Hitting Home: Baseball and Mental Health with Kansas City Royals’ Melissa Lambert

Melissa Lambert, the Royals' director of behavioral science, was the first person in her role to be present in the dugout for an MLB team.

DETROIT, MI - SEPTEMBER 29: A detailed view of a Kansas City Royals baseball hat and glove sitting in the dugout during the game against the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park on September 29, 2022 in Detroit, Michigan. The Tigers defeated the Royals 10-3. (Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

Major League Baseball captivates fans all over the country. Fans enjoy the opportunity to cheer on their favorite teams and players as they create moments of joy for them and their families.

From a young age, many players dream of playing under the bright lights. When players reach the major leagues, they are looked up to by so many, and the shine of those bright lights consumes them on a daily basis, especially with the growth of social media.

However, fans often don’t realize that many players are human beings who go through many of the same day-to-day battles we all do. One of those battles is mental health. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics, in 2021, roughly 6 million more individuals received mental health treatment compared to 2019. It’s a topic that many around the country can relate to and have personal experience with.

Just last year, we saw former Detroit Tigers outfielder Austin Meadows step away to focus on his mental health; he missed most of the season due to anxiety-related issues, appearing in only six games. Prior to this past season, Meadows talked candidly about his mental health battles with Evan Petzold of the Detroit Free Press:

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“It was tough. From a mental health perspective, I’ve been dealing with some stuff a few years before the trade [from Tampa Bay to Detroit] happened, just some anxiety and stuff like that,” Meadows said. “It got out of control during the last offseason, and then the trade happened, and everything snowballed from there.”

Colorado Rockies reliever Daniel Bard has had similar experiences. Throughout his career, he has dealt with many mental aspects of the game, and even in 2023, he started the season on the injured reserve due to anxiety.

Bard wanted to use his experience to impact others. He spoke to reporters earlier this year when he decided to rejoin the Rockies from the IL:

“I want to use my story to give hope to people to get through really hard things, especially in sports,” Bard said. “But also to people outside of sports and different areas, different walks of life, different professions where they hit a roadblock and feel like they lost their ability to do something they’re supposed to be good at.”

There could be many factors, both positive and negative, for the increased number of players coming forward about their mental health battles. On the positive end of the spectrum, many players now feel comfortable coming forward as we’ve made significant progress toward destigmatizing mental health struggles.

Major League Baseball has taken a unique approach, allowing players to spend time on the injured list for mental health-related reasons. These players tend to be greeted with acceptance and support from teammates, coaches, front office staff, reporters, and fans.

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These are significant steps toward addressing mental health problems in baseball. Yet even with these significant steps, there are aspects of the game that do wear on a player.

Baseball is a game of failure. There is immense pressure on players to perform. The fear of being sent down or traded and having to move their entire family is usually in the back of their minds. The demand of having to be successful an entire season and the increased access fans have to players on social media also play a role in players dealing with mental health battles.

Teams are starting to take new approaches to dealing with mental health. The Kansas City Royals took a huge step in 2023. The team’s director of behavioral science, Melissa Lambert, became the first person in her role to be present in the dugout for a Major League Baseball team.

Lambert has an incredible and diverse background, making her more than well-suited to be in this role. She developed an interest in human behavior early on and always wanted to give back to help others. She received her master’s degree in clinical mental counseling and spent her first eight years working in trauma crisis with children and adolescents. Her time playing collegiate soccer and growing up watching sports kept her coaching young athletes while she was also counseling.

Once she started working as a therapist in the Connecticut school system, she started to notice the need for more support for student-athletes. This led her to eventually landing a mental performance job with the Los Angeles Dodgers, and then she joined the Royals in 2019.

Lambert traveled on every road trip and was present at all home games. It was an incredible effort by the Royals to increase access to mental health resources.

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I had the opportunity to ask Melissa a few questions about her role supporting players and coaches, how far we’ve come to address mental health in baseball, and what progress we need to make moving forward.

The Day-to-Day Role of a Mental Health Professional in Baseball

The Royals’ model was unique and very different, a welcome change, something that new manager, Matt Quatraro, was keen on starting.

“I made the transition to the KC Royals because I felt I could have a bigger impact in the organization. It was a blessing to move up to the major league level with many players I built relationships with while in player development,” Lambert said. “Our manager, Matt Quatraro, was pivotal in having an embedded model with mental health and mental performance as it was a request of his for the team.”

This being the first time a team has had someone in this role the dugout might have you wondering what goes on in the day-to-day for a director of behavioral science. There is a lot of variety, and the day-to-day can change frequently, according to Lambert.

“Not any one day looks the same. I try and split my time up equally with position players and pitchers,” Lambert said. “This includes collaboration with the coaches on training environments, psychological skills they can utilize with players, perspectives on managing certain behaviors, motivation, confidence, etc. I’m present as much as I can be to be available for both coaches and players.”

A lot of it comes down to working with players and coaches one-on-one at the MLB level.

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“Most work at the major league level occurs on an individual level and includes regular contact with our players in rehab,” Lambert said. “I support both on and off-field challenges and maintain confidentiality per my license for anything non-performance related.”

The Royals’ department of behavioral health is also involved in many community initiatives, providing a platform where their experts can help more than just the players on the team. This includes things like presentations at the Urban Youth Academy, Mental Health Awareness Month, and Suicide Awareness Month.

