Royals target mental health with history-making hire

March 26th, 2023

MESA, Ariz. -- Peek into the Royals dugout this season, and you’ll see several new faces on the coaching staff. But the manager, bench coach and new pitching coaches are not the only changes you’ll see.

You’ll also be witnessing history.

Melissa Lambert, the Royals’ director of behavioral science, will be the first person in her role to have a seat in the dugout in Kansas City's effort to increase mental health resources for their players and staff. She will also be the first woman to be on the Major League on-field staff in Royals’ history.

While her spring has been busier than ever, she’s been able to reflect on what that will mean as Opening Day nears.

“I’ve gone into this thinking, ‘Work hard and earn the respect and trust,’” Lambert said. “That’s the goal. The more you get into it, you realize it’s not just about the here and now, but setting up for the next generation. The current college students coming in, the young girls who can look at this and say, ‘Well, I want to do that someday.’ How do we set the tone and create an environment for the next generation?”

Melissa Lambert takes her place within the Royals' dugout. (Photo via Jason Hanna, Kansas City Royals)

In 2018, Royals senior director of behavioral science Ryan Maid met Lambert at a Major League Baseball mental health conference. At the time, Lambert was working for the Dodgers as a mental skills coach. Maid was just beginning to build his department. When the time came to expand, Lambert was the perfect candidate.

Not only does Lambert have an athletic background as a soccer player at Eastern Connecticut State, but she’s a licensed professional counselor. Lambert earned her Master of Education in clinical mental health counseling from Springfield College in Massachusetts in 2009. Before baseball, she was a therapist who worked with student athletes, a youth sports coach and a consultant on child development and performance psychology. She is certified in therapeutic crisis intervention.

“Melissa has the training, background, experiences to meet players where they’re at based on their needs and wants,” Maid said. “When our players need services, whether that be on or off the field, she can provide that. There’s not a lot of people in baseball who can do that.”

Maid hired Lambert in 2020 as the assistant director of behavioral science, focusing mainly on the Minor Leagues. Several of the same players she worked with at the Royals’ affiliates are now in the big leagues with her.

“I’ll never be embarrassed to talk about mental health,” Royals pitcher said. “I’ve been an open book about it. It’s healthy. And I, for one, am glad to have her around.”

Melissa Lambert takes in a Royals Spring Training game. (Photo via Jason Hanna, Kansas City Royals)

First baseman added: “If you’re taking care of your mind, it’s going to trickle into how you process the game and how you come prepared to compete. Having those tools and skills are very useful. It amplifies what you do physically.”

Manager Matt Quatraro met Lambert at the Winter Meetings after the Royals hired him. During his interview process, he emphasized the importance of psychological resources for players and staff. At each stop in his coaching career, he learned how invaluable someone like Lambert can be for players who are often bombarded with external pressures during the season.

“You’ve heard me talk about letting the air out and taking some of the pressure off these guys,” Quatraro said. “Some guys just need somebody to talk to, and a lot of guys want to keep those things, whether it’s personal or performance-wise, away from their position coach because that’s a different relationship.

“Having someone that can be a good listener and have strategies for how to steer them is really important.”

Melissa Lambert walks the field with Royals manager Matt Quatraro. (Photo via Jason Hanna, Kansas City Royals)

Mental illnesses are among the most common health conditions in the United States, with more than 50% of the population diagnosed with a mental illness or disorder at some point in their lifetime, according to the Centers for Disease Control. One in five Americans will experience a mental illness in a given year.

Baseball players are not immune to this. Stressors are higher than ever in a high-profile, high-intensity atmosphere.

“We need to be better prepared to mitigate those risks, make sure those guys have what they need,” Lambert said. “Learning that this is going to be part of it, so let’s make sure we’re proactive, prepared to manage it and support our guys.”

Having Lambert embedded with the team is part of the Royals’ vision to grow their mental health resources, and it’s helped along by the coaching staff embracing it.

“If we’re going to talk about mind and body, how much time are we really focused on the mind?” Maid said. “We’re growing leaps and bounds, and Melissa being around the team is a step in that direction.”

Melissa Lambert navigates the Royals' dugout during a Spring Training game. (Photo via Jason Hanna, Kansas City Royals)

A typical day for Lambert includes meetings with coaches and staff, then catching as many on-field activities as possible, on the field for batting practice, in the dugout during games and around for conversations with players when they want or need it.

With more time around players, relationships and trust are easier to build, and the more players have sought out Lambert instead of the other way around.

“Sometimes it’s way more comfortable to have open conversations when you’re in the dugout and on the field rather than behind a closed door,” Lambert said. “The more I can be around their environment and day-to-day activities, the more comfortable they’re going to feel.”