Ontario Blue Jays preparing players physically and mentally for college (and beyond)

 Jaden Brown - seen here at the 2016 Tournament 12 in Toronto - credits the Ontario Blue Jays program for boosting his mental toughness. (photo: Tyler King/Canadian Baseball Network)

Jaden Brown - seen here at the 2016 Tournament 12 in Toronto - credits the Ontario Blue Jays program for boosting his mental toughness. (photo: Tyler King/Canadian Baseball Network)

By Tyler King

Canadian Baseball Network

***

If you get the chance to watch an Ontario Blue Jays practice you may find yourself wondering:

Are these kids really in high-school?

Not only are they obviously physically gifted - the constant cries of “hey, get that ball!” after yet another one is hit over the fence during an outdoor BP session is a salient testament.

But beyond that, what makes even the 16-U OBJ players seem mature beyond their years is the seriousness and professionalism that surrounds even the most casual of team meetings.

In other words, it is their mental toughness that seems to distinguish them from, say, other ordinary high-schoolers.

Indeed, spend any length of time around the program and it becomes clear ... Baseball is not treated as a hobby for those involved with the Ontario Blue Jays.

Rather, it’s more like a profession.

***

Last month I had the opportunity to observe the final practice before the OBJ’s 16-U team - coached by Director of Player Development Sean Travers - was set to travel to Connecticut to compete in the Mickey Mantle World Series (a tournament they won in 2013).

It was supposed to be a casual practice, some light hitting and fielding; rain was also in the forecast, a fact that a quick glance at the ominous clouds above immediately confirmed.

Despite this, it would have been hard not to notice just how serious the players took their craft, even when in this slightly more relaxed environment.

Taking BP upon my arrival was Rashad Collymore - an 18-year-old recent OBJ graduate who came out to the 16-U practice to get some extra work in before he begins his college baseball career at Indian River College in South Florida, where he will be attending in the fall.

Out at shortstop was 16-U team member Jaden Brown, shagging balls like a kid possessed despite having one of the busiest end-of-summer schedules possible for a Canadian amateur. In August he will be participating in the PG Underclass All American Games in San Diego, California, as well as the Program 15 Future Stars Series in Houston, Texas. He then returns to Toronto for his second consecutive Tournament 12 Showcase, taking place at the Rogers Centre in September.

In the outfield was Ciaran O’Dowd, a more recent OBJ transplant from High Park who made the team as a walk-on after trying out last year. He told me he had to take three buses, the subway, and a streetcar to get to practice - a public transit excursion he makes nearly five times a week during his summer holidays just to take advantage of his unlimited access to the Athlete Matrix, the 55,000 square foot indoor training facility the OBJs call home.

Although this level of commitment may astonish and impress the average outsider, these three players know better than to expect any praise or coddling from the OBJ coaching staff. 

As Travers himself constantly professes, if you want to be great then this level of dedication should be the expectation, not the exception.

“What I can’t stand is underachieving,” Travers told me as we observed the practice from the third base dugout. “I can’t stand the kids that have all the talent and they’re not doing everything they can to be good. Take Jaden [Brown]. He’s here six times a week. If you tell him to run through a wall he’s going to do it. I mean, has it all clicked for him yet? No. But the process is there.”

There’s no doubt that the demands of the Ontario Blue Jays program are not for everyone. But Travers thinks that this tough, (dare I say it) “old-school” philosophy is a big part of why they have the most current and former MLB First-Year draft picks of all Canadian amateur programs.

“In this program, especially when they’re dealing with me, the more talented players are the ones that I’m harder on,” Travers admitted. “So I’m sure sometimes Jaden gets a little frustrated. He even said it earlier in the year, ‘Nothing ever seems to be good enough for Sean.’”

That may seem harsh, but when players have that much potential Travers believes there’s really only one true measure of success.

“My response to him was, ‘It’ll be good enough for me when you’re in the big leagues.’”

This hard-nosed attitude is not merely the result of Travers’ personality (although there is an undeniable intensity about how he approaches the game). Rather it’s implemented with a specific purpose. 

In order to be successful in college and beyond, Travers believes that players need to possess a high-degree of mental toughness - a trait that he feels may be slowly eroding in the ‘participation ribbon’-clad millennial generations.

