Listen in as Brian interviews Mike Rooney, one of college baseball and ESPN’s top analysts. He is a former Notre Dame baseball player and Arizona State University assistant coach, and is now sharing what he learned from his mental game mentors: Ken Ravizza, Harvey Dorfman, and Skip Bertman.
You will learn…
- The difference between MLB players and those that don’t make it.
- Concrete ways to build team culture.
- Strategies for implementing the mental game.
Follow Brett on Twitter @bashleadership
It’s easy to say we’re doing the mental game, but the discipline and the conviction to it is a real separator.
Cain: Hey, how are you doing? Brian Cain, your Peak Performance Coach, with the Peak Performance Podcast. Our guest today, Mike Rooney, is a former college baseball coach and currently working with Perfect Game doing some writing and is an analyst for ESPN. You’ve seen him during the college baseball season on ESPN breaking down the game.
What I’m excited about today is that Mike not only has coached baseball at the highest level, but he also gets the inside access that very few people get into the top programs in the country through ESPN and interviewing and getting to know some of the top coaches in the country. So I’m excited to hear him talk about the players he’s coached, as well as the coaches that he’s been around, and really dive into a guy who has a unique perspective on the game of baseball and is going to be very entertaining and educational for us today. Roones, welcome to the Peak Performance Podcast. I’m glad you’re with us.
Rooney: Cainer, it’s a pleasure to be here. I’ve got to tell you – I’m going to say this publicly. Congrats on your IRONMAN! You did an IRONMAN this weekend and I missed my workout yesterday, so I’m feeling very inadequate right now but it’s awesome to be here.
Cain: I join you, man. I missed my workout this morning. I was supposed to get up and go for a swim and I could hardly get out of bed to get into the bathroom, so I bagged on the swim. But you’re forgiven and just make sure you don’t miss two days in a row. That’s the key. Everyone is going to miss one day, Roones. You just can’t miss two.
Rooney: Amen. I’m here. I’ve got it. I’m on it today.
Cain: Fantastic. Well, Roones, if you would, get our listeners caught up to speed on your entry into the world of baseball and your journey and story into how you got to where you are today.
Rooney: I’ll try and give you the CliffsNotes version. Like a lot of guys, I was just really fortunate and really blessed. I went to Notre Dame for college. My dad had gone there so I was going there to be a student, and I tried to walk on to the baseball team and got really lucky that Pat Murphy had just happened to be the head coach there. At that time it was his second year. He was 28 and was building the program basically from scratch. We just had an incredible four years. My senior year we were in the Miami regional playing the Hurricanes. Winner goes to Omaha. We just had a great four years. Craig Counsell was my teammate for four years. So just had an incredible college baseball experience. Just dumb luck. I just walked on and had this incredible four-year experience.
Then I was a high school coach in suburban Philly where I grew up. Malvern Prep is the school. I’m 24 years old. I can’t even spell coach, let alone do it, and we have two first round picks in four years. Again, dumb luck. Ben Davis. My first year as a high school head coach, 24 years old, our catcher is Ben Davis, who is the second pick in the 1995 draft. Then we have another first rounder, Josh McKinley, in 1998. Then I wanted to get into college coaching and I got really lucky to get the volunteer position at Arizona State because Pat Murphy had moved on to there. From there, a year and a half in, our pitching coach (John Pulaski) gets the job at Charleston so I got to be a paid coach. After that, after my years at ASU – which were incredible.
You remember, Cainer, from when we were playing you guys at Fullerton. My six years at ASU, I think we had 17 Big Leaguers come through the program. Pedroia. Ethier. I got to coach Ian Kinsler and on and on. Then I was a head junior college coach so I got to experience that. That was really fun. In the meantime I started to dabble in the broadcasting piece and since 2009 I’ve gotten to work for ESPN on their college baseball program.
