San Francisco, CA
Number of Employees
Arts, Entertainment, and Recreation
San Francisco Giants: A Winning Approach to Mental Well-being
When the San Francisco Giants baseball team won the World Series last October, emotions were high among the players, their young celebrity pitching staff, the coaches, and their devoted fans. Originally playing in New York City’s polo fields in the 1880s, the Giants last won the World Series in 1954, led by famed Willie Mays. The team moved to California in 1958 and has persevered through the decades, finally bringing a trophy to its excited San Francisco fans.
Helping the team over the last ten years to manage the emotional ups and downs and the unique psychological challenges of professional sports has been a valued assignment for Michael Paolercio, the Giants’ employee assistance program (EAP) director. Paolercio described the World Series win as a “surreal, once-in-a-lifetime experience I hope all baseball fans get to experience sometime in their lives.” Paolercio hasn’t found the words to express the unknown but profound impact of how an event like winning the World Series can simultaneously be humbling and poignant. “My wife and I were allowed on the field in Texas to celebrate with the players after we won the final game and the Series,” Paolercio relates. “And a player who had never met my wife walked right by me, put my wife in a bear-hug and, pointing at me, told her, ‘I would not be here without him.’ All three of us started crying like babies. I have no pretense: in the big picture of baseball I am a nobody in the industry. But to be told you have had a small part in helping someone reach the pinnacle of their profession in such a high-pressure environment is a reward those “priceless” commercials would be proud of. To use a baseball term, I’m a ‘role player,’ and it’s a role I believe in and have a passion for. There are many, many such role players that make an achievement like this possible, the most unsung of which are our spouses. None of this could ever happen without their limitless support and tolerance.”
The Giants began their internal EAP in 2001 to help address the problems of their employees as well as issues specific to the sports industry. The EAP is available to the players, managers, coaches, front office staff, their families, and retired players. While there are 200-250 full-time-equivalent Giants employees in San Francisco, the number can rise to 2,500 or more when “day-of-game” employees arrive to help offer an entertaining and comfortable experience to fans. All employees and their families may access EAP services, but a strong emphasis is given to the organization’s six minor-league teams that are spread across the country. Additionally, EAP services are offered to players and staff located in other countries where the Giants maintain 300-500 employees in their player development programs. The services are promoted through the team’s intranet, via educational presentations at Spring Training and throughout the season, and by word-of-mouth.
Unique Needs of Players
Problems of front-office employees are similar to those in other general work populations. Players are a different story. In addition to concerns common to many employees (family, relationships, career, academics), players have some unique challenges, including performance issues, homesickness, drug testing, and supplement restrictions (because even normal vitamins can be laced with substances that produce positive drug test results). While major league players have the means and often prefer to hire their own private doctor to talk about problems, the EAP is more involved with the minor-league teams, where players are younger, emotional conflicts are more common, and incomes are lower. Minor-league players live outside the San Francisco area, in other parts of the U.S. and in other countries. Paolercio helps them solve their problems, frequently across many miles and across challenging cultural differences.
Ten years ago, the team’s goal was to change the dynamic and the stigma of accessing mental health information and intervention. For players, coaches, and managers in the minor leagues, Paolercio’s presence is familiar and he is frequently a valued resource. As older players and managers are replaced by younger ones who have advanced through the system, they retain a comfort level for Paolercio and his services. The dynamic has changed over time, as Paolercio and the team’s managers had hoped. “Familiarity is one way a ball player grants you credibility,” says Paolercio. “Being with them when they were in Timbuktu making $200/week helps when they come to San Francisco.” He achieves that familiarity by traveling through the entire minor-league system two or three times a year. These trips last 10-14 days, and Paolercio either goes to the teams’ hometowns or catches up with them on the road. If there is a crisis with a mental health or substance use component on the road, the team is able to draw Paolercio in and deal with the incident internally and confidentially, preserving the player’s privacy and helping the player to feel more comfortable with mental health assistance.
Minor leaguers are all “chasing the dream,” trying to make it to the major league team in San Francisco. It is hoped that they begin to identify Paolercio with that process and view him as a resource for obtaining their goal. Some younger players, who perhaps have grown accustomed to his “being around,” have shown openness and a proactive attitude about discussing personal issues that may be interfering with their on-field performance. For example, a player may come to Paolercio with difficulty managing anger. Maybe a manager or another player has said something to the player about the problems this difficulty is causing. Discussing the issue within the EAP can help defuse a pattern that might limit the player’s career progression, not to mention how it affects other areas of the player’s life. “I don’t kid myself,” says Paolercio. “The fact that my services are free is attractive to people who don’t make a lot of money, but there is also a generational difference in their openness and willingness to use me that was not there ten years ago.”
Players also approach Paolercio for information they can read or exercises they may try (such as visualization or guided imagery) to help them improve mental focus and concentration so that, when they take to the field, they are at the top of their game. Such exercises can be powerful for players as well as for the stressed-out organizational employees who work long hours with chaotic schedules to make sure the game makes it to the field.