But Travers is not the only one who stands by his approach. His own players provided more than enough testimonials, as they too stressed the importance of developing the mental toughness required to excel in their sport.

“It’s not just baseball you’re focusing on [at the OBJs],” Rashad Collymore told me after he was done his BP session. “If you’re weak mentally, your talent can only take you so far.”

Collymore has been with the program since he was 13-years-old and, as a result, he’s learned to see the constructive criticism and tougher moments as learning opportunities, rather than taking them personally. He claims this approach has made him a more mentally strong player and person, and has improved his overall game.

“If you’re going into a [college] program and you’re soft and you’ve never experienced a coach being hard on you, or if you’re just having a hard time, then you’re not going to know how to deal with it. Being exposed to that at a young age you learn how to deal with it and how it can actually push you to work and try harder.”

As I conversed with Collymore in the shelter of the dugout, the predicted torrential rains finally arrived, effectively canceling practice for the day. I say “effectively” because I then sat and watched as many players left the field only to hop in parents’, coaches’, or friend’s cars not to go home, but to head to the OBJ’s indoor facility to continue training, with absolutely no prompting or incentives from Travers or others.

By the time I got to the Athlete Matrix (formerly known as The Clubhouse), Jaden Brown and Ciaran O’Dowd were already in one of the cages hitting. Three coaches sat just beyond the cage watching, and of course barking out little pieces of instruction whenever they felt it necessary. Even in this informal setting, if Brown relaxed or lost focus for a single swing, they let him know about it.

Echoing Travers’ earlier sentiments, Brown later told me that he has full faith in the coaching staff and their philosophy surrounding mental toughness. More importantly, he knows that it is all done because they have his best interests at heart.

“I see it as the OBJs have the best program and they want their players to perform to their best potential,” Brown said. “I feel that it’s not a bad thing. I feel it’s a good thing because if you want to be good then you have to play at a high level and perform to whatever they ask. They’re the ones guiding you and they’re going to make you great.”

With a wry smile, Brown then added, “College coaches are going to be way harder than Sean [Travers] or any of these guys, so they’re just trying to prepare us for the future.”

Along with all the physical, baseball-specific training, Brown says the OBJs have even begun promoting specific mental exercises to boost toughness. In particular, he mentioned he is part of something known as the “6-4 Club” - a middle-infield-specific program started by Sean Travers (http://www.sixfourclub.com). 

On the program’s website, Travers regularly posts articles and drills directed specifically at shortstops and second basemen. As any infielder will attest, these positions require intense focus and mental strength, hence why much of this program deals with cognitive exercises, including things like meditation (the most recent article is titled “What Do You Mean Focus?”)

Although he’s not an infielder, O’Dowd also credits the OBJs for helping him strengthen the mental side of his game, which in turn has had a greater effect than simply improving his on-field performance.

“When I first got here I think I was a little bit soft,” O’Dowd said, “so things got to me easily. But I realize getting all that feedback has made me a better person.”

Not being able to deal with mistakes and criticism is devastating for any athlete (or non-athlete for that matter), but it’s particularly detrimental for those playing competitive baseball - a stop-and-start team sport where individual errors are not only glaringly obvious, they’re incredibly costly.

“Now I can take [criticism] better,” O’Dowd continued. “I don’t take it in the wrong way like, ‘Why are they yelling at me?’ I take it like ‘Oh, OK, now I need to get better and work on this.’”

Even Travers admitted to me that the change in O’Dowd’s demeanor - and, as a corollary, his game - has improved drastically in recent months. But that does not mean O’Dowd’s education in mental fortitude is over. To the contrary ...

The more a player improves in the program, the more coaches like Travers will tend to demand of them.

“What I think is, you never put something on a kid that he’s not ready to handle,” Travers said. “Nothing frustrates me more than when I see a coach yelling at someone for something they can’t do. They can’t do it, so why are you yelling at them?”

In this way, having a coach call you out is almost considered a sign of respect to Travers. It means they believe in you and your potential, and that they want to see that potential realized.

“Sean [Travers] says, ‘This is how college coaches talk to you,” O’Dowd also mentioned. 

“So he’s preparing us for that.”

And in that way it’s hard to see it as anything other than a compliment.

***