Commentary

Anatomy of a slump

Plenty of advice for White Sox's Adam Dunn, but answers are less evident

Updated: June 29, 2011, 4:15 PM ET
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- So distraught was the late Lyman Bostock about the batting slump that began his 1978 season and career with the California Angels, that he approached team owner Gene Autry and offered to forfeit his salary, at the time one of the richest contracts in all of sports at $2.25 million over five years.

After general manager Buzzie Bavasi refused the proposal, Bostock donated a month's salary to charity. Five months later, following a game against the White Sox, he was tragically shot to death by the estranged husband of a woman he had met just hours earlier in his hometown of Gary, Ind. After Bostock's first month with the club, he was batting .147 and mired in a 2-for-38 slump. At the time of his death, he was batting .296 and had those around baseball predicting continued greatness for the 27-year-old.

Great players usually come around. And all players slump. But that knowledge alone does not necessarily help those going through it.

White Sox DH Adam Dunn, the current poster boy for baseball slumps, has admitted that he has put pressure on himself to help his new team and -- while not mentioned but assumed -- to live up to his four-year, $56 million contract.

[+] EnlargeAdam Dunn
Dennis Wierzbicki/US PresswireShould he focus more? Should he think about it less? There are plenty of theories on how to break out of a slump.

University of Chicago psychology professor Sian Beilock, who authored the book "Choke -- What the secrets of the brain reveal about getting it right when you have to," said Dunn and players experiencing slumps may sabotage themselves by interpreting physical reactions like a beating heart or sweaty palms as another signal to fail.

"It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy," Beilock said, also ascribing to the theory of paralysis by analysis.

"I do a lot more work in changing the mindset, how you think about your playing in general," said Beilock, who works with high-level athletes struggling through slumps. "It's the idea that you're paying so much attention to skills that should be on auto pilot, when you deconstruct everything, that's when you mess up."

Random thoughts can not only be self-destructive, they also slow the body's reaction time.

Beilock offered the analogy of being asked to describe how your knee is bending as you attempt to jog up a set of stairs. "Chances are, you'll fall on your face."

As Dunn's struggles continue, they seem to only get worse, leading to a demotion in the batting order and more days off than he may care to take.

But while it can be career altering, a California sports hypnotherapist's description of a slump as "a life-crippling, life-crushing experience," is exactly the mentality to avoid, said another sports psychologist.

The doctor, who has worked with many major league players over the years but requested his name not be used, said he doesn't even like to use the word "slump," referring to it instead as a "funk or a blip."

"Now all of a sudden there's fear," he said, "and any time there's fear and perception of a threat, the body's physiology changes and that's when it gets into a fight-or-flight mode. That survival instinct is great if you're being chased by a tiger or if there's a real threat. But when you look at sports, if there's an attitude that 'Gee, if I don't get out of this slump or funk, my life is going to end,' that becomes a big problem. That's when you over-try or press."

For Dunn, who last week called his slump "the most frustrating thing that has ever happened to me," may be derailing his own efforts without even realizing it.

"How a player reacts to the beginning of any event affects how long that event will last," said the psychologist. "And particularly on the major league level, once you start looking at things as catastrophic, changes the ability to find the solution it already possesses."

Now all of a sudden there's fear, and any time there's fear and perception of a threat, the body's physiology changes and that's when it gets into a fight-or-flight mode. That survival instinct is great if you're being chased by a tiger or if there's a real threat. But when you look at sports, if there's an attitude that 'Gee, if I don't get out of this slump or funk, my life is going to end,' that becomes a big problem. That's when you over-try or press.

-- A sports psychologist

He said any player who is trying to improve his performance or get out of a funk does not do it by trying harder, but "what I call trying softer," he said. "Sometimes, it's just going back to the basics. And sometimes it's by removing interference, which tends be thoughts, perceptions, feelings at the plate, because all those are potential areas of [distraction] for a player trying to get back to what their bodies are equipped to do."

Of course, if it was that easy, everyone from Reggie Jackson to Derek Jeter would have never gone through batting funks. But indeed, among the longest slumps in baseball include such accomplished players as Luis Aparicio, who went 0-for-44 in May of '71; Robin Ventura, who went 0-for-41 over April and May of '90 for the White Sox; Jose Canseco, who was 0-for-40 in August of '86 and Jeter, who was 0-for-32 in April of '04.

Make no mistake, all were hurt by the slumps. Aparicio hit a career-low .232 that season. Ventura hit .249 his rookie year and Canseco hit .240, though he still won Rookie of the Year honors with 33 home runs and 117 RBI. Only Jeter re-grouped, still hitting .292 for the season. Without the slump, he would have hit .308.

Dunn currently is in a 2-for-22 slump, 1-for-53 against lefties and 14-for-111 (.126) at home. Most glaring are the American League-high 100 strikeouts in 67 games, and the fact that he has just seven home runs and is batting .178 for the year.

Fangraphs.com points out that the epic rate of strikeouts, combined with the fact that he is not getting hits (.143) when he does connect, does not bode well for a Dunn rebound.

Dunn told reporters last week that things have gotten so bad that he has stopped answering the phone because he doesn't want to hear unsolicited advice.

Slumps do strange things to players. Some players refuse to change their socks -- or worse -- when they're going good. And when they're slumping? Wade Boggs once removed articles of clothing. Others run out on the field without touching a line, stop shaving, or in Don Baylor's case, shave their mustaches off.

The New York Times once recounted the story of the Reds' Dave Concepcion, so desperate to snap a hitting slump that he climbed into an industrial clothes dryer in the visiting clubhouse at Wrigley Field.

"Maybe this will get me hot," Concepcion joked.

But teammate Pat Zachry couldn't resist, tapping the switch and pretending to turn it on. Apparently, however, he hit it hard enough to get the thing going as smoke and sparks followed with Concepcion spinning inside.

That day Concepcion was 4-for-5.

"For weeks," said Zachry, recounting the story for the Times, "it was impossible to get him out."

While no one is suggesting Dunn look for the nearest major appliance to climb into, it would be nice if he could release the pressure somehow. Some fans have suggested that he is not thinking enough, that even though he has never been a player who has relied on a lot of film study, that he should start now. Better he should keep it simple.

Beilock said there are any number of techniques a player can use to re-take control of their performance from taking less time dwelling about the at-bat beforehand to practicing under pressure situations. Unfortunately for Dunn, he's a designated hitter who has plenty of time to ponder each upcoming at-bat.

"In basketball, a great way to get teams ready for shooting practice is to stop in the middle and have one guy shoot," Beilock said. "But if he misses, he doesn't run, the whole team does. The military does it, the FBI does. ... [Dunn] could be videotaped practicing, have various people watch, have some consequence for performing poorly."

Perhaps it can even help block out the incessant booing Dunn is getting, which can't possibly help. Dunn admitted that he's talked to the White Sox team psychologist.

For now, all anyone can do is stare at the back of his bubblegum card, which show his home run totals from '04 to last season were 46, 40, 40, 40, 40, 38 and 38.

There are those who believe things always return to form eventually.

And then there are the rest of us who wonder if eventually will be too late.

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.

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