Again, it’s just you’ve got to pinch yourself sometimes in this game when you get to do things like that because it’s just right place, right time, some really good people stepping forward and going to bat for you. But to your point, I’ve seen a lot of different angles at it. College baseball is my passion. It’s something that I just – every day of my life I’m involved in college baseball because I love it. It’s oxygen for me. It’s been a really fun journey.
Cain: Roones, there’s the high school game – which I didn’t realize that you had coached at Malvern Prep. I’ve actually been there before. What a cool school.
Rooney: Fighting Friars, baby!
Cain: Yeah. It’s big time, man. So you coached at Malvern. You coached at Arizona State. I’m sure you’ve had opportunities in professional baseball. What is it about the college game as opposed to maybe the high school or the pro game that is so attractive to you?
Rooney: Well, I would tell high school coaches that I’m really close friends with – I tell them all the time, arguably the most fun I’ve ever had was as a young high school coach. That was just a blast. The thing that’s great about the college game is that the talent level is really high. These kids are really skilled, but the game still has some purity to it. You really are – Coach Murphy used to always talk about palm down. It’s this, not a palm up and what’s in it for me; it’s palm down.
The truth is, in pro ball – and I don’t mean this to insult or criticize anyone – you really can’t be palm down in pro ball until you get to the big leagues. The minor leagues is not about palm down. The minor leagues is about get as good as you can and put up numbers and get to the big leagues. The college game, I think it’s like that perfect mix where you’ve got really talented players, really skilled players, but you’ve got that core that’s just everybody in it for the cause. I have a real day job now and it’s hard to find that in the real world.
I think that’s what I love about college baseball. I love that core. I love the people. I’ve always felt that baseball is about relationships. There are so many great people in the game of baseball. I think in particular in college baseball we have coaches that are teachers and just people that you would want your son around. I think that sets the tone for the game.
Cain: That’s awesome. Talking about some of the great teams and the chemistry that’s in college baseball, everyone’s on that same goal of we’re getting to Omaha, competing for national championship, there’s the school pride. It’s more of a team game. I think when you get into pro baseball, it becomes about the individual maybe until the major leagues, and maybe even until the major league postseason because it’s about the individual.
The coaches that you’ve been around, Coach Murphy and some of the programs that you’ve had the privilege to be around from your connections and time with ESPN – what are some of the ways to build the championship culture and to really build that team that the coaches listening to this podcast could take and use? What are some of the strategies that you’ve seen or things that you’ve heard people do?
Rooney: Well, I would say, Cainer, that you have to be buttoned down in all the areas that are the obvious ones in building your program. You have to create interest and create funding. You have to get good people, good coaches, good players. But kind of everybody is doing that. I think personal development, people development – once you get who you get in your program, you’ve got to develop those people. That’s your coaches. That’s your assistant coaches who want to grow. You’ve got to grow. Your players have to grow. That’s physical. That’s skill development. That’s physical and skill development.
But the mental game has always been really important to me. Coach Murphy, who was my coach – and my dad was my coach as a kid, and my dad and Coach Murphy were motivators. They were people that you’d want to run through the wall for them. You didn’t want to fail because you didn’t want to disappoint those guys. I saw that at an early age. Coach Murphy was my first mentor in coaching but my first hero in coaching was Skip Bertman. I tell people this all the time – I think people have really whiffed on what made Skip Bertman great.
We always think about Gorilla Ball and he was so clever in understanding what would win in Omaha, but you know what the real truth of it is? Skip Bertman was the best motivator we had in college baseball. So I was a young high school coach and I’m making photocopies of Chicken Soup for the Soul and putting it in all the locker rooms. I think the mental game is so important because once you’ve recruited you can’t change that. Then it’s just you’ve got to do a better job than everybody else is developing the people that are in your program.
Cain: Jack Canfield would be proud about you sharing the Chicken Soup for the Soul with your high school players, Roones. That’s outstanding. That’s great. I remember reading that when I was a high school baseball player. Some of the stories were awesome.
