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Joe Musgrove Finds Success by Visualizing Failure


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

Then he went down again, this time for longer.

It was an underwater training class for athletes called Deep End Fitness, taught in a pool near San Diego by a former Marine. The goal is to assist participants break through mental barriers, harness respiratory 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 of classes together throughout the off-season, it was one other example of the sort of mental strength conditioning that’s at all times gaining traction in skilled sports — one other solution to enhance performance on the mound by accepting uncomfortable situations and blasting through them.

“It is totally different than anything you can expect,” Musgrove said during an interview at Coors Field earlier this month. “I went in there extremely nervous my first time because I had no idea what we’re stepping into. You discover out loads about yourself in the primary couple of classes. It was big for me to work at something where I knew I used to be going to fail.”

Small failures like which might be adding as much as big successes for Musgrove, who has identified the mental aspect of his craft as the world that requires probably the most attention. With the pool exercises and other techniques now as much an element of his repertoire as his sinker and changeup, Musgrove is having a profession season at 29, constructing off a terrific 2021, when he finished with a 3.18 earned run average and threw the primary no-hitter in Padres history — which he said felt like a little bit of a “fluke.”

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

That streak got here to an end on Thursday in a rough outing against Philadelphia. But Musgrove’s improbable start has helped the Padres to a 44-28 start, which is the very best in franchise history and has them within the N.L.’s top wild-card spot through Thursday.

When Musgrove and Clevinger arrived in spring training and publicly described their underwater exploits throughout the winter months, they might not be sure this system would result in success. They still don’t know for certain, but it surely clearly has not hurt.

“Loosen up, all right? Don’t attempt to strike everybody out. Strikeouts are boring! Besides that, they’re fascist. Throw some ground balls, it’s more democratic.”

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“It’s been a master class in pitching,” Clevinger, who’s only in the near past coming back from Tommy John surgery, said of his teammate. “He’s doing the entire thing.”

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

A self-described late developer, Musgrove has long sought ways so as to add alternative skills to enrich to his physical gifts — he stands 6 feet 5 inches and is listed at 230 kilos. When he was 15, he practiced the Hoefling martial-arts method, named after Gus Hoefling, who trained star pitchers equivalent to Steve Carlton of the Philadelphia Phillies within the Nineteen Seventies, and he has dabbled with other psychological tools.

Musgrove said he often asks fellow players, coaches, trainers and others about favored techniques, picking and adding whatever suits his own style and approach. He can unearth useful mental challenges almost anywhere, including “turning off the quit button” while jogging within the outfield on hot afternoons and washing dishes.

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

“Just like the underwater training, it isn’t going to make your stuff higher or get you outs in a game,” he said. “But it will probably aid you be higher prepared, and I at all times say, luck favors the prepared.”

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

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

When Musgrove lies in bed on the nights before a start, he often visualizes the little failures and obstacles that inevitably occur — a stiff shoulder, a leadoff home run, the bases full of 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 predicted. Panicky thoughts are banished. Practical solutions are employed.

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

The bad got here immediately for Musgrove in a start last week in Chicago. Christopher Morel, the Cubs’ leadoff batter, hit over the wall at Wrigley Field the fifth pitch Musgrove threw. But Musgrove, who had began to feel congested and unwell the night before, had imagined he might still feel sick on the mound the following day and have a rocky opening.

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

Because it turned out, Musgrove was probably pitching through Covid-19, as he tested positive for the it the following day. Looking back, a test before the sport would have been warranted, but his symptoms remained mild. And Musgrove had been training his brain to fight through obstacles, and like within the underwater training, to push himself past barriers.

That day in Chicago, he responded to the illness and the bad start by allowing only yet one more run in seven innings. It was a little bit of a labor requiring 106 pitches. But, after all, 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 in which great,” Hosmer said. “That’s the sort of thing you search for in your ace, and he has definitely solidified himself as our ace.”

Through the underwater-training classes within the off-season, Musgrove learned he could extend his time without respiratory from a couple of minute and 1 / 4 when he first began the classes to only over 4 minutes by the tip.

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

Because the season heads toward its midpoint, Musgrove is a candidate, together with Tony Gonsolin of the Dodgers, to begin the All-Star Game for the National League. Musgrove said that sat on a checklist of achievements he could be honored to achieve.

“But ultimately,” he said, “the large picture is to be healthy and still pitching at the tip of the 12 months.”

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