Harvey Martin talks about breathing like it’s existential. Allow him to explain and it quickly makes perfect sense as to why.
“What’s cool about breathing,” Martin told KNBR, “is breathing is the only thing that lives in both your unconscious and conscious environment. It’s the only thing that governs heart rate, organs, blood flow, circulation, everything that you can consciously take control over.”
In a sport where seemingly every cliché revolves around what a player can and can’t control, Martin identified — not necessarily on purpose — an ultimate control lever.
And so, the Giants breathe differently than everyone else. They meticulously study something most people hardly think about.
Martin, 32, joined the Giants last season and was hired full-time for the 2022 season. His official job title isn’t listed on the Giants’ coaches or front office directories. His personal site lists him as a “human performance specialist.”
Really, Martin is part coach, part trainer, part guru. He’s as about as present as any coach or staffer in the clubhouse. He’s involved in pregame preparations, albeit in an unconventional way.
The Giants, including Logan Webb, Carlos Rodón, Joc Pederson and Darin Ruf, have embraced him and his teachings. The collective buy-in represents yet another way the organization has sought any advantage they can find on the margins.
The club is proving an edge can be as simple as inhale, exhale — something Martin insists most people do incorrectly. And in a division in which three teams are on pace for over 90 wins, any edge is welcomed.
“You see the size of our (coaching) staff,” starter Alex Wood said. “Diverse backgrounds that a lot of our staff has — it’s invaluable stuff like that. Even the smallest gain that you can make, having a guy like Harvey for the health of the clubhouse overall. Over the course of the season, it’s just really important stuff. If it has one win in it, two wins in it, it’s worth every penny.”
It was 2015, and Harvey Martin felt lost.
He’d committed his life to baseball, and just couldn’t make it. He’d signed with the Milwaukee Brewers after being named National Pitcher of the Year at Minnesota State, but toiled at the A-level of the minors for three years. After two games of 20.25 ERA ball in 2015, he was done.
The Brewers hired him to do a bit of scouting, but that was only part-time. It wasn’t serious. Transitioning out of the sport caused anxiety to creep in.
Martin was always a curious person. He’d earned a bachelor’s degree in sport management and marketing in college and a master’s degree in sports performance during his professional career.
When Martin heard Dutch motivational speaker Wim Hof extol about the benefits of deep breathing on the Joe Rogan podcast, he decided he wanted to learn more.
Martin traveled around the world in search of answers. He went to the Netherlands to meet with experts. He zoomed with Dr. Belisa Vranich, a clinical psychologist and leading expert in mental health and fitness based in New York — then later podcasted with her. He consulted martial arts experts, yogis, and performance coaches.
Martin sought the right balance between science and spirituality. Medicine vs. mindfulness. Psychology and physiology.
“I just kind of picked up all these little principles from different types of teachings,” Martin said. “And it started clearing me up. So I cleared myself up a year or two later. And it just became non-negotiable for me. It healed me. It made me feel healthy. It took away anxiety for me.”
In Malibu, Martin worked with Navy SEALs on underwater breathing training. The oxymoron explains exactly how focusing on breathing can help an athlete.
“The purpose of it all is to stress your physiology,” Martin said.
“If you strengthen your physiology, your nervous system, you have a higher threshold of stress, you’re psychologically going to be able to make decisions in real time under pressure. That’s the whole point of what I’m after. So if I’m hammering a nervous system and I’m strengthening it, now all of a sudden it takes me longer to get anxious. Does that make sense? You’d need more pressure to build up to get me to become an anxious person. I’m triggered less. That’s why all the tools that I use are to train you to be triggered less. You can still have stress, but you won’t even really perceive it as stress because you’ve trained in stress. Because you’ve trained yourself in stress. And you’re using breathing as a tool to manage your state: mentally, emotionally, physically.”
Since he had so many connections with athletes from his playing career, becoming a performance coach was organic for Martin. He began working with baseball players, hockey players and Olympians, using heat and cold as modalities. By putting athletes in uncomfortable positions — in a sauna or an ice tub — and forcing them to focus on their breathing patterns, he taught them how to “control their state” in high-performance, stressful situations. The types of situations that happen in any given baseball game.
In 2017, Martin started a company called The Mindstrong Project. Giants manager Gabe Kapler brought Martin in during the 2021 season so he could share some of the tools he mastered through the years. They collaborated, along with athletic trainer Dave Groeschner and others, on what the best role for Martin would look like and what it might entail.
Like a player getting the call-up to the big leagues from the minors, Martin made himself indispensable.
It was May 1, just days after being diagnosed with a grade 1 right abductor strain, and Joc Pederson kicked off his flip flops by the Giants dugout steps.
Barefoot, the outfielder walked from the left field foul pole to the right field pole and back. Once he completed that task, he sat in the outfield grass with his heels clicking in a butterfly stretch pose.
The team had listed Pederson as day-to-day. He’d receive treatment and see how his groin reacted to working out. But this Oracle Park morning appeared more stroll than exercise.
