Today’s interview takes a detour from the physical into the psychological component of sport. I went to school with Ray Santiago from age 5 to age 18. While Ray and I were merely acquaintances growing up, I have recently gotten to know him as an accomplished sport psychologist and friend. I am very excited to share a bit about his background, beliefs, and business. I believe that the lessons below are relevant to readers regardless of age, experience, ability, or sport of choice. Thanks for taking the time to answer my (many) questions, Ray!
Where do you hail from?
Born in Indio near Palm Springs, moved to upstate NY, then settled in Oxnard/Ventura area from 4-18 years old.
When and where did your athletic journey begin?
On Gorrion Ave in Ventura. I played street ball (football, baseball, wiffle ball, basketball, street hockey) with guys who were about 5 years older than me throughout my childhood. I started playing organized baseball at 12 when most start at 5. I made all-stars my first year and remained one of the best in the area for much of my career, thanks to learning toughness on the streets with older guys.
Explain your athletic progression throughout high school & college.
I played both basketball (freshman and sophomore years) and baseball in high school. I made the sophomore team as a freshman in basketball and worked my way into a starter role. In baseball – my freshman year I made the JV team and I played shortstop for the next 3 years at the Varsity level.
College – I earned a scholarship to Mississippi Valley State but got injured within the first two months and never got to show them what I had. I had surgery on my shoulder and moved home after one semester to rehab and play at the Junior College level. After Junior College I played at The College of Idaho for two years and finished my career there.
What were the biggest obstacles that you faced as an athlete?
My sophomore year in high school we had the best baseball team in Buena history at the time so it was awesome to taste that playoff environment. But the next 2 years we were pretty bad. I had never been on a losing team and felt the pressure to be “the guy” those two years. Junior year was great but senior year was quite disappointing both due to the mental pressure I put on myself to earn a D1 scholarship and to help the team win. I also don’t think I was as prepared physically as I could’ve been and that may have lead to my injuries.
In college at Mississippi Valley State I tore my labrum (shoulder) within two months. Before the injury, morning workouts started at 5am and it was like jumping right into military boot camp. That was the best shape of my life and tested me everyday. I didn’t have the money to buy athletic shoes so I wore regular shoes and I think that led to me tearing my hamstring. So, two months into my freshman experience I had torn my labrum (surgery) and hamstring. Not fun.
Before my injury, I never drank at college. I never felt peer pressured or the desire to drink because my focus was playing at the pro level. After I got injured and couldn’t play for a year I drank occasionally as a way to still feel part of the team. I don’t recommend it.
At The College of Idaho I definitely worked hard but never got better as the coaches there weren’t great at teaching. I also started partying more often and that definitely took a toll on my body and motivation.
The College of Idaho was the first time I ever had to fight for a position on the field. It was definitely tough to see guys play over me that I knew I was better than but due to seniority they played. I got my chance at 3rd base in our 5th game of the year (had never played there) after the regular third baseman began playing poorly. I made some great plays right away and got a few hits. I played the majority of the rest of the year. Senior year started at short, 3rd, and 2nd.
How have you navigated those obstacles and what have you learned from these experiences that have translated into other challenges in daily life?
Three obstacles I’ll address: Distractions, Injuries, Relationship with God
- Distractions: If you know what you want you’ve got to start at the end and build a game plan backwards of how you will get there. I never did that. Here are the things I ALLOWED to deter me from my desired end goal of playing professional baseball:
- Girls: From my senior year in high school until after my career I was off and on with a girl and it was one of the biggest emotional roller coasters of my life. It definitely took my mind off of baseball but not necessarily in a good way. I am thankful for the experience but learned that if, as an athlete, you are going to date – you’d better be able to give your significant other the time and attention they deserve. If you believe you cannot commit that kind of attention – wait until after your career. It’ll spare two hearts a lot of heartache.
- Partying/Self-defeating behaviors: In Mississippi I was so set on playing pro ball that nothing could deter me – except injuries. Then when I got to The College of Idaho I really got into the party scene (alcohol only) and it was fun but totally derailed me mentally and physically from making it to the pro level. I never regained the kind of commitment necessary to become elite.
