How MLB Pro Ian Happ Optimizes His Mind & Body For Peak Performance

One of my favorite phrases is “be where your feet are” — if you just repeat that to yourself — I’m going to be where my feet are and I’m going to experience this moment right now, it puts you in a state of mind that is more focused on the present and that’s what we’re always striving for.

As a part of our series about “How Athletes Optimize Their Mind & Body For Peak Performance”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ian Happ.

In just his first few seasons with the Chicago Cubs, Ian Happ is already breaking team records and making league history. He established himself as one of baseball’s breakout stars when he hit a home run during his first at-bat of his major league debut. His momentum only continued when he homered on the first pitch of the 2018 season, making him the second player in MLB history to hit a home run off the first pitch of the season. Fueled by the memory of his dad, who passed away from brain cancer in October of 2016, Happ is a workhouse determined to making his MLB dreams come true. When he is not practicing his swing at the plate, he is on the green perfecting his drive and following the legacy of his dad who was an agronomist for the USGA. With a contagious personality, Happ is known for his energy and enthusiasm on the field and in the clubhouse.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! It is a great honor. Our readers would love to learn more about your personal background. Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?

I grew up in Pittsburgh, PA in a nice little community, where there were no busses for the schools — it was walking only — and it was a tightknit community. I had two parents who were both working full-time, so I’m very lucky for their dedication to baseball and my career.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career as a high level professional athlete? We’d love to hear the story.

I think there are a lot of people who have influenced my career. The first person, as far as high-level professional athlete, I think the first person and largest influence was my brother — he’s six years older than me and I spent a lot of my childhood chasing him around, watching his baseball games and there was nothing more exciting for me than going to one of the games and sitting in the dugout with the team — keeping the book, the scorebook, being bat-boy. I would memorize who used what glove and what bat, so I could run it on the field and give to him when the inning was over. That was like the ultimate thrill for me as a kid, so that’s where my love for the game was born and watching his work ethic through high school and watching him get to play division-1 college baseball taught me a lot and kind of inspired me at a young age to dedicate myself to baseball and see how far I could take it

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?

Yea, I’d say there were two people that did. My dad being number one. Just because he was there for me every single day. He would hit me ground balls and throw to me whenever I needed it or wanted it — and he loved it. He never once complained. He loved it. That was what made me happy. And he was a part of that. And also, he was my biggest cheerleader. I can’t remember one time in my entire career — growing up, college, whatever, that he got on me for not playing well. he was always lifting me up, encouraging me and when I would get down on myself, he was the one that would bring me back up, so that was a huge part of me. The second person I think was my high school coach. Patt McCloskey. He would eat, sleep, breathe baseball. And he took me under his wing as soon as I got to high school as a freshman. So, we worked together every single day. He was there every morning in the summer. Threw BP every day, fly balls, ground balls, whatever I needed. And he never took a day off. I think having someone who that was dedicated who pushed me to be better every single day for four years — that changed my life. He made me the best player I could possibly be when I left high school and for that I’ll always be grateful.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your sports career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

I think that the funniest one was in Double A. I was playing a game and I was playing right field and I kind of got close to the wall — jumped up to try to make a catch and it hit off my glove and went over the fence for a homerun — kind of Jose Canseco style. Super embarrassing, but pretty funny and what I took away from that is — stuff like that happens — you make mistakes, but no one cares as much as you think they care. When you come back in the dugout you think everybody’s going to be upset and you’re never going to get passed that moment, and people don’t care as much as you think they do. It’s kind of a lesson to laugh at yourself and move on from those things.

What advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your career?

The advice that I always want to give to young people, especially young baseball players — is to have as much fun as you possibly can when you’re still in little league and playing for travel ball and high school because honestly it’s probably the most full you’re going to have playing baseball in your whole life. Stay in the moment with that. Be present and just really cherish those moments because once you get to college and once you start playing professionally, it becomes a job, and it’s just different. Have as much fun as you possibly can when you’re young.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

The most exciting project I’m working on right now is Quarantine Coffee for COVID relief. I partnered with Connect Roasters out of Illinois and we’re selling coffee, which is something I always wanted to do — is be involved in a coffee business because I absolutely love coffee. I love everything about it. And being able to help on the marketing side for me is a thrill. But the most exciting part is that $3 from every bag sold is going to COVID relief charities. We’re partnering with Feeding America and Save the Children. So that for me — to be partnering with these two charities that are doing such great work in the COVID relief space is super exciting.

OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. As an athlete, you often face high stakes situations that involve a lot of pressure. Most of us tend to wither in the face of such pressure and stress. Can you share with our readers 3 or 4 strategies that you use to optimize your mind for peak performance before high pressure, high stress situations?

Right before high-stress, high-pressure situations, breathing is number one. Making sure that you’re in control of your breath — that’s something that I focus on a lot. So I have also a focal point on (I guess we could say this is number two) — I have a focal point that I focus on. So if I’m hitting, I look at one specific point on my bat every single time. And that combined with breathing — it gives me that routine, it give me that similarity, no matter what the situation is. And I think the third is visualization. Before the situation happens, visualizing what you’re going to do, what success looks like, and engraining that in your head over and over, and just giving yourself all of those positive uplifting thoughts — pushing out the negative that tends to want to seep in.

Do you use any special or particular breathing techniques to help optimize yourself?