But this activity is a practice called “grounding.” Just like training any muscle in the weight room, Pederson was training his mind. The concept of the meditation technique, essentially, is to feel connected to the earth below you. Shoes are a barrier to that. Removing them allows a positive and negative ion equilibrium, Martin said. It allows energy to flow.
Pederson is an ardent supporter.
“I think just getting into a nice routine to start the day,” Pederson said. “Bring your overall stress down. Helps you handle stressful situations better.”
Grounding is just one way players train with Martin. Breathing lessons typically start with a simple diagnosis. He asks a player to breathe, and he takes notes. “I can tell a lot about somebody by the way they breathe,” he said.
Then Martin and the player try to improve mechanics. That could be diaphragmatic movement or working on expanding the rib cage with deep inhales. To simulate adrenaline: fast bursts of inhales through your mouth. Breathe through your belly, not your neck or shoulders.
After that, the final step is considering what Martin calls “energy management.” Essentially breathing styles: through your mouth or through your nose. Grounding, as well as forced mediation through a sauna or ice tub, fall in this category.
Every session with Martin is personalized. Players typically focus on one of those three core principles of breathing: mechanics, mental and energy.
Applying any one, or all three, of those breathing concepts can help a player control stress. That’s the idea, at least.
Based on how a certain person responds to a particular treatment, Martin teaches them how to breathe a certain way. There are “protocols” for any state you want to be in, Martin said.
“If I want to be controlled in stress, I can breathe myself into that,” Martin said. “If I want to recover after a game, I can breathe myself into recovery. If I want to digest food, I can breathe myself into digestion. Breathing is the only controllable state. So if these guys want to be a monster in the game and destroy performance under pressure, they can breathe themselves into that character. But if then when they’re not out there competing in front of 40,000 people, they need to be a different person, essentially. You can breathe yourself into that person, too.”
All that might sound like pseudoscience. But at the end of the day, if players feel more energetic, more recovered and less stressed, they can focus more on baseball. In Martin’s words: “if it helps, it helps.”
“If it makes us mindful in the moment, that’s a huge win,” Martin said.
The words upper thoracic expansion roll off Alex Wood’s tongue like an 0-2 slider spins off his fingertips.
Wood started working on some breathing techniques with his offseason trainer about three years ago, and he said Martin has taken things to a new level.
Grounding is Wood’s favorite technique. Wood’s main goal with Martin is for recovery and back health; improved breathing can strengthen the core. The starter’s incorporated breathing-focused kegels to his pregame routine.
He’s also done sauna work and targeted breathing exercises.
“Being able to like pin down one side of my ribs and breathe into the other side,” Wood said. “And have expansion on the left side while the right side closes down. Because it’s a lot of stuff that you’re doing throughout your delivery, and it just helps really complement, helps the way your body moves down the mound.”
Pederson found Martin on Instagram in 2020 during the pandemic. The outfielder, who sometimes experiences anxiety flying, sits next to Martin on team flights now. He didn’t even have to ask anyone with the team if Martin could join the traveling party; Pederson said they approached him with the idea to help.
“It’s first class,” Pederson said of the organization. “I’ve been so impressed since the day I got here.”
Darin Ruf tried the grounding technique for the first time on May 9. Before that, he’d done some cold tub and sauna sessions with Martin. He said they had plans to try one-minute bike, one-minute cold tub intervals. All to try to maximize energy and recovery.
“I think a lot of people respect all the time and effort he’s put into learning about it,” Ruf said. “And putting it into practice himself, and then trying to figure out how we can use it to perform our best.”
On March 18, Logan Webb and Marcus Stroman went head-to-head in a spring training matchup. They met in the outfield pregame then dueled on the mound. They also planned on working with Martin in a joint session that weekend.
The Giants’ ace recently told the San Francisco Chronicle that he can’t go a week without hitting the cold tub and going through breathing techniques.Stroman has been working with Martin for a couple years. He said he’s changed from a mouth breather to a nasal one, which has helped him sleep through the night much better.
“Breathing is fucking incredibly important,” Stroman said on March 18. “Ever since I got my breathing better, it’s kind of changed my life.”
“It’s the one thing you come into this world with and the last thing you do before you die,” Stroman added. “It’s something we don’t put an emphasis on. It can literally make you live longer. It can help you battle stress, it can help you sleep…When it comes to sports, it’s extremely important. Especially when the moment gets really big. Being able to breathe and kind of center yourself in those moments is huge.”
Since Martin isn’t even listed on San Francisco’s official online personnel list, it would be impossible to know if other Major League clubs have hired similar specialists. But neither Martin, nor any players who spoke with KNBR, knew of another breathing specialist in the bigs.
This is the franchise that shows an unprecedented commitment to addressing mental health. That employs the largest coaching staff in the sport. That deploys some of the most aggressive, analytically implemented in-game strategy.
Breathing is just the latest way the Giants look at things just a bit differently.
“I would say that the organization is pretty forward-thinking,” Carlos Rodón said. “Always ahead of everybody.”