Some athletes with a fear of flying are leaning on greater resources than their predecessors

Aug 14, 2023, 7:04 PM

FILE - San Francisco Giants' Joc Pederson watches his two-run home run during the first inning of a...

FILE - San Francisco Giants' Joc Pederson watches his two-run home run during the first inning of a baseball game against the New York Mets in San Francisco, Wednesday, May 25, 2022. Pederson is scared to fly and shortly after arriving in San Francisco he began working with the club's director of mental health and wellness Shana Alexander and human performance specialist Harvey Martin to cope with his flight anxiety. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)

(AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)

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.”

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.


AP MLB: https://apnews.com/hub/mlb

United States News

Associated Press

1 killed, multiple people hurt as bus carrying children crashes on New York highway

WAWAYANDA, N.Y. (AP) — A charter bus carrying schoolchildren crashed on a New York highway and went down an embankment Thursday, killing one person and hurting multiple other people, police said. The wreck happened on Interstate 84 in the town of Wawayanda, about 45 miles northwest of New York City, state police said. The bus […]

26 minutes ago

Associated Press

Former US Sen. Dick Clark, an Iowa Democrat known for helping Vietnam War refugees, has died at 95

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Former U.S. Sen. Dick Clark, a Democrat who unexpectedly won a single term representing Iowa in the 1970s after campaigning by walking around the state, and who later played a key role in aiding refugees after the Vietnam War, has died. He was 95. Clark died Wednesday at his home […]

53 minutes ago

FILE - A road cuts through a flooded area south of Perry, Fla., following the passage of Hurricane ...

Associated Press

Florida agriculture losses between $78M and $371M from Hurricane Idalia, preliminary estimate says

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — Florida agriculture losses from Hurricane Idalia are estimated at between $78 million and $371 million, with producers also suffering widespread damage to such infrastructure as irrigation rigs and fences, according to a preliminary report Thursday from the University of Florida. The Category 3 hurricane came ashore Aug. 30 along Florida’s […]

2 hours ago

Associated Press

Senate confirms new army chief as one senator’s objection holds up other military nominations

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate is confirming three of the Pentagon’s top leaders, filling the posts after monthslong delays and as a Republican senator is still holding up hundreds of other nominations and promotions for military officers. Gen. Randy George was confirmed as Army Chief of Staff on Thursday, and Gen. Eric Smith is expected […]

2 hours ago

Associated Press

Biden says Norfolk Southern must be held accountable for Ohio derailment but won’t declare disaster

President Joe Biden ordered federal agencies to continue holding Norfolk Southern accountable for its February derailment in eastern Ohio and appoint a FEMA official to oversee East Palestine’s recovery, but he still stopped short of declaring a disaster. Biden issued the executive order Wednesday evening. Part of the order essentially directed the environmental, health and […]

2 hours ago

Associated Press

Philadelphia Sheriff’s Office can’t account for nearly 200 guns, city comptroller finds

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — The Philadelphia Sheriff’s Office can’t account for 185 missing guns, according to a report released this week by the city controller’s office. Some of the missing guns were part of the sheriff’s office’s arsenal and others were confiscated from people subject to protection-from-abuse orders. Acting City Controller Charles Edacheril said his office […]

2 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

Home moving relocation in Arizona 2023...

BMS Moving

Tips for making your move in Arizona easier

If you're moving to a new home in Arizona, use this to-do list to alleviate some stress and ensure a smoother transition to your new home.

Sanderson Ford...

Sanderson Ford

Sanderson Ford congratulates D-backs’ on drive to great first half of 2023

The Arizona Diamondbacks just completed a red-hot first half of the major league season, and Sanderson Ford wants to send its congratulations to the ballclub.



At Ability360, every day is Independence Day

With 100 different programs and services, more than 1,500 non-medically based home care staff, a world-renowned Sports & Fitness Center and over 15,000 people with disabilities served annually, across all ages and demographics, Ability360 is a nationwide leader in the disability community.

Some athletes with a fear of flying are leaning on greater resources than their predecessors