Joe Musgrove Finds Success by Visualizing Failure

DENVER – Joe Musgrove was in the pool following the instructions from his teachers, but he and his fellow neophytes were struggling. His stomach convulsed, and his lungs pleaded with his brain to surface for air. Musgrove, the emerging ace of the San Diego Padres, held out until the last desperate instant, almost to the breaking point, before he finally came up for air.

Then he went down again, this time for longer.

It was an underwater training class for athletes called Deep End Fitness, a pool near San Diego by a former Marine. The goal is to help participants break through mental barriers, harness breathing techniques and overcome fears and obstacles. The athletes do team-oriented underwater treasure hunts, walk the pool floor with weights, play submerged four-on-four tackle football with hand-held synthetic torpedoes and other exercises designed to push limits.

For Musgrove and his teammate Mike Clevinger, who took the series classes together during the off-season, it was another example of the kind of mental strength conditioning that is always gaining traction in professional sports – another way to enhance performance by the mound. Accepting uncomfortable situations and blasting through them.

“It’s completely different than anything you could expect,” Musgrove said during an interview at Coors Field earlier this month. “I went in there very nervous my first time because I had no idea what we were getting into. You will find out a lot about yourself in the first couple of classes. It was big for me to work at something where I knew I was going to fail. “

Small failures like that are adding up to big successes for Musgrove, which has identified the mental aspect of its craft as the area that requires the most attention. With the pool exercises and other techniques now as much a part of his repertoire as his sinker and changeup, Musgrove is having a career season at 29, building off a terrific 2021, when he finished with a 3.18 earned run average and threw the first no. -Hitter in Padres history – which he said felt like a bit of a “fluke.”

This year, as Padres first baseman Eric Hosmer said, Musgrove has gone “to the next level,” and there doesn’t appear to be any fluke about it. Musgrove is 8-1, with a 2.12 earned run average and started the year with 12 quality starts (at least six innings pitched with three or fewer earned runs allowed) to become the only seventh pitcher since 1994 to have a consistent season with such consistency.

That streak came to an end on Thursday against a rough outing against Philadelphia. But Musgrove’s fantastic start has helped the Padres to a 44-28 start, which is the best in franchise history and has them in the NL’s top wild-card spot through Thursday.

When Musgrove and Clevinger arrived in spring training and publicly described their underwater exploits during the winter months, they could not be certain that the program would lead to success. They still don’t know for certain, but it clearly doesn’t hurt.

“It’s been a master class in pitching,” said Clevinger, who is just returning from Tommy John surgery. “He’s doing the whole thing.”

Jurickson Profar, a Padres outfielder, added, “It’s incredible to see the way he commands the field when he’s on the mound.”

A self-described late developer, Musgrove has long sought ways to supplement alternative skills with his physical gifts – he stands 6 feet 5 inches and is listed at 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 he dabbled with other psychological tools.

Musgrove said he often asks fellow players, coaches, trainers and others about favored techniques, picking and adding whatever fits his own style and approach. It can be useful for almost any mental challenge, including “turning off the quit button” while jogging in the outfield on hot afternoons and washing dishes.

Even while standing at the sink, doing the most mundane of chores, Musgrove transforms it into a challenge by forcing his mind to stay in the moment – like a form of self-taught meditation. He tries to focus only on scrubbing and rinsing, despite the brain’s impulse to wander, and his skill is transferable. Even an elite pitcher’s brain can veer outside thoughts, sometimes in the middle of a key at-bat.

“Like the underwater training, it’s not going to make your stuff better or you get outs in a game,” he said. “But it can help you be better prepared, and I always say, luck favors the prepared.”

Visualization is a key part of Musgrove’s mental-conditioning repertoire, as it is for many elite athletes. But Musgrove doesn’t picture flawless execution and success in his mind. Some pitchers may imagine themselves throwing the perfect pitch or raising the championship trophy aloft.

But those mental pictures, Musgrove said, are fantasy compared to the way sports unfold in real time, in which elbows ache, grips slip, mounds get muddy and opposing batters swat home runs.

When Musgrove lies in the bed on the nights before a start, he often visualizes minor failures and obstacles that inevitably occur – a stiff shoulder, a leadoff home run, the bases filled with runners while opposing fans holler in his ears and sweat drips into his. eyes.

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

When those situations, or similar ones, arise, Musgrove has already planned for them. A high heart rate is expected. Panicky thoughts are banished. Practical solutions are employed.

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

The bad came right away for Musgrove in Chicago last week. Christopher Morel, the Cubs’ leadoff batter, hit the wall at Wrigley Field on the fifth pitch at Musgrove. But Musgrove, who had started to feel congested and ill the night before, had imagined he might still feel sick on the mound the next day and have a rocky opening.

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

As it turned out, Musgrove was probably pitching through Covid-19, as he tested positive for the next day. In retrospect, a test before the game would have been warranted, but his symptoms remained mild. And Musgrove had been training his brain to fight through obstacles, and like in the underwater training, to push himself past barriers.

That day in Chicago, he responded to the illness and allowed a bad start by allowing just one more run in seven innings. It was a bit of a labor requiring 106 pitches. But, of course, Musgrove had prepared himself for that.

“We’ve seen him take the ball when he’s sick, when he’s sore, when he’s not feeling all the way great,” Hosmer said. “That’s the kind of thing you look for in your ace, and it’s definitely solidified itself as our ace.”

During the underwater-training classes in the off-season, Musgrove learned he could extend his time without breathing about a minute and a quarter when he first started the classes just over four minutes by the end.

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

As the season heads toward its midpoint, Musgrove is a candidate, along with Tony Gonsolin of the Dodgers, to start the All-Star Game for the National League. Musgrove said that on a checklist of achievements, he would be honored to reach out.

“But eventually,” he said, “the big picture is to be healthy and still pitching at the end of the year.”

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