I think you hit the nail on the head. I had a chance to interview Coach Bertman for the podcast and we did a little project together called Winning the Big One. I think he was the master of the mental game before anybody even knew what the mental game was. He had worked with Ken Ravizza way back when with the Olympic team. When I met Ken and started to go through his program at Cal State Fullerton in 2002-2003, there was a lot of Skip Bertman that was in Ken Ravizza and a lot of Ravizza that was in Bertman, and I think there is a Ravizza connection in Augie Garrido as well. But one of the guys you worked with with Murphy, I think in probably Notre Dame and definitely ASU, was Harvey Dorfman. Can you talk a little bit about him and your relationship with him and some of the things that he brought to the table with you guys?
Rooney: Oh, man. Honestly, Cainer, it’s hard to even talk about Harvey without getting choked up because (he was just like Ken Ravizza) not only were these special people, but when you’re investing into someone’s personal development like that, you’re changing their life.
The two weeks before Harvey Dorfman died I wasn’t coaching at the time and was trying to make some career decisions, some life decisions, and I think I wrote a three-page Word document to Harvey and I e-mailed him. Harvey had such a great sense of humor, very sarcastic guy, but truly cared about people. I said, “Harvey, I’m not asking you to read this document; I just had to unload my heart and my mind on paper right now. If you read anything in there and you see something, please by all means fire away but I’ve got to tell you, just having you in my life and putting these thoughts on paper I already feel so much better.” Unfortunately, Harvey’s e-mail back to me was – he kind of gave me a hard time. He’s like, “Roones, wow.” He said, “Hey, I’m not feeling very good” and sure enough, he passed two weeks later. But he would come and spend time with us.
And just his book was fabulous. His book and Ken Ravizza’s book – they’re must-reads and must-haves if you’re coaching. There are things. There are different styles there. But if you’re a head baseball coach at any level, for me those have got to be in your back pocket. Harvey was just a guy that would look you right in the eyeballs and tell you, “Hey, here’s what I hear you saying and we need to talk about that.” It was awesome. He would speak to our team as a group and he would speak to individual players. He would speak to us as individual coaches. I feel like it’s a lifetime impact.
I think the other thing that’s interesting, Cainer, as I think about all this stuff, is I think about 2003 when we’re playing you guys at Fullerton in the Super Regional. That Fullerton team, if I’m not mistaken, had eight future Big Leaguers on the team? Our team at Arizona State was really good. We had five future Big Leaguers including Ethier and Pedroia. We’re working with Harvey Dorfman. You guys are doing the Ken Ravizza stuff.
In college baseball right now there are more than 100 teams that are investing as if Hey, we want to get to Omaha, so the margins are thin. You’ve got to be buttoned down everywhere. I think the mental game… Even if someone told me a year or five years ago “you’ve got to pick one,” this is the one I would pick because I think this is – it’s easy to say we’re doing the mental game but the discipline and the conviction to it is a real separator.
Cain: I think you hit the nail on the head there. A lot of people talk about “Hey, we’re doing the mental game” and then you ask them, “Well, what do you do?” And then they kind of go, “Well, we work hard.” It’s like, “Well, everybody in college baseball is working hard. What is it that you do in the mental game to help give you the advantage? You start talking about process or routines or imagery or like Skip Bertman using the videos for the team motivation stuff or team meetings where you’re talking about mindset and leadership and character development and how to handle adversity.” People kind of give you the blank look like We don’t do that. What are some of the things that when you look at teams that go beyond giving lip service to the mental game but really do it at a high level, what are some of the things that you actually see them doing?
