When recent Master of Science in Psychology graduate Justin Lord left Florida State University, he was a six-foot-four-inch pitcher with a 90-plus mile-per-hour fastball. He had a nasty slider, a solid change-up—and dreams of making it in Major League Baseball.
Lord was signed by Kansas City Royals and later played in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization. However, he would be plagued by a variety of injuries to his elbow, knee and both shoulders. He underwent the most infamous of sports-related medical procedures—Tommy John surgery—not once, but twice. He had shown excellent promise, striking out 228 batters—while walking only 78—in 96 games, but the injuries ultimately ended his playing career in 2008 after eight years in professional baseball.
Lord’s love of professional baseball remained, however, and he knew he had more to give to the game. He became a pitching coach. He began his coaching career in independent ball, with his teams making the post-season four years straight. He was then signed by the Baltimore Orioles, and has served as the pitching coach for the team’s single-A team since October 2012.
In 2011, Lord enrolled in CalSouthern’s Master of Science in Psychology program to study sports psychology and expand his coaching skillset. CalSouthern spoke with the Alabama native to learn more about how he is applying his sports psychology knowledge to his coaching career and how he balanced the rigors of graduate school with the demands of professional baseball. He also shared his future plans, as well as a few tips for online learning success.
California Southern University: What was behind your decision to return to school to pursue your master’s? Were you always interested in sports psychology, or did that develop when you retired from playing to enter the coaching ranks?
Justin Lord: I was first exposed to sports psychology as an athlete in college. I was intrigued by it and learned a few principles that helped me through my college and professional careers. But it was when I became a coach that I seriously considered going back to school and studying it more formally. I knew that the degree would give me a foundation of expertise that would greatly enhance my ability to help my players reach their potential. In professional baseball, everyone has physical ability. It’s the mental side of the game that often distinguishes the elite players from the average ones.
Also, as a coach in professional baseball you are typically on a year-to-year contract. You always hope you’re going to have a job in coaching the following year, but you never know. A master’s degree would qualify me to coach at a division-one university, providing me with another career option.
CalSouthern: Professional baseball is a notorious grind. Were you concerned that you would not be able to find the time to study?
Lord: Heck yeah, I was! When you’re coaching, you’re at the ballpark from noon or 1:00 p.m. until midnight or later. And there’s so much time spent traveling, as well. Fortunately, I started my program in February, so I had a few months to get my feet wet before the season began to heat up.
CalSouthern: Once the season began, how were you able to balance the rigors of school and professional baseball?
Lord: When you don’t have much time, you need to be very organized and intentional about what time you have. I did most of my studying in the mornings, although I would also take advantage of the long bus rides and the evenings, if we made it to the hotel at a decent hour.
You mentioned “balance” and that was a key for me. I set a schedule and stuck to it. However, I would also make deals with myself on occasion. I would give myself the reward of a round of golf, for example, if I finished an assignment by a certain date. Giving yourself a break is helpful, as long as you make yourself earn that break.
Also, I should point out that while baseball can be a grind, I truly love my job. And because I love it, it really didn’t drain my motivation or energy to study. I am very fortunate in that regard.
CalSouthern: What would you say to those who assume that going to school online is an easy path to a degree?
Lord: It was very challenging—more difficult than I had expected. When I started, I realized very quickly that I needed to step up to the challenge and perform at the level I was expected to as a graduate student. I had to put lots of work into my assignments; it certainly was not something I could breeze through.
CalSouthern: In your experience, what are the most significant benefits and challenges associated with online learning at the graduate level?
Lord: The affordability and accessibility—it’s so easy to enroll and get started on your degree—were huge for me, along with the flexible, self-paced format. Without all this, I simply would not have been able to make it happen, at least at this stage in my life. But that flexibility brings with it a challenge: without a set classroom schedule, you need to be very organized, dedicated and disciplined to deal with the workload on your own time.
There also were times that it would have been nice to bounce a question off of a professor or fellow student face-to-face and receive an immediate answer. However, I’ve been more than satisfied with the support I’ve received from CalSouthern faculty and staff. There are faculty members that I know I will be able to reach out to in the future with a question or if I just want to run an idea past them. The curriculum was great; I know that some of the books and materials that I have studied will remain cornerstones of my professional library for my entire career.
CalSouthern: You were able to maintain a perfect grade-point average. Do you have any advice for fellow or prospective learners who would love to follow in your footsteps?
Lord: Don’t be in a rush or too focused on grades and results. Have a process that will set you up for success—and for less stress and fewer headaches.
CalSouthern: Looking back on your playing days with the sports psychology knowledge you now have, would you have changed your approach to the game in any way?
Lord: I tended to get into a hurry with my career. I was constantly worried that if I wasn’t steadily moving up through the minor league system, I was getting left behind. (I see a lot of this with my players now.) That led me to focus on immediate results and I would get anxious, frustrated and fearful after a bad outing or two.
Knowing what I know now, I would have focused less on the day to day and more on the development process. I would have taken the time between starts to work hard on the mental side—training my mind as hard as I trained my body—learning how to build confidence in the moment. It might sound like a cliché, but when you learn to focus solely on those things you can control, you’ll develop a better mindset that will improve your performance and your very outlook on the sport.
CalSouthern: What do you enjoy most about coaching?
Lord: I love having the daily opportunity to have a positive impact on someone’s life. And for me, it goes well beyond baseball. I want to help guys develop as men as well as ballplayers. I want to be the kind of coach that I wish I had played for.
There were things I needed in my playing career that I didn’t get. I alluded to some of them earlier. I needed a high-level understanding of the world of professional baseball, and I am sure my players—kids right out of high school or college—would benefit from the same. I work hard to give them that understanding, while teaching them skills—both physical and mental—that put them in the best frame of mind to fully develop their talents.
CalSouthern: What are some of your goals for the future?
Lord: I want to stay in professional baseball as long as I can. There may be a time when I will want to look at college baseball, but right now I want to stay on the professional side. There really isn’t anything I don’t enjoy about my job. Sure, the time away from home during the summer can be tough—that is the one drawback. But the flip side of that is during the off-season, I can be with my wife and daughter for four or five months straight. I can be involved in the little aspects of day-to-day life. I get to drop my daughter off at school and pick her up each day. Not many men get to do that.