Athletes with a fear of flying leaning on greater resources

Published 7:43 pm Tuesday, August 15, 2023

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — San Francisco Giants star Joc Pederson is scared to fly. Outfielder Seth Brown of the Oakland Athletics, too.

They are hardly the only ones. Longtime manager Dusty Baker would bet that anxiety in the air has shortened more than a few careers. He recalls watching terrified teammates and coaches cling tightly to photos of their loved ones during bumpy flights.

“There’s no helping them,” Baker said. “A lot of times they have a couple drinks more than they should on the plane. I’ve had guys I played with, they had like four or five kids, and the plane was having turbulence and they would start kissing their kids, like they were kissing them goodbye, like it was the last time they would see their kids.”

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In big-time sports, there’s no getting around regular flying. Major League Baseball players might crisscross the country several times in a single week. NBA and NHL teams frequently play on consecutive nights in different cities and time zones. Even 300-plus-pound football players have to be comfortable traveling from one coast to another. And then there are sports like golf and tennis, with professional tour events spanning several continents.

Hall of Fame football coach John Madden, who died in late 2021, is among the most famous for his trepidation with air travel. Debilitating claustrophobia prompted him to eventually begin taking his own bus around the country.

Netherlands soccer player Dennis Bergkamp was nicknamed “The Non-Flying Dutchman” for his anxiety, which he said stemmed from traveling on smaller planes while with Inter Milan in the 1990s. Former NBA power forward Royce White, a first-round pick by the Houston Rockets in 2012 out of Iowa State, fought crippling anxiety that became far worse when he flew and led to panic attacks — so he too regularly drove on his own whenever possible. Even Barry Bonds, who hit a record 762 home runs, told The Associated Press he has a fear of heights.

“We’re pointing to flying but what we’re really pointing at is the feelings of being out of control, the feelings that come with trusting, so it’s the fear that we’re pointing to,” said high performance psychologist Michael Gervais, who has worked with the Seattle Seahawks among other sports teams, Olympians and businesses.

Athletes find different ways of dealing with the stress at 35,000 feet.

All-Star pitcher Dan Haren used to visit the cockpit on team charters, hoping for some comfort when he became overwhelmed. Troy Murphy, a former forward with the Golden State Warriors, did the same.

“You empathize with them, because it’s tough,” said Mike Dunleavy Jr., Murphy’s former teammate and the Warriors new general manager.

Baker and Atlanta Braves manager Brian Snitker remember how teammates turned to alcohol to ease the nerves.

For many years with flying, players had to “get used to it,” insists Hall of Fame baseball star Rickey Henderson, who recalled what he described as crazy flights when he would try to “close my eyes and go to sleep.”

“I was in the minor leagues for a period of time and I rode buses for 14 hours,” Henderson said, “I definitely don’t want to do that.”

Even with heightened awareness around mental health, there is a greater prevalence of anxiety in society now than people might realize, according to Gervais. He is proud of those who speak up and take on the challenge to cope with it, a part of how they strive to reach peak performance in their sport — and appreciates teams being proactive rather than reactive.

“What’s great is that there is an attunement and there’s an awareness, more than there has been in the last 15 to 20 years about the importance of the psychological well being of people,” Gervais said. “It’s always had a seat at the table of high performance. Now that seat is not in the poorly lit end of the table, it’s moved up to kind of center court, because if you don’t have the ability to work with your mind, especially under pressure, all of the physical and technical skills are not able to be accessed.

“It’s an exciting time. Athletes are leading the way with their courage to point to the importance of it.”

These days, there certainly are more resources to help — and Pederson and Brown are grateful to have that support.

Pederson, a two-time All-Star, has had a career resurgence since joining the Giants for the 2022 season. Shortly after arriving in San Francisco, he began working with the club’s director of mental health and wellness, sport psychologist Shana Alexander, and human performance specialist Harvey Martin to cope with his flight anxiety.

Alexander and Martin have helped Pederson develop techniques and tools to get through a flight, such as meditation, visualization and calculated breath work.

Martin is a former minor league pitcher driven out of baseball by his own anxiety that included a fear of flying. He sat with Pederson on the plane for some flights last season, guiding him through relaxation breathing that has helped Pederson make major strides. They also regularly walk barefoot through the outfield before games to work on mindfulness.

Pederson said when he joined the Giants, he was immediately impressed with “the amount of energy, money, resources they put into mental health.”

Reducing anxiety off the field is one of Alexander’s methods to make it easier for someone to get through it, with meditation and visualization of a top performance key components.

“I think a lot more players struggle with it than come forward. I’m one of them,” the 31-year-old Pederson said. “I really don’t love flying and it’s been something I’ve dealt with my whole career. The first day I got in, they were open-handed trying to help, trying to make the best possible situation out of it, and last year was the best year I’ve had flying since.”

Brown, also 31, chose to conquer his struggles by reminding himself how fortunate he is to be part of a team at this stage of his life, knowing he will dearly miss it someday when he’s done. At his locker recently, he made a tight fist to demonstrate his frayed nerves when flying that made him “white-knuckled.”

“There are so many tools at our disposal these days with anything involving your mindset, anxieties, anything like that, stress,” said Brown, in his fifth big league season. “And it’s so awesome to have those tools to use at your disposal any time you need them.”

It’s not just baseball players opening up about that anxiety. English cricket player Mark Wood holds hands with teammate Chris Woakes in an effort to ease the discomfort on planes. Wood shared his fear of flying and wrote a self-help book.

Sometimes, exhaustion or fatigue can fuel anxiety.

Take the Giants’ first month of travel this season, for example: Arizona to San Francisco to New York to Chicago, home to San Francisco, to Detroit and Miami then home again before a trip to Mexico City.

“If you did that for vacation, you’d be tired,” Martin said.

Sometimes the fear can develop from one particular scary event.

Rangers manager Bruce Bochy still becomes nervous in the air on occasion. That began after he and late Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn nearly had an accident 28 years ago on the private plane of then-Padres owner John Moores when they hit a wind shear going into Colorado for Gwynn’s Branch Rickey Award ceremony.

“There’s times when you pucker up a little bit,” Bochy said.

Haren, now a pitching strategist for the Arizona Diamondbacks, decided to study up on aviation to ease his mind and gain a better understanding of the risks and everything that would have to go wrong for a catastrophic event.

“Through the course of the season you fly so much that there’s going to be times that we’re flying through rough air and a lot of times, too, I always would be scared because there was no choice but for us to fly somewhere,” he said. “We couldn’t just get delayed ’til the next day, so I always felt like sometimes we were pushing it to get to places.”

Baker reflected on Madden’s very public life moving around the U.S. by bus, and the Houston manager is happy there are more resources for athletes and staff these days.

“There are some people, for whatever reason, they don’t like to fly,” Baker said. “And it’s probably shortened some guys’ career. Maybe instead of making a comeback, they’re like, ‘OK, that’s enough.’ Especially if they’ve made enough money.”

Before the days of breathing sessions and meditation, Bonds had a simple trick when experiencing his fear of heights on planes.

“Just close the shade,” he said.

If only it were that easy for everybody.