Rooney: Well, I think there are so many things. I visited TCU this fall and I was there for my day job and I got to see those guys work out. I know you’re close to those guys. They do an unbelievable job. But it’s everywhere. They’re investing in having you talk to the team. They put their money where their mouth is. There’s signage everywhere. You see the routines of the players. I remember when we would play Long Beach State back in the day – they had the little mini toilet that the players would go flush when they had a bad at-bat. I always thought that would have been a good strategy for us against Fullerton and Long Beach, was steal the mini toilet. But we never – that’s probably – actually not probably, that is in fact unethical.
Cain: Oh, that would have been outstanding.
Rooney: Yeah. But I think as a coach – again, not to make this about me, but I remember being a mid-20s high school coach and I go see Skip Bertman at clinic and I’m like, “I’m doing that, I’m doing that.” So every game day I’m in the copy room, not printing out math quizzes like I should have been, but I’m printing out this photocopied sheet that says “Malvern Prep Baseball, March 18, 1996” and a quote. But you have to go research those quotes and you’ve got to find them and it’s got to be the right quote for the right day. You can’t just start down that road and then bunt it.
Again, for me it’s like physical training. You have to be – and the leader of the program, it starts and stops with you. The first day that I don’t put that quote in those kids’ lockers on game day, that’s the day that I send the message to them that we’re not taking the program seriously. The first time our best player doesn’t step out after a red light situation and take a deep breath, I’m sending a message to my whole program that Hey, the mental game is optional. We all know what’s going to happen is, when the adversity hits, when things really get hairy, then we’re all just going to go back to our original habits.
I would say there are so many different physical things, Cainer, but I think the things I notice is that it’s just this ferocious dedication to it that we’re not backing off of this. I mean, again, I’m preaching to the choir. You know this even way better than I do. But if you’re going to do the mental game, it’s not going to be super comfortable for everybody and it’s a little scary as a coach. You might say to yourself, “Man, my best player is already really good – I don’t want to do anything to mess him up.” But if you want to build a great program, you can’t have that mentality. You’ve got to have the mentality of we’re doing everything at a championship level and that’s it. Period.
Cain: I think a lot of coaches – and I think this is changing and I’d like to see if you see that same kind of trend – is a lot of times people would say if you’re doing the mental game, you’re screwed up, you’ve got something wrong with you, and now people look at it as it’s like growth. You’re trying to become more. You go work on your swing in the cage. You work on pitching in the bullpen. Let’s work on your mindset. Let’s work on your maturity. Let’s work on your leadership. Let’s work on you getting able to identify the things that you can control and the things that you can’t control and learning how to make the decisions to focus only on the things you can control, because focusing on something you can’t you’re simply going to beat yourself.
I think people see it now as it’s not even really the mental game; it’s just this is the right way to go about doing your business as somebody who wants to be a high-level achiever. This is more of the psychology of success. I think it’s more accepted in baseball. It’s a lot more accepted in other sports. I still think baseball is behind the curve in a lot of ways and this is one of them. But I think it’s making a lot of headway and I think you saw that with Joe Madden and the Cubs last year in the World Series.
Rooney: No question. I agree the mentality is changing. The way I heard it a long time ago was somebody said confidence is a muscle. That does make a lot of sense to me. Just like physical strength there are some people – like Dustin Pedroia was raised to have this incredible confidence. Then others – I was one of those guys, over-analytical, anxious at all times and had to learn how to calm myself down. So everybody is somewhere on that spectrum, but we all have to get to the best place we can get to if we’re going to be successful.
You mentioned other walks of life. I’m in sales in my real job and it’s if you’re in a performance environment, you are going to face adversity and adversity that knocks your breath out of you. I think that’s where – it’s so funny. In sales I see this all the time. You have a hot-shot salesperson killing their quota and they are just higher than a kite. You’re looking at them like What are you doing to get better? because that quota is not staying there. People are going to come get you. I think that’s the point of the whole thing.
If you’re in a performance-based business, it’s not about how good you are today. It’s about you are going to face some adversity that is going to shake you to your core and how mentally strong are you going to be to be able to get through that. I think that’s where the mental game comes in. To your point, it’s more accepted now but then it comes who is better at really executing it.
