Candor about anxiety is therapeutic for White Sox’ Kopech

SHARE Candor about anxiety is therapeutic for White Sox’ Kopech

Michael Kopech holds a baseball inadvertently revealing the scar he had from Tommy John surgery. Camelback Ranch, Glendale, AZ. 02-13-2019. (John Antonoff/For the Sun-Times)

GLENDALE, Ariz. — The worst part about recovering from Tommy John surgery for anyone, especially for White Sox pitching prospect Michael Kopech, is the downtime.

The waiting is the hardest part, and Kopech, who will miss the entire season, will have to manage his emotions, stress and whatever anxiety he’ll encounter through the rehabilitation process.

Making things even more agonizing for Kopech, perhaps, is that five months removed from having the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow repaired, it feels to him as though he could go out and retire Mike Trout this afternoon.

‘‘I feel like, if I needed to, I could go out and throw every day,’’ said Kopech, who is limited to playing catch periodically. ‘‘That’s not in the program, obviously, and I have to be patient. But physically I feel good, and mentally I’m in a pretty stable spot right now.’’

The mental part is key for Kopech, a 22-year-old with talent, good looks and a love for hard work out but also an ongoing battle with anxiety and occasional depression.

Seemingly ‘‘having it all’’ in the view of fans — and knowing that fans view him that way — adds to it, Kopech said.

‘‘We all are living our dreams, but we’re scrutinized under a microscope, so we’re almost afraid to do or say the wrong thing,’’ Kopech said. ‘‘But we’re here for a reason: to do our job at an elite level. The more we can embrace that, the easier it is. But it’s a difficult balance. That is the battle internally.’’

Going through the long recovery of Tommy John surgery can be another battle — and a depressing one — teammate Lucas Giolito, who went through it, told him.

The anxiety problem is something Kopech came to grips with last summer at Class AAA Charlotte — before his much-anticipated debut with the Sox.


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‘‘A lot of people deal with it more than we realize,’’ Kopech said. ‘‘For me, being in the spotlight a little early on, it really got to me, and I tried not to show it. The more I tried to keep it internal, the more it affected me on the field.’’

By being open about it, Kopech said it became easier to deal with. Plus, he thought others dealing with the same thing could benefit.

‘‘It put me in a position where I don’t have to be so anxious anymore,’’ he said.

At Charlotte, Kopech went through a stretch where he couldn’t throw strikes. He walked eight in one three-inning outing.

‘‘That was 100 percent mental,’’ he said. ‘‘Physically, I was fine. I pitched when I wasn’t being watched. When people were around, I tensed up and my body had no idea what was going on.

‘‘The thing about baseball that separates it from other sports is the focus, mental capacity and strength it takes to be out there and perform and stay focused.’’

Talking with team psychologist Jeff Fishbein has helped Kopech, who also has been an advocate of meditation, get a grip on what’s happening in his brain.

‘‘It’s not uncommon,’’ Fishbein said of players who deal with anxiety. ‘‘In baseball, in particular. There’s a lot of vulnerabilities out there. There’s a lot of pressure, whether it’s self-imposed or not. As a result, players internalize it, and that’s where anxiety comes from.

‘‘They say baseball is 90 percent mental. What the 90 percent really is is the time you’re not performing. It’s the time between pitches, between starts, between innings and where does your mind go. The guys who manage that better are the ones who more effectively perform.’’

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