. I came out of the University of Oregon and was with one of the very first independent teams.
Later, and before coming to Detroit, I worked for the Florida Marlins. I was a pitching coach for six years — five in the Midwest League and one in the Eastern League — and then I was with them for three years in my current role. When the Marlins were sold, I was one of about 25 or 30 minor-league personnel who was let go. In September of 2002, Dave Dombrowski hired me. Prior to that, the Tigers didn’t have anyone in my position.
DL: How may teams currently employ Performance Enhancement Instructors, or Sports Psychologists?
BP: Last year, out of 30 organizations, I think there were only six or seven, although I could be wrong. There might be more. Regardless, I don’t know if any of them are keeping data like I am. I’ve collected 12 years of data, although, interestingly, nothing new has come up in the past two years. In each of the 10 years before that, at least one new thing came up that I hadn‘t experienced.
I need to point out that all of this data is mine — it doesn’t belong to the organization — because everything I’m told is confidential. It’s a lot of data, because I don’t think anyone has encountered as many people as I have in this job.
DL: How many players have you worked with over the 12 years?
BP: I only write down, and count, the times where somebody says to me. “Pete, can we meet? I want to talk with you.” I view that as an appointment and those are the ones I’ve been keeping track of. I don’t count the ones where I’m on the bench, or in the bullpen, or in the locker room, and somebody comes up and says, “Hey, listen to this.”
That being said, I have almost 1,000 appointments in 12 years. Some of those are repeat appointments. I’ve had guys who, over the course of a year, have had 8 or 10 appointments. There aren’t too many of those, though.
DL: Do you ever refer players to get help beyond what you can provide?
BP: Absolutely. When it’s out of my realm of expertise, I get them to somebody who can help them. Things come up in baseball that are beyond my training. Some involve medications, and things of that sort, which I’m not qualified to handle. If I think they need further assistance, I get them to someone who can assess what they need and give them that further assistance.
DL: How receptive are most players to what you do?
BP: I think they’re receptive once they understand how I operate. Rarely do I approach the players. They come to me and that’s the simple fact. If there is an issue to work on, even if I approached them, and I was right, it wouldn’t really make any difference. Until a person is ready to work on something, they’re not going to work on it.
They all know what I do, they all know how I operate, and they know I’m available. Whenever they want to use me, I’m on their time. But they have to want to do it.
DL: Are players ever referred to you by the coaching staff?
BP: Most of the time they approach me on their own. Probably, the way it works is that the longer I’m around, the more the players talk among themselves. It’s really through word of mouth with the players.
The hardest part is realizing the fact that it’s confidential, that it’s safe. I’m, quote, “a staff guy,” but I’m a little bit different than a staff guy. And I actually work with staff almost as much as I do with players. They’re all human beings and everybody doesn’t exactly walk through life issue-free.
DL: Can you give an example of something you might help a player with?
BP: As you know, I can’t mention any names, and I wouldn’t, but generally speaking it would be something like this: I would be approached by a player, and let’s say that it is a position player. He might say something like, “Geez, I’m 2-for-50; what am I going to do?” When we’re done talking, more often than not it really doesn’t have anything to do with what’s going on in the field. The majority of time there is some sort of personal issue that is creating some type of emotion, and their coping mechanisms maybe aren’t quite as good as they could be. I simply try to help them by giving them some good coping mechanisms and some good direction so they can be clear of mind while they’re going about their business.
DL: How difficult is it to measure the impact you have on performance? For instance, the player who rebounds from 2-for-50 might also have made physical adjustments.
BP: What I work in, and it’s ironic — in our industry, everything is measured ad nauseum. That’s just the nature of the business. Everything is measured and calculated. But what I do is intangible; there is really no way to measure it. And sometimes there is no way to know for sure exactly what the issue is. So, to answer that, it could be a factor. It absolutely could be a factor.
DL: Is there such a thing as a closer mentality?
BP: There are mentalities that are appropriate for that, because people are wired differently. Some champions are wired intensely with their mind-body connection, and some champions are wired relaxed. And it really doesn’t matter which one you are. What matters is knowing which one you are, whether you’re a relaxed competitor or whether you’re an intense competitor. Sometimes, knowing what they are, you can help feed it.
Another way to break that down is that someone who is intense is someone who is wired as an intimidator. Or someone who is wired as a relaxed champion, or competitor, is more of a dominator. They don’t need to intimidate. They can just dominate with their ability.
DL: Why is self recognition important for an athlete?
BP: Because they will do things, as champions, without some of this being measured and known specifically. Some of them, instinctively, can adapt while the competition is going on, and that’s really what separates all of the other athletes from the champions. They can adapt instinctively and adjust to what is going on in the moment. Some people have a real hard time doing that. The people who are the best at what they do are so in touch with their bodies that they know what their body is doing at that particular time. In our business, we play every day, and no one’s body is the same every day, in any athletic event.
DL: On of your colleagues is Dr. George Carlo. How does his role differ from yours?
BP: To start, here’s a little background. George taught medical school at George Washington University for 21 years. He’s an MD, he has a Ph.D. in pathology, and he also has a law degree. By trade, he’s a brain researcher. George is a research scientist and an expert on how the body works in conjunction with the brain.
This is how I’d explain what we do: the service I provide has to do with the feelings and emotions that might not allow you to be free of mind when you’re on the baseball field. A lot of it is intangible stuff. What George does has more to do with things you can do at the very moment you’re playing in a game. For instance, he has ways to help you relax your body, and mind, through things like breathing and contracting muscles. You could probably say that his stuff is more on-the-field, while mine is more off-the-field. That’s a simple way to put it.
At times, a player comes to me and also ends up working with George. I do stuff that George doesn’t know about, he does stuff I don’t know about, and sometimes we work with guys together.
DL: Any final thoughts?
BP: The crux of it, and I mentioned this earlier, is the confidentiality of what I do. But even more important is the fact that what the players have to have, in order to use me, is trust. And trust is something that you earn.
If I was a player and someone like me was walking around, I’d be a little reluctant. How does he know that I’m not going to go into the staff room and tell somebody what I just talked to him about? I know I’m not going to, but they don’t know that. So that’s probably the crux of it. If they’re going to use me, they have to trust me, and you have to earn trust. You can’t order it up.
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.