Joe Musgrove succeeds by visualizing failure

DENVER – Joe Musgrove was in the pool following his teachers’ instructions, but he and his fellow neophytes struggled. His stomach shuddered as his lungs begged his brain to float to the surface for a breath. Musgrove, the starting ace for the San Diego Padres, held on until the last desperate moment, almost to the breaking point, before he finally took to the air.

Then he went down again, this time longer.

It was an underwater training class for athletes called Deep End Fitness, taught at a pool near San Diego by a former Marine. The goal is to help participants overcome mental barriers, master breathing techniques and overcome fears and obstacles. Athletes engage in team underwater treasure hunts, walk on the bottom of a kettlebell pool, play four-on-four underwater football with hand-held synthetic torpedoes and other exercises designed to push the boundaries of what is possible.

For Musgrove and teammate Mike Clevinger, who attended a series of off-season sessions together, it was another example of the mental strength training that is always on the rise in professional sports—another way to increase performance on the hill by accepting uncomfortable situations and getting out of them.

“This is absolutely not what you might expect,” Musgrove said in an interview with Coors Field earlier this month. “The first time I went there, I was very nervous because I had no idea what we were getting into. You learn a lot about yourself in the first two lessons. It was important for me to work on something that I knew I would fail at.”

Small failures like these add up to big successes for Musgrove, who has identified the mental aspect of his craft as the area that needs the most attention. With pool drills and other moves now as much a part of his repertoire as his sinker and changejup, Musgrove is having a career season at 29, creating an amazing 2021 when he finished with an earned mileage average of 3.18 and quit first know-hitter in Padres history – which, according to him, was like an “accident”.

This year, as Padres first baseman Eric Hosmer said, Musgrove has moved to “the next level,” and there doesn’t seem to be any coincidence. Musgrove is 8-1 with a 2.12 earned run average and started the year with 12 quality starts (at least six innings with three or fewer earned runs allowed), becoming only the seventh pitcher since 1994 to open the season with such stability.

That streak ended on Thursday with a tough game against Philadelphia. But Musgrove’s fantastic start helped the Padres start at 44-28, the best in franchise history and placing them in first place in the NL on Thursdays.

When Musgrove and Clevinger arrived for spring training and publicly described their underwater exploits during the winter months, they weren’t sure the program would succeed. They still don’t know for sure, but that obviously didn’t hurt.

“It was a pitching masterclass,” Clevinger, who had just returned from Tommy John surgery, said of his teammate. “He does it all.”

Jurikson Profar, a Padres outfielder, added: “It’s incredible to see him command the field when he’s on the mound.”

Musgrove, a self-described late developer, has long been looking for ways to add alternate skills in addition to his physical abilities – he is 6’5″ tall and weighs 230 pounds. When he was 15, he practiced the Hoefling martial arts method, named after Gus Hoefling, who trained star pitchers such as Steve Carlton of the Philadelphia Phillies in the 1970s, and tried other psychological tools.

Musgrove said he often asks other players, coaches, instructors and others about favorite techniques, picking and adding whatever suits his own style and approach. He can find useful mental tasks just about anywhere, including “turn off the exit button” while jogging in a field on hot days and washing dishes.

Even standing by the sink doing the most mundane chores around the house, Musgrove turns it into a challenge by forcing his mind to stay in the present moment as a form of self-taught meditation. He tries to focus only on brushing and rinsing, despite the brain’s urge to wander, and this skill is transferable. Even the brain of an elite pitcher can switch to extraneous thoughts, sometimes in the middle of a key game.

“Like training underwater, it won’t improve your skills or take you out of the game,” he said. “But it can help you get better prepared, and I always say luck favors the prepared.”

Visualization is a key part of Musgrove’s mental training repertoire, as it is for many elite athletes. But Musgrove doesn’t envision flawless execution and success. Some pitchers may imagine throwing the perfect pitch or lifting a championship trophy into the air.

But these mental pictures, Musgrove said, are mere fantasy compared to how the sport plays out in real time, with elbows hurting, grips slipping, hills getting muddy, and opponents hitting home runs.

As Musgrove lays in bed the night before a start, he often visualizes the little setbacks and hurdles that inevitably come — a hard shoulder, a home run early in the game, bases filled with runners while opposing fans yell in his ears. and sweat drips into his eyes. eyes.

What are you going to do now, Joe? How are you going to get out of this?

When these or similar situations arise, Musgrove has already planned for them. A high heart rate is expected. Panic thoughts are driven away. Practical solutions are used.

“You wake up the next day and a certain level of pressure is removed from you because there is no more fear of the unknown,” Musgrove said. “It doesn’t seem like you’re obsessing over what could go wrong. You’re just ready for whatever comes your way, good or bad.”

A bad situation happened for Musgrove right after last week’s start in Chicago. Christopher Morel, the Cubs’ first hitter, went over the wall at Wrigley Field on the fifth pitch thrown by Musgrove. But Musgrove, who had begun to feel overwhelmed and ill the night before, imagined that the next day he might still vomit on the mound and have a rocky hole.

“First hitter in the game, bang, home run,” Musgrove said, “and I’m like, ‘This is exactly what I expected.'”

As it turned out, Musgrove likely had Covid-19, as he tested positive the next day. In hindsight, a pre-game test could have been done, but his symptoms remained mild. And Musgrove trained his brain to overcome obstacles and, like in underwater training, to overcome obstacles.

That day in Chicago, he reacted to illness and a poor start by allowing only one more run out of seven innings. It was hard work, requiring 106 ropes. But, of course, Musgrove prepared for it.

“We saw him take the ball when he was sick, when he was sick, when he wasn’t feeling well,” Hosmer said. “This is what you look for in your ace and he has definitely proven himself to be our ace.”

During off-season scuba training, Musgrove learned that he could increase his time without breathing from about a minute and a quarter when he first started to just over four minutes by the end.

“Sometimes you have to get the brain out of the way and let the body do its thing,” he said.

As the season approaches the middle, Musgrove is a candidate along with Tony Gonsolin of the Dodgersto start the National League All-Star Game. Musgrove said he was on a checklist of accomplishments he would be honored to achieve.

“But ultimately,” he said, “the overall picture is about being healthy and still performing at the end of the year.”