Paolercio is extremely careful to respect the clearly demarcated line between the mental aspects of baseball and the mechanics of coaching. This, too, may be an important factor in gaining credibility with players, as well as with coaches and managers. Coaches and managers who are comfortable with an EAP professional’s ability to keep these issues separate may ask the EAP to work with a player on preparation, planning, routine, attitude, and work ethic issues, as well as mental health, substance abuse, relationship, legal, or financial issues — anything that may be detracting from the player’s ability to assimilate whatever a coach is trying to teach.
As the director of the only internal EAP in all of baseball (or, he believes, within any professional sports organization), Paolercio is grateful to have the daily exposure to employees, players, and staff for the informal conversations that he feels make his role most valuable. “The informal contacts outweigh the formal contacts ten to one,” says Paolercio. “I’m blessed to be surrounded by an extraordinary group of people: some seek me out, some tell me what’s going on, some describe the behaviors in question, some express their concerns, some ask if they can help, and most are very clear about what they want from me. I can very, very quickly get involved with an employee or player issue and begin trying to figure out what’s going on.” Paolercio feels that being embedded with the team rather than located in an offsite facility allows him to better understand the context of problematic situations and to be a normal part of the organizational culture.
Paolercio also manages the Giants’ work/life and wellness programs, offering occasional seminars, ongoing employee classes (such as yoga and massage), and skin cancer screenings to all players and staff. Online screening for depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and substance abuse is provided to employees and their families on the Giants own intranet through an arrangement with Screening for Mental Health. About 5% to 10% of the Giants’ employee population accesses the screenings and information yearly.
In addition, individual managers often request that Paolercio provide small group talks, trainings, or seminars on specific topics as needed by a particular set of players or employees. Again, he feels his close familiarity with the people and the environment affords him a clear advantage over external programs. While Paolercio has been located in the organization’s medical department since the introduction of the program, he feels he has exemplary access to and relationships with the company’s Human Resources department, which only helps in enhancing the credibility and privacy of the service. Confidentiality is a critical issue to both departments and to Paolercio himself. “Respecting players’ privacy is always a sensitive issue for players who are in the public eye,” he says. “It’s really necessary for gaining their trust.”
As in many workplaces, the EAP service is often highly valuable when interpersonal problems arise between employees and supervisors or players and managers. Paolercio credits a comfort level and relationship development process built over time and strong Human Resources staff in his organization for effectiveness in this area. In instances where work performance or interpersonal difficulties might complicate a return to work following an injury or disability episode, for example, Paolercio works collaboratively with Human Resources staff, the employee, and/or the manager to sort out and problem-solve the work environment and organizational issues and to offer reasonable accommodations where appropriate. As with the clear demarcation of player performance coaching versus mental health coaching, Paolercio suggests that a clear delineation of responsibilities between Human Resources and the EAP, and an ability to overlap as needed, helps the team find the best possible resolution for the employee.
Looking to the Future
Over the ten years of its existence, the EAP program and its director have gained trust and credibility. The EAP has become a valued resource to players, managers, and other employees for responding to crises, learning about mental health and substance abuse issues, enhancing personal relationships, and resolving interpersonal conflicts at work. While refusing to take any credit for the World Series win this year, Paolercio suggests the culture of the team may have been a factor
“We were called many things this year, ‘The Lovable Goofballs,’ ‘The Team Without A Super Star,’ etc., but those two names would be correct and to the point. We have had super stars in the past, but for 56 years, we’ve had no success like we experienced last year. The ‘Goofballs’ created a chemistry with, a trust in, and a reliance upon each other that is very rare and that you cannot expect to see very often in an environment like ours.”
I used the term ‘role player‘ earlier in our discussion. In many respects, all of our players were role players and accepted that for the overall sake of the team. They picked each other up emotionally as well as physically, held each other accountable, with humor or confrontation, whatever was needed at the time. They ‘believed,’ they ‘knew,’ they were going to be successful more often than not if they had each others’ backs. They forged individual relationships with each other over the course of the season, and then by meshing those relationships with their concept of being a team and insisting no one or two personalities were more important than the group coming together as a team, they created the resiliency that allowed them to bounce back from the bad times and persevere in the good times without ever losing sight of their goal.”
About the San Francisco Giants
The San Francisco Giants, who play in the National League West Division of major league baseball, are one of the oldest teams in the history of baseball. Their Mission Statement: “The Giants represent innovation, professionalism, and excellence on and off the field. We are dedicated to serving our customers, providing a high quality entertainment experience and enhancing our value as a community asset.”
Nancy Spangler, PhD, OTR/L, president of Spangler Associates, Inc., and consultant to the Partnership for Workplace Mental Health, is a prevention and health management specialist in the Kansas City, Missouri area.
Last Updated: April 2011
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