The realization that these roles within team organizations can impact so many other lives beyond the players on the team is a very cool thing to see. Teams have a voice that many fans listen to, so utilizing the experts they have on staff to impact their communities causes an incredible ripple effect that is starting to surface from these new roles. Teams have the opportunity to help break the silence.

The Hidden Struggles: Breaking the Silence

There are several reasons why players, and many people outside of baseball, may feel compelled to hide from their struggles. There are fears of stigma and potential impacts on their careers, and, for players, there are cultural norms within sports (although these seem to be shifting in a positive direction).

I started writing and focusing on the human side of baseball because of my own personal struggles. I was silent for so long that I wanted to provide a platform where players could come on to talk about things greater than the game and be their true authentic selves. A place where judgment didn’t exist and they could open up as much as they felt comfortable doing.

To get individuals to just start talking about the mental battles that come their way, it takes trust and communication.

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“Relationship building requires understanding each player for who they are, where they have been, and where they are trying to go,” Lambert said. “I use shared commonalities, being present and available, and finding time away from the stadium to get to know them.”

Building those relationships is just a first step. They have to be grounded in trust and understanding of what each player is going through both internally and externally. Understanding what can lead to those challenges and being transparent about everything. Putting the power into the hands of the individual to make sure they feel comfortable. 

As individuals, we often want to take control of situations and help as soon as possible, but sometimes we need to take a step back and listen. To make sure the other person feels like they are in control of the situation. 

“I feel transparency is crucial so they know who is asking questions about how they are doing, and they drive communication on what they want shared and not shared with our coaching staff,” Lambert said. “Without trust and credibility, the role will no longer serve the purpose it needs to.”

“The most common reason I hear from players is lack of trust and fear of where information goes,” Lambert said. “Players feel they may lose their job and be perceived differently if they share something personal or ask for help. Players are also under the spotlight all the time with social media platforms. There is a lot of room for outside noise and conversation that players aren’t always equipped to handle, furthering their need to maintain an image.”

Despite some of the hesitations, there has been an increase in players feeling more comfortable sharing their stories. I mentioned two earlier in Austin Meadows and Daniel Bard, but many others including Drew Robinson and Jake Burger, have shared their stories to hopefully help others.

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In my interview with Jake Burger, he expressed over and over again how sharing his story wasn’t just about him, but about the countless others he thought he could help. The opportunity to let others know they aren’t alone. As Lambert explained:

“Players acknowledge mental health challenges now more than ever as a result of seeing struggling family members and/or teammates. Having athletes open up to the public has helped normalize that players and athletes are not alone… Players speaking up is also resulting in organizations taking the need for mental health care more seriously.

Major League Baseball itself has started to take notice of the importance of addressing the needs of its players and breaking the silence to ensure the athletes have the resources necessary to get the help they need.

“The MLB now requires that every minor and major league player has 24/7 access to care from a mental health professional,” Lambert said. “Another MLB initiative that some organizations have taken advantage of is getting coaches and staff trained in Mental Health First Aid. This provides education and tools for understanding the impact of mental health, how to be understanding and listen to create safe spaces for coworkers. The minor league players also have access to the Unmind app, which includes daily check-ins on mood, meditations, and mental health education.”

That trust and credibility can help break the silence. Breaking the silence helps others know there is a greater unmet need and that they aren’t alone, which can lead them to the resources being provided for everyone who needs them. It helps many players know they have individuals and organizations there to support them… To listen… To help. It shows them they won’t be judged or punished for seeking out that help.

Encouraging Help-Seeking Behavior

Creating an environment that breaks the silence helps encourage people to seek help, raises awareness of mental health, and normalizes seeking help to reduce stigma.

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“Mental health awareness covers two major areas to me… Our ability to have empathy and understand where people are coming from,” Lambert said. “Accountability for our well-being, which includes asking for help, self-awareness of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, ability to manage emotions, heal any past trauma, and how you are making an impact in other people’s lives.”

Raising that awareness provides an environment where more feel encouraged to seek out help. Where they feel comfortable in the fact that it is okay to seek out help from others. That especially rings true for athletes under the bright lights.

“The more we can create a cohesive community, the safer people will feel to allow themselves to be vulnerable,” Lambert said. “Willingness to be vulnerable is often harder for elite performers who are expected to be at their best all the time.”

Where Do We Go From Here? The Path to Change

While we’ve seen a lot of progress, there is still more that can be done to improve mental health resources not just in baseball, but around the world.

“As much as we have made improvements in this area, we still have a long way to go,” Lambert said. “We need to continue to improve access to care for staff and players when needed; increase comfort in talking openly about mental health and stressors involved with professional sport.”

New technology and advancements in the world have us becoming more disconnected and connected at the same time, especially with social media. It can feel like you have so many around you “virtually,” but at the same time, you can still feel so alone. The need for connection becomes more crucial as we look ahead.

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“Players can feel like they are on an island when people around them see them as an athlete rather than a human,” Lambert said. “Another area I recently talked to Drew Robinson about is having peer support groups. Are there players willing to take on a leadership role in their organization by providing peer support to teammates who need it? Sometimes that can be an easier start to opening up before accessing mental health care. People are more likely to be vulnerable when they feel understood, connected, and emotionally safe to do so.”

Connections can help build those relationships of trust discussed earlier that are so important to bridging the gaps in mental health.

“Teams can continue to reinforce the importance of mental health by creating a culture that has expectations, predictability when feasible, and openness,” says Lambert.