January 29, 2023

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'It's pretty powerful': Rangers' mental skills group drives player performance

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ARLINGTON — Hannah Huesman can often be seen roaming the backfields at Surprise, Ariz., during Spring Training or helping out with batting practice or fungos during pregame at Globe Life Field.

She stands out easily, as one of the only women among the sea of Major Leaguers, but she has one of the most important jobs on the field. Huesman is the Texas Rangers’ new mental performance coordinator who also serves as the primary coach for the Major League team. 

It’s a new role in a revamped department for the Rangers in 2022.

When the Rangers’ front office underwent a minor restructure at the end of the 2021 season, one move slipped under the radar. It was one that led to Huesman’s hire and might help the Rangers more than any other.

Ben Baroody was promoted to director of leadership, organizational development and mental performance, where he oversees the Rangers’ mental skills department, along with personal development at both the Major and Minor League levels. 

Baroody spent six years in a baseball operations role in one way or another within the Rangers organization, most recently as the assistant director of baseball operations for three seasons. When general manager Chris Young approached Baroody with the opportunity to lead the revamped mental skills department, he couldn’t turn it down. 

Young felt like the mental skills and performance group was an area in which the team could progress further. When evaluating the front office restructure, and wanting to put everybody in a place to succeed that also aligned with their own interests, aligning Baroody with mental skills and leadership development made the most sense. 

“My previous role on the Major League baseball operations side was transactional in nature,” Baroody explained. “Myself and a lot of others in the front office want to prioritize a lot of the different elements of personal, staff and organizational development. Like, ‘How are we investing in our people? Are we taking care of our people?’

“When CY approached me [about how] the mental performance is all kind of under the baseball ops umbrella, I didn’t know that was a thing or a possibility. Every organization seemingly pieces some of that stuff together, so to be able to have that under the baseball ops umbrella seemed like a really unique opportunity.”

When Young and president of baseball operations Jon Daniels initially announced the front office shake ups and Baroody’s new role, Young emphasized that the organization would provide resources necessary for players both on and off the field.

They’ve done exactly that, because in many ways, the mental and physical are intertwined in baseball. 

When Baroody began leading the mental skills and performance group, he focused on a few questions: How are they prioritizing the players and our staff? How are they approaching it in a way that’s authentically the Texas Rangers? How are they developing the people within the organization? 

So re-enter Huesman, one of the central pieces of the Rangers’ mental skills overhaul. Huesman, like Baroody, has taken a winding path to the mental skills and performance field.  

Huesman, a former college softball player at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, originally planned to use her degree in exercise science as an athletic trainer or strength and conditioning coach. But after taking a sports psychology class during her senior year of undergrad, she fell in love and went to the University of Tennessee-Knoxville to get her Master’s. 

From there, she dove into the baseball world, first with an internship with the Pittsburgh Pirates. After a four-year stint in New York with a private practice, the Philadelphia Phillies hired Huesman as a full-time mental skills coach.  

“The sport that was really embracing mental performance the most was baseball,” Huesman said. “The best opportunities were there, even though there’s not very many, but it was a no-brainer. It was cool that it was the sport that I love and I’ve been around my whole life.”

Huesman wanted a clean slate after leaving the Phillies and felt like the opportunity with Texas was perfect for her. The way the front office has provided Baroody with the resources to support mental health and performance within the organization sold her almost immediately. 

The Rangers, as a whole, have bought into making mental performance an everyday focus, rather than the group and its mission being pushed to the backburner with limited resources.

Huesman describes her job simply: “It’s helping people’s minds work for them instead of against them. It’s really about helping you become the best version of you.”

That’s not just on the field. It’s in the weight room. It’s with nutrition. It’s with sleep analysis. It’s with as much data as the Rangers can get their hands on.

“It comes down to identity and knowing who you are and then knowing how situations that you are put in affects your performance,” Huesman said. “It’s knowing, ‘How can I be the best version of myself in the moment that I need to be at the absolute heat of the moment at the end of the game?’” 

When she participates in on-field practices and activities, it’s because she feels it’s important for her to take mental performance out of a classroom and bring it onto the field. It’s vital for the players to know she’s there observing the implementation of the mental performance. 

In a perfect world, Huesman explained, players are working on mental performance just as much as they are the physical performance. That includes taking the mental reps on the field, whether it’s game time or not. 

“It’s my job to be out there and remind them and observe them and see things that they can work on and be better with and also acknowledge when they’re doing something really well,” she said.

The implementation of that starts with Rangers manager Chris Woodward, who had raved about the work of Baroody and Huesman since the department was revamped this offseason. Both Young and Woodward, as former players, are passionate about the mental side of the game and see it as an area of “extreme importance” to the success of the organization. 

“What we’ve done in that department as a whole, I couldn’t be prouder of,” Woodward added during Spring Training. “They’ve blown me away just over this offseason. They’ve listened to everything that I’ve said about our organization and that this is what we stand for, this is what we want our players to represent. And they designed an entire program based around that. 

“It’s pretty powerful. And it’s simple. It’s not overly complex, but it gets guys in the right frame of mind. And it’s real. It’s a real advantage when guys can go out there with that belief and the mentality that we’re looking for, to stay in the moment, stay present and compete.”

A core aspect that the department has been emphasizing the difference between mental health and mental performance. Both are crucial aspects of being a successful athlete, but have varying degrees of intersection.

Your mental performance doesn’t matter if your mental health isn’t where it needs to be, Huesman explained. But the performance should not be responsible for your mental health. The Rangers worked on establishing both sides of the equation by hiring Dr. Nicole Linen as the club’s sports psychologist.

“This setting is so unique that you have to find the right person, which really drives everything,” Baroody said. “With [Linen], we found that person that is able to connect and relate. She’s a person (who) is really what’s going to drive the trust. It’s still a new role for us, so we’re still navigating the utilization of it.”

All of these aspects, coming together under Baroody’s umbrella of player development and mental performance, are just the beginning of what the Rangers hope will be an integral part of the organization going forward.

All offseason, Chris Young has emphasized bringing a “championship culture” back to Texas. And while the on-field play stands out above all, it starts behind the scenes.

He notes that the front office, ownership and coaching staff collectively recognized the importance of investing in the players.

“Our mentality affects every single thing that we do,” Huesman said. “If you hear anybody talking about baseball, I can almost guarantee you mentality is going to be brought up in some way, shape or form. We’ve gotten used to talking about the importance of the mental game. But what steps are people actually taking? That’s what fires me up and gets me so excited.We’re not just talking about it. We’re doing things about it.”

For Baroody, it all begins and ends with the players, and the staff is only limited by their own creativity in this space. So he comes back to one more question: How do they build that championship organization, sustainably and consistently?

“It’s adding talent and it’s being savvy from a transaction standpoint, sure, but it’s really like, how are we developing our people?” Baroody said. “How are folks feeling connected? All these things that are going to come up and I think sometimes that stuff can be taken for granted, especially when you’re within organizations growing really rapidly. What does it mean to us, from [Single-A] Down East to Arlington? Right? We can have that collected clarity so that we’re all pulling at the same end of the rope and have the same goals everyday.”

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