- Not having a clear game plan: When it came to either the physical or mental side at the NAIA level – you were on your own. They didn’t have strength and conditioning coaches or Sport Psychology Consultants available. So, you either knew what you were doing or didn’t. I didn’t. It was no excuse but at the time I just didn’t know any better. At least that’s what I keep telling myself.
2. Dealing with Injury:
I had recurring hamstring issues at both the high school and college levels. They not only hampered me physically but mentally I never had that freedom of mind to sprint all out as I thought I was always a stride away from a pulled hamstring. I still can’t watch sprinters to this day. Hey, maybe I need a Sport Psychologist.
When I tore my labrum in Mississippi, it was the worst thing I’d ever experienced and I later realized it was one of the greatest things that ever happened in my career. Let me explain as this segways into my final obstacle…
The injury helped me understand that baseball was not only what I did but it had become who I was. Baseball had become my identity and when I lost it for a year I had an identity crisis where I felt worthless, unmotivated, and lost. If you allow a sport to define you… you’ll ride the highs and lows with it. And in sport there are many more lows than highs.
I learned that I had to become more well rounded in other activities and hobbies. I thought I would play baseball forever and of course that’s not true for anyone. So, I’m glad it happened when it did so I got a taste of what life without baseball looked like as well as it made me hungry to be the best when I was cleared to play. It made me fall in love with the game all over again.
3. My Relationship with God:
It also caused me to realize that baseball had become my god. I had a relationship with God and attended church regularly but it had always taken a backseat to baseball.
In Mississippi, when I didn’t have baseball and all my coaches and teammates didn’t care about me much anymore, it was the first time I realized the importance of leaning on God as my sufficiency, my comfort, and my ultimate doctor that was going to heal me to full strength.
In MS, I learned that wherever I played baseball next I would make sure I had a great group of believers to fellowship with and that I would stay well-rounded in other life activities beyond baseball. It was eye opening. There were times when I fell back into my baseball identity but in Idaho I had a great group of teammates that I’m close with to this day that we talked God’s Word a lot to keep us grounded.
In what ways do you currently utilize your knowledge of sport psychology to improve the way you think as an athlete, psychologist, mentor, etc.?
Even today, we all still compete and could benefit from having an accountability partner, coach, or person to hold us accountable to being your best on a consistent basis. Yes, I have a coach.
I read my Bible daily to combat all the input from the world that comes at us daily. If we’re not getting a good dose of God’s Word we’ll fall back into the ways of the world.
The hardest part of my life is doing what I teach. I’m constantly learning the best ways to think, speak, act, and invest my time – but I’d be lying if I said I did a great or even good job at it consistently.
I have learned a few things: motivation and confidence are fragile – both in personal and professional life. Everyday you have to find something to kick your butt out of bed and tackle the day that burns in your chest like an eagle trying to escape.
Also, you might be confident in one category of life but very unconfident in others. It’s about shoring up your strengths and improving the areas that need work.
As a business owner in charge of making my own paycheck – it is up to me to acknowledge my fears that cause me to be less confident and take fewer risks that could get me where I want to go. I like to write out the fears that I have, take a good hard look at them, and ask myself, “Are those things worth fearing and holding you back from greatness?” They never are.
Do you have a favorite sport psychology book? (other than your own, and if you say “The Bible” then please pick 2)
Haha, yes – the Bible is the greatest book ever dealing with the mind. After all, God created the mind and has taught us how it functions at its best.
Ken Ravizza/Tom Hanson: Heads Up Baseball 2.0. – this one deals with all the distractions and craziness that athletes deal with today.
General Sport: Gary Mack’s Mind Gym. Great toilet reader and has the power to change a career in a few seconds. Buy it!
Can you explain the meaning behind the name of your business, “Renewed Mind Performance”?
It’s based off of my favorite verse Romans 12:2 “And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect will of God.”
To renew the mind means to replace something old with something new. In the context of the verse, it’s telling the believer to no longer conform to the world but instead be transformed by God’s Word when you put it in your mind.
With the name, I wanted to emphasize mental performance, and in particular, a new way of thinking. Athletes come in seeing their sport the same way for years. My goal is to change their perspective with the mental game so that they have a new way of thinking and seeing their performance and never approach it the same way again.
I also want to work with as many Christian athletes as possible so the name appeals to them but still can appeal to non-Christians who I love working with just as much.
How would you explain your personal approach to sport psychology/mentorship? What sets you apart in what you do and how you do it?