Cain: You mentioned Dustin Pedroia and the 17 guys (that’s unbelievable) that you coached at Arizona State that went on to play in the Big Leagues. That you played with Craig Counsell when you were at Notre Dame. You coached two first round picks at Malvern Prep in Ben Davis and Josh McKinley. Roones, what are some of the characteristics that you saw in those guys that you coached or guys that you see now going around in college baseball, the first round picks and the guys that are the Brandon Finnegans that make it to the Major Leagues months after pitching in the College World Series? What are the characteristics for the mental game that you see in those players that helps them to be successful that maybe some of the other players are missing?
Rooney: Well, I think that (a.) to get to the Big Leagues you have to be immensely mentally strong. I just think that is one of the most underrated feats in sports today. People have no idea how brutally difficult the minor leagues are. I mean physically. I mean mentally. You have to create. Those guys, I would say – obviously, they’re all freakishly gifted from a physical standpoint but their conviction level is really high.
I remember Ben Davis. This is one of my favorite memories. We’re on a bus to a game in 1995. He’s going to be a first round pick. He and his family were so dedicated in everything they did. There he is on our bus ride – while everybody else is jacking around and listening to music and all that stuff (nothing wrong with that), Ben is sitting there with Harvey. What was Harvey’s first book? Was it The ABCs of Baseball? Or was that his second one?
Cain: The first one was, I think, The Mental Game of Baseball.
Rooney: The Mental Game of Baseball.
Rooney: Yeah, so that’s what book he had. I’m telling you, Cainer, you would have been so proud of Ben. He had this book dog-eared, highlighter ink all over. He had just torn this book up. I think when I look at those guys, I would tell you the one common denominator in all these guys is that confidence, that conviction, and that determination that they’re not going to be denied. Some of them were just born with some of those qualities and then had to just get better at it. And others not so much at all – really struggled with confidence and had to learn those things and had to get focused on those things. I really do think that one of the keys to being successful at a high level is you’ve got to really learn yourself and you’ve got to put a mental game together that helps you get the best out of yourself.
Cain: I think that whole concept of learning yourself first and working at yourself as much as you work at your craft is such an important piece. Everybody wants to go work on their swing, they want to work on their arm strength, they want to work on their body; but they don’t necessarily want to go work on their core, their core values, their principles, who they are. I know you guys can probably hear my dogs in the background. This is real time, big time. We’re going to let them go.
Cain: Roones, what are some of the things that you do to help yourself? You’re on the road a ton travellng with your sales gig and with ESPN. What are some of the things you do to help work on yourself?
Rooney: I think my two go-to’s are first of all having just stuff sent to me, whether it’s Bible passages or your Monday Message. Anything that I can get, to try and get – every once in a while I try to sneak and get Clint Hurdle’s e-mail that he sends to his people. I’ve got a few people that he sends that to that every once in a while I can kind of contrive those guys to send that to me. I want to surround myself with those influences. The other two things that really work – well, the other thing I would say is physical. I’m a big believer that physical fitness helps the mental game so I always feel like when I’m working out I’m just clear mentally.
The other thing for me is reading and talking to people that I respect. That’s the benefit of working in college baseball. I do have the opportunity to talk to coaches a lot. I just find that so fulfilling. My wife laughs at me when I get off the phone with coaches. She says, “Hey, you’re kind of hovering right now; do you think maybe we could come back down to earth?” So I get such a lift out of that. Then reading. I love to read. I’m one of the only mid-40s guys I know with an active library card. I just can’t buy every book anymore because my wife and I will have to get a 26,000 sq ft home. But those are my go-to’s. It takes a little discipline because we’re all in the same boat. It is hard to find the time to do those things so you really have to make it in there.
