CLEARWATER, Fla. - Geoff Miller carried his open laptop into the Phillies clubhouse and found Nick Williams eating breakfast at a table in the middle of the room. Country music echoed from a nearby TV. Teammates spooned some oatmeal from Styrofoam cups. It was a typical Tuesday morning in spring training.
But this meeting was different, so different for the Phillies. They have never employed someone quite like Miller, a constant presence this spring behind batting cages and inside the players' private space.
He is the Phillies' first-ever mental skills coach. Miller is not a licensed psychologist; he is not trained to provide therapy. There is no couch in his office at the Carpenter Complex.
"The simple answer," Miller said, "is my job is to help each of our players maximize their full potential."
It extends well beyond that, which is why Miller relocated his family from San Diego to Philadelphia. He spent the winter with the Phillies' amateur scouting department, doing psychological evaluations of potential draft picks. He worked with some of the organization's youngest prospects during Florida instructional league play last fall. And, during the season, he expects to spend half his time with the big-league club, helping players perform under pressure.
Miller, 43, is one of the behind-the-scenes additions by a new regime that has implemented deliberate change. Phillies general manager Matt Klentak, while in the Los Angeles Angels' front office, had hired Miller two years ago. After a year of assessment in Philadelphia, Klentak offered Miller the chance to build a program with the Phillies.
"We have an obligation," Klentak said. "Part of our job is to provide the players with as much support as we can in every imaginable realm."
Sports psychology is hardly a new field; baseball in recent years has come to accept its growing place in the game. The players union, during the most recent negotiations with management, asked that teams provide a separated space for the mental skills coaches to meet with players.
Klentak and other members of the organization were reluctant to share details of Miller's work.
"There is a place for all of the traditional sports psychology," Miller said. "And I use it all. I help people with breathing. I help people with visualization. I help them with routines. I help them with self-talk. My belief, though, is those techniques are things people use to deal with pressure. My goal is to help a person understand where that pressure comes from, so they don't have to rely on the techniques as much. If they can unlock some of those answers, then they are naturally more comfortable. They flow through their day without having to really work at it."
Miller, a slender man dressed earlier this week in a black Phillies polo shirt and khakis, squatted next to Williams. He showed him something on the laptop. They spoke for about 15 minutes as passersby prepared for another day of a long spring. Williams smiled before the two men parted.
"This is not quite what you see in movies or maybe even what you've experienced before," Miller said. "It helps people get over some of the stereotypes, but to also really see a lot of this stuff that they've been thinking their whole lives."
Know who you are
Miller was an undeclared freshman at the University of California-Riverside when an English teacher, aware of Miller's affinity for baseball, asked him if he had watched Game 4 of the 1991 World Series the night before. The broadcast discussed how Atlanta pitcher John Smoltz had convened with a sports psychologist named Jack Llewellyn.
There are untold examples in the last two decades of players who have found comfort or fortitude through the assistance of a sports psychologist. Roy Halladay credited Harvey Dorfman's book, The Mental ABCs of Baseball, for saving his career.
Miller used psychology to find a purpose. He left UC-Riverside with a bachelor's degree in psychology, then got a master's degree in sports psychology at San Diego State. It took him 14 years from the moment his English professor planted the idea until Miller cracked Major League Baseball as a consultant for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2005. This marks his 13th year in baseball, his fifth different team, and the scope of his role is larger than before.
While with the Pirates, he mentored long-shot A-ball pitchers and established big-leaguers. Each time he had a rewarding conversation, he wrote himself an email with some details to remember it.
In 2009, after about 75 emails, he decided to write his own book. He called it, Intangibles: Big-League Stories and Strategies for Winning the Mental Game - In Baseball and in Life, and it is a guide for what Miller could implement in Philadelphia. The short stories are tied together by three themes: Know who you are. Know what you want. Know what to do when you don't get it.
To connect with players, Miller relied on the languages he heard most often in clubhouses - movies and poker. He used a scene from Top Gun to show a single-A pitcher how his competitiveness would overwhelm him, how he needed to calm down. The Matrix taught a group of pitchers to break free from expectations and perceptions, and an entire major-league pitching staff rallied around the motto, "There is no spoon."
"Think about someone who hires an executive coach," Miller said. "It's not therapy. It's strategic consulting to help them understand what they need to do emotionally and mentally to be better at their job. That's what I'm doing. These just happen to be professional athletes."
Miller, who is bilingual, delivered a presentation to the entire clubhouse at the beginning of the spring.
"It really was outstanding," Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said. "He's a pretty sharp guy."
Miller then scheduled introductory meetings with interested players.
"We were supposed to have a 15-minute conversation," Phillies righthander Zach Eflin said. "It turned into an hourlong conversation. The guy seems incredible.
"He just brings a whole new perspective to the game of baseball. It's something that you never thought was there. He's not a pitching coach. He's not going to tell you how to do it. But he's going to give you as much help as he can in terms of preparing yourself from the mental side."
There is a number for almost everything in baseball, with a few exceptions. The Phillies have asked Miller to make the intangibles tangible. With most teams having built robust analytics departments, the next race in baseball is the search for competitive advantages elsewhere.
"We all know when we feel confident and focused, when we feel some of these intangibles," Miller said. "We know when we have it and when we don't. Right? So it's a tangible feeling. It's not a feeling that you can necessarily measure statistically. But we all know when we feel it. Some of that is helping people connect that it's OK to not have a number for it yet."
The Phillies had employed Jack Curtis, an author and motivational speaker, as a consultant to aid minor-league players in previous years. But that was more reactionary, used only when a player had exhausted all other outlets.
Roughly 20 teams have some arrangement with a sports psychologist or mental coach, but teams differ in how much they value it. Klentak, charged with overseeing a rebuilding process dependent on the development of young talent, wanted to broaden the role.
He had Miller in mind.
"He is going to connect with some players more than others," Klentak said. "Some will be more resistant to what he provides. We know that, and that's OK. We want to make sure, as resources for the players, we are giving them everything they could possibly need to reach their ceiling."
Miller will split his time in the minors, including trips to the Dominican Republic, with the other half spent with the major-league team. Klentak said Miller will be granted considerable freedom in his role.
That promise is what persuaded Miller to move.
"I want to win just like anybody else," Miller said. "I feel like I'm in a place where I'm going to have a really good chance to contribute to that."
Photo credit: DAVID MAIALETTI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER