Joe Musgrove Finds Success by Visualizing Failure

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DENVER — Joe Musgrove was in the pool, following the instructions of 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, taught in 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 of 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 on the mound by accepting uncomfortable situations and blasting through them.

“It is completely different than anything you could 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 getting into. You 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, who has identified the mental aspect of his 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 “next level,” and there does not 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 only the seventh pitcher since 1994 to open a season with such consistency.

That streak came to an end on Thursday in 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 N.L.’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 the program would lead to success. They still don’t know for certain, but it clearly has not hurt.

“It’s been a master class in pitching,” Clevinger, who is just recently returning from Tommy John surgery, said of his teammate. “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 add alternative skills to complement to 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 has 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. He can unearth useful mental challenges almost anywhere, 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 the skill is transferable. Even an elite pitcher’s brain can veer to outside thoughts, sometimes in the middle of a key at-bat.

“Like the underwater training, it isn’t going to make your stuff better or get you 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 does not 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 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 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’s lifted off you, 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 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 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 it 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 the bad start by allowing only 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 he has definitely solidified himself as our ace.”

During the underwater-training classes in the off-season, Musgrove learned he could extend his time without breathing from about a minute and a quarter when he first started the classes 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 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 sat on a checklist of achievements he would be honored to reach.

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

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