Cain: Roones, our next question for you here is, you talked about kind of the personal development and the reading and the Monday Message. What are some of the books that you read that you think would have the biggest impact on our coaches that are listening to this? You mentioned Harvey Dorfman’s The Mental Game of Baseball. You’ve mentioned The ABC’s of Pitching. He’s got The Mental Keys of Hitting. You’ve mentioned Ken Ravizza and Heads-Up Baseball. What are some of the other books that you’ve found that have really had a big impact on you and your mindset and your life?
Rooney: Well, I’ll tell you another author that has been a go-to for me is John Maxwell. He’s got unbelievable books on leadership. I think the one – I’ve read so many of them I always get the titles jumbled. But the one that I think had the biggest impact on me that I read as a coach was Your Road Map to Success. I could have that jumbled up a little bit but I’ve always – the thing I like about John Maxwell is his books are not all theoretical. He’s really good about putting live examples in there. He might say, “Here’s a leadership quality” and then you see a passage about Abraham Lincoln (for instance) doing that. So authors like that. I’ll try any author like that once. I would say he has been a pretty clear-cut best of the best for me.
My other thing is biographies. I love to read biographies. I will read a biography on any coach, any leader. I just love that stuff. Those are really the things that I love the most, is just those nonfiction, storytelling type of books where you kind of see how people go through the lows, how they come up to the highs. Again, I can’t get enough of those types of books.
Cain: That’s awesome. I’m a huge John Maxwell fan. My favorite Maxwell book is The Maxwell Daily Reader. It’s a short, maybe 2-minutes-a-day/1-page-a-day book. I’m actually going to drop you a copy of that here, Roones, for being a guest on our podcast. Thank you for being with us. My last question for you is, through your tremendous journey through the game of baseball from coaching and being with ESPN, what is it you know now you wish you knew when you were just getting started?
Rooney: You know, what I wish I knew now is that I wish I had known just – I wish I had known that the adversity you’re going to face in that journey is beyond what you think you’re going to face and you’ve just got to hang in there. I feel like that would be the one thing I would – again, I was lucky to have so many great people around me (my wife, my family) that helped me through those times (my mentors). But man, as a young coach, you take it so personally and I was as guilty of that as anybody. But I think, like a lot of us, I learned it the hard way.
But I wish I just could have – when you face that adversity or like, for me, my dream was to be a Division 1 head coach. Another job is filled and they won’t even interview you. Just those types of things. I wish I had done a better job of having the voice in my head that says, You’re cool, man – just keep pumping the pump, keep doing your thing, it’s going to be fine. It’s not going to be fine; it’s going to be awesome. It’s going to be great. There is a great journey out there for you. It’s a great plan. I think that would have allowed me to – I had a blast but I would have had even more fun in all the great things that were happening.
That’s the one thing I think about is, there are massive triumphs that are coming for everyone that is in this but there is massive discouragements that are coming, and if you’re not ready for them, they can really get you off kilter. So that would be the thing. I wish I had done a little better job being prepared for those discouragements.
Cain: As one of our former guests and the guy who you probably remember as a three-time All-American at Wichita State, Zach Sorensen – one of the things that Zach talked about is, he said, “You’ve got to make adversity your advantage.” I think that’s something you’re saying as well, is the harder it gets the better you are. As Navy SEALs say, “If it doesn’t suck, we don’t do it.” The more adversity you can face, I think the more learning opportunity it is. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head here. It was a lot of great things for the coaches and athletes that are going to be listening to this. Roones, thanks again for taking the time.
For people that want to follow up with you, whether it’s having you come speak to their team or speaking at a coaches clinic, is there a social media or a website or any way that people can get in contact with you?
Rooney: Yes. Twitter is the best place to get me. LinkedIn too. But Twitter, I’m just @Mike_Rooney. You can find me there. That’s the best place to get me.
Cain: Awesome. Roones, thanks again for making time to be on the podcast. I appreciate you so much.
Rooney: My pleasure, Cainer. Thanks, man.
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