Yea, I would say my specific breathing techniques are more slow long deep breaths — those are my go-to. I like to pick a point of focus when I do it — I like to look at something specific — and I think it’s important to do, for me, during the game at different points and do it consistently, but I think it’s important in everyday life. I do a lot of meditation — and so I do a lot of breathing through that and it gives me just kind of a base, so what to do once high-stress, high pressure situations come about.

Do you have a special technique to develop a strong focus, and clear away distractions?

I think the best thing for me when I’m looking to really focus in is visualizing what I want to do. I think seeing the moment before it happens, and trying to put a positive image in your head before you go do something — that’s the most powerful for me.

How about your body? Can you share a few strategies that you use to optimize your body for peak performance?

Yea, I think diet is probably the most important thing. As an athlete, I feel really good about my workouts and how specific they are for my body. I do some body postural therapies that I’ve put in the last couple of years to make sure everything we do with baseball — is a one-sided sport is fixed to get me back to center. But with my diet, I’ve recently become a pescatarian to see how my body would feel, and my energy is way up and I feel great, so that’s one of the more recent things that I’ve tried to find peak performance.

These ideas are excellent, but for most of us in order for them to become integrated into our lives and really put them to use, we have to turn them into habits and make them become ‘second nature’. Has this been true in your life? How have habits played a role in your success?

Yea, I think there’s two really big ones for me. The first one is mediation — so it’s not as easy as it should be to sit down for 5 or 10 minutes per day — it’s not easy to carve that time out. So, forcing myself to do that and getting myself in the right habit be able to do it every single day was definitely a challenge and changed the way my mind worked. And the other thing is positive self-talk. From a young age I was not very good at positive self-talk and it didn’t affect me because I was good enough with my talent, that the self-talk wouldn’t bring me down. But as I got older, as I kept advancing levels, that positive self-talk was something that I really needed to work on and get better at, and I’m still working on it, but over the years — I’m really diligent and making sure I’m talking to myself in a positive and uplifting way.

Can you share some of the strategies you have used to turn the ideas above into habits? What is the best way to develop great habits for optimal performance? How can one stop bad habits?

One of the strategies that I use is reminders on your phone. Something that’s always there, so that you are setting a schedule. I think if I put it on paper and have a schedule, it’s easier for me to follow through with. I think the best way to have great habits is writing them down every day and making sure that you hold yourself accountable. If I write it down every day and I have to look at that — whether it’s on your phone or piece of paper — and say “oh I didn’t do that today” for me that’s the best way to hold myself accountable

As a high performance athlete, you likely experience times when things are in a state of Flow. Flow has been described as a pleasurable mental state that occurs when you do something that you are skilled at, that is challenging, and that is meaningful. Can you share some ideas from your experience about how we can achieve a mind state of Flow more often in our lives?

I think doing things that you’re good at and challenging yourself to be better. Personally, I get to go after a state of flow every night for work. Not everybody is that fortunate. This is something I do in the off-season. I have to find activities that I can improve my skill and challenge myself — because if I don’t I’ve found that it takes a mental toll on me if I don’t have that activity level because my body is addicted to it and wants it so bad. So, I think finding things that you’re skilled at that you enjoy doing and challenging yourself on a daily basis — trying to set goals and see how good you can get.

Do you have any meditation practices that you use to help you in your life? We’d love to hear about it.

I’ve been meditating for five years now. I started with the Headspace app. I still use Headspace quite a bit, and it’s a very important part of my day, and it’s a very important part of my life. Meditation doesn’t have to be for everyone sitting down and meditating — people have different forms of meditation, and finding your form of meditation is important for mental health in general.

Many of us are limited by our self talk, or by negative mind chatter, such as regrets, and feelings of inferiority. Do you have any suggestions about how to “change the channel” of our thoughts? What is the best way to change our thoughts?

One of the best strategies for me has been meditation — just sit back and see your thoughts and recognize them as that…just thoughts. in the moment, I think the most important thing I’ve learned is to constantly remind yourself to be in the moment — constantly remind yourself that the thoughts that you’re having are just your mind trying to play tricks on you, and that if you stay in the moment. One of my favorite phrases is “be where your feet are” — if you just repeat that to yourself — I’m going to be where my feet are and I’m going to experience this moment right now, it puts you in a state of mind that is more focused on the present and that’s what we’re always striving for.

Ok, we are nearly done. You are by all accounts a very successful person. How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

A couple of things that I’m really proud of — I started that Happy Family Charitable Fund which is an organization my family started to talk about mental health and awareness to support mental health organizations, and to get kids active. I’m really proud of that. I’m very proud of Quarantine Coffee and the efforts we’re making for COVID relief. I’m really proud of the work we’ve done all over the country and specifically in Chicago because I think supporting the community that supports me every day is something that my family and I are super passionate about.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?

“Being smart begins with listening” which I thought was incredible because he was such a good listener and there’s so many people in the world that know more about different topics, and so listening to people and learning is really where intelligence comes from.

“Learn from the moment, life is about making adjustments” — that as a lesson for life and also a lesson for baseball is really powerful just because the more that you can take in moments — whether they are good or bad — and constantly have a mindset of learning from them. I think that’s how you better yourself every day. Hopefully after the end of a year or five years, or ten years, you’re a better person than you were when you started.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂

I would love to play golf with Steph Curry. I think that would be a wonderful time. We’re both Under Armour guys, we both love golf, so I would love to get a round in with Steph.

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