Astros get help from a new mental skills trainer – and his dog


WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — On metal bleachers sheltered by palm trees along one of the back courts of the Astros’ spring training complex, a spotter found his shaded perch for minor league practice.

The first-time spring training participant didn’t seem bothered by the loud crunch of bats making contact with baseballs and disinterested in ground ball drills on the field. Or maybe he was taking a nap instead. Hard to tell, with his eyes obscured by reflective glasses and his curly-haired head resting on his two front legs.

Oh, it should be mentioned that it is a dog. Specifically, a 7-month-old Goldendoodle named Chewbacca — Chewy, for short — owned by Justin McKissick, a mental skills trainer for the Astros.

McKissick, a licensed clinical therapist, was hired in January by the Astros to work as a mental health and performance provider based in West Palm Beach. He will spend most of his time at rookie-level prom in the Florida Complex League, but during spring training he has worked with players and personnel at all levels of the Houston organization. And he’s not going anywhere without his service dog and sidekick, Chewy.

Chewy alternately struts and lounges around the compound outfitted in a khaki service dog vest and polarized sunglasses that resemble the shades worn by ballplayers. “These UV rays, they affect everyone,” McKissick said.

A blue collar around Chewy’s neck proclaims him “BEST DOG IN THE GALAXY”. Many Astros staff and players would probably agree.

McKissick should allow about 10 extra minutes to walk anywhere with his canine companion, because when stepping out to observe batting practice or a bullpen session, someone is sure to stop and greet Chewy.

“I’ve had people tell me their day was a little better because they saw Chewy, and in my job, that’s a good thing,” McKissick said.

Prior to getting the Astros job, McKissick worked in private practice in Houston. He was public relations manager for a High-A baseball team in California in a past life, but realized during a five-year stint in the US military, where he worked in intelligence military, that he wanted to do more to help people in a different way. After his military service, he earned a master’s degree in counseling psychology and dove into his second career, which eventually brought him back to baseball.

“I saw the (Astros) job posting and almost didn’t apply because I thought it was almost too perfect, to be honest,” McKissick said. “One of the things I try to stress with everyone is the importance of goals, so when the opportunity came it was something I had to aim for.”

These days, more and more MLB teams are employing mental health personnel. The Astros have Laura Ramos as their minor league coordinator who oversees mental health and performance. At their Dominican academy is sports psychologist Andy Nuñez, whose work was instrumental in the career of starting pitcher Framber Valdez.

The investment in mental health by Astros executives and players is part of what drew McKissick, a lifelong baseball fan, to the position.


“It gives me the opportunity to merge two of my passions, baseball and helping people,” he said.

McKissick, a native of Concord, Calif., was two weeks old when he attended his first baseball game at the Oakland Coliseum. He continued to watch the A’s and played the sport throughout his childhood. Today, the eldest of his three children plays travel ball – an environment that served as a test site for Chewy to get used to the sounds and smells of baseball.

Chewy, a certified assistance dog, is trained specifically to help McKissick, who struggles with anxiety. In other words, the pup provides both comfort and service to McKissick that helps him be his best in helping others. It doesn’t hurt that Chewy is adorable either.

“Chewy is good at grounding me, keeping me from getting too stressed out,” McKissick said. “And who doesn’t love having a dog?”

Throughout his career as a mental health specialist, McKissick has focused on building trust and relationships with the people he counsels. Baseball players face similar obstacles in unique circumstances.

“It’s on a much bigger stage,” McKissick said. “Most people experience anxiety and pressure, but they’re not focused on them. Even at the lower levels, these guys have people running around for autographs, interviewing them, and calling them all the time. It can be a lot.

McKissick hopes he can take some of that pressure off the Astros players and help them unleash their best on and off the court. He has been speaking Spanish for the two years he spent working as a missionary in the Dominican Republic. Inspired by his time in the military, he is also pursuing a doctorate with a specialization in traumatology, the study and treatment of people exposed to highly stressful and traumatic events.

“I say I’m a little weird because I like it when people say horrible things to me,” McKissick said, “because those are usually things they don’t tell a lot of people, which means that they trust me. I appreciate that feeling. I want to help people, and it all starts with trust.

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