It's tough being a major leaguer, what with the huge paychecks, fans who idolize you, and a job that lets you do what you've loved since you were a kid.

You don't think that's tough?Then talk with Dr. Herndon P. Harding Jr., psychiatrist to the Los Angeles Dodgers.

"The degree of the pressure they experience is much more heightened than for most people," said Harding, who quit as director of Ohio's Department of Mental Health to become the Dodger organization's first psychiatrist.

Not that being a Dodger is harmful to your mental health. Harding figures that if you can make it to the pros, you've probably learned to handle stress fairly well. But the way he sees it, counseling can make you even better.

For instance, he said, a pitcher may tend to concentrate on "I gotta throw this fastball" instead of "I'm gonna burn this thing down the middle."

The "gotta" is a negative thought that shows fear of failure - and, if you concentrate on failure, you'll find it, Harding said. On the other hand, he said, the "gonna" assumes you'll like doing it and encourages success.

He and other experts say, however, that their focus is on more than improving concentration. They say relieving long-term problems from on and off the field can free an athlete to play his best.

"My role has been a preventative one, to see no talent's lost for psychological reasons," said Bruce C. Ogilvie, a professor emeritus at San Jose State University in California and a longtime sports psychologist.

There are plenty of chances for talent to be lost. Those huge paychecks, for instance, can come with a mental-health deduction, said Dr. Richard G. Rappaport, a sports psychiatrist in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., a suburb of San Diego.

"Who's got the biggest income becomes the way they compete," Rappaport said.

And, the experts say, competing is what athletes may do too much of, against their own goals or each other. Non-pros also may carry their own excess pressures, driving themselves constantly and never forgiving failure, but the pros do it in the public eye, Rappaport said.

"The requirements are so total and absolute," said Ogilvie. "You really are denied a private existence, not permitted to have failures as a human being."

A player who's losing playing time finds himself facing "one of the most traumatic realities he has to confront," Ogilvie added. Without help, the athlete might turn to substance abuse, he said.

And if a player succeeds, he can get the big head. "Who's ever prepared for that sudden rush of exaltation?" Ogilvie asked.

It's no wonder that a lot of elite athletes seem to love themselves a lot, Harding said. They've been told how good they are since they were kids.

By giving them breaks on everything from homework to chores, their supporters limit athletes' understanding of the real world, Harding said. "It's not their fault. They've been given this life and they don't know anything else."

Star athletes also attract women, which can mean trouble for marriages - or, as Ogilvie put it, "They have special problems in maintaining a primary relationship." Long, repeated road trips away from family create a loneliness.

The pressure can come to bear on performance, Harding said.