I always tell athletes in our first meeting that I am far more interested in the name on the back of their jersey than the number. Who they are is far more important to me than what they do on a scoreboard.
I of course want them to succeed or I wouldn’t be in business for long. But what I want them to succeed at is their process to winning rather than the winning itself. I’m all about process over outcome. Process is in our control – outcome is not. I want my athletes focusing on what they can control and letting the rest play out.
I don’t have much to compare to others in my field – but I’d say I’m different than most Sport Psych consultants when it comes to working with Christian athletes and incorporating their relationship with God into their careers more.
Otherwise, I treat everyone similarly. I love them up first and foremost. I make myself as approachable and open (non-judgemental) as possible. I build rapport with athletes pretty quickly of all ages and sexes – which I think comes from loving them up with the love of God which is a rarity in the world today.
I also hold them accountable to their goals which can come off as reproving – but hey – it would be unloving to let one of my clients stray too far from their goals and what they’re setting out to do. Teach, reprove, correct. Repeat. It leads to growth and maturity (2 Timothy 3:15-17).
Everything I teach, do, or say, I’ve researched both against the Bible and Sport Psych literature. If I’m on my own game by reading God’s Word daily – even if I don’t speak Scripture and verse – I’m still speaking principles based on God’s Word.
If there’s a concept in conflict between sport psych and the Bible – I throw it out as it won’t hold up in the heat of competition. For example – I am not a believer in positive affirmations. Saying “I’m big, I’m confident” when you’re clearly not is not going to help. It’s just wishful thinking at best.
But if you repeat and believe a Bible verse over and over like Isaiah 26:3 to calm yourself down “Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on Thee, because he trusts in Thee” will absolutely work. I use it daily. It has the backing of the power of God. It works.
What do you hope that athletes take away from their time with you?
To learn to have as much fun playing their sport as possible. Too many athletes arrive at a competition excited to play and leave defeated. This shouldn’t be the case. That’s why setting a good definition of what success is and teaching that failure is truly our best friend can be so crucial to prolonged enjoyable sports careers and life careers.
I like to share that sport will be a very small part of their life compared to the rest of their life and that sport is the greatest low-consequence high reward proving ground for trying out the mental game concepts that will absolutely transfer to the classroom, relationships, careers, parenting and the rest of life.
What is the most common mental hurdle that you help athletes to overcome?
I’d say confidence issues are the biggest hurdle I encounter. I once heard that confidence can be very fragile. I didn’t believe it at first but it’s so true. Every play in a game is a mini drama. Someone loses. Someone wins. Your ability to play the game within the game of having a confident approach, a routine that brings you back to the present, and a mature definition of what success means to you will all help you in staying confident when all around you is telling you to fall apart.
You recently published your first book “Playing on High Ground.” Can you share a little bit about your motivation for writing it? What can athletes hope to gain from reading it?
The response above from that Christian athlete was the reason I wrote the book – to teach athletes how to rely on God for comfort and peace on the biggest stages of sport when we often feel alone and helpless.
While reading this book I hope athletes develop a thirst for going to God more often and to the Scriptures for themselves to learn what they say rather than trust their spiritual life to someone standing on a stage no matter how sincere they might seem. Sincerity is no guarantee for truth.
Similarly, I hope that athletes desire to take ownership of their career and mental game instead of waiting for a coach to tell them what to do, practice, eat, or when to breathe.
The book is all about finding stability in God in a sports world of instability. Not only that, but it is a book that will lay a great foundation of the Christian faith in order to teach and share with others. That’s our privilege as Christians… to share the good news of Jesus Christ.
The book also lays a great foundation of the mental game in order to help athletes win the battle between the ears every time they perform.
What can we expect to see from you in the future?
I have a baseball and softball online mental skills training program I am launching to the public in March (feel free to check out the program at www.RenewedMindPerformance.com/21hmp and sample the first two hours at www.RenewedMindPerformance.com/21hmp/dashboard. This program is up there as one of my greatest accomplishments as I’ve taken most of what I know to date and put it into an easy to navigate, self paced mental strength training program.
I also fully expect to be done with the sequel to book one, called Playing on Higher Ground by June. You could see it published and in your hands by September.
I might even get a girlfriend this year, too! Who knows:)