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DENVER — Joe Musgrove was in the pool, following his teachers’ instructions, but he and his fellow neophytes were struggling. His stomach convulsed and his lungs begged his brain to surface for breath. Musgrove, the San Diego Padres’ emerging ace, held on until the desperate last moment, almost to the breaking point, before finally getting some air.

Then he came down again, this time longer.

It was an underwater training class for athletes called Deep End Fitness, taught in a swimming pool near San Diego by a former Marine. The aim is to help participants overcome mental barriers, master breathing techniques and overcome fears and obstacles. Athletes do underwater scavenger hunts as a team, walk the pool floor with weights, play four-on-four submerged football with hand-held synthetic torpedoes, and other exercises designed to push the limits.

For Musgrove and teammate Mike Clevinger, who took the course series together this offseason, it was another example of the type of mental toughness conditioning that is still gaining ground in professional sports – another way to improve performance on the mound by accepting uncomfortable situations and speeding through them.

“It’s completely different from anything you might expect,” Musgrove said in an interview at Coors Field earlier this month. “I went there extremely nervous the first time because I had no idea what we were getting into. You learn a lot about yourself in the first two classes. It was important for me to work in something where I knew I was going to fail.

Small failures like this 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 techniques now as much a part of his repertoire as his sinker and change, Musgrove has a career season at 29, building a terrific 2021, when he finished with an average of earned runs of 3.18 and threw the first no-hitter in Padres history – which he said looked a bit like a “fluke.”

This year, as Padres first baseman Eric Hosmer put it, Musgrove has taken it “to the next level,” and there doesn’t seem to be a fluke about it. Musgrove is 8-1, with a 2.12 ERA 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 Thursday in a tough outing against Philadelphia. But Musgrove’s fantastic start helped the Padres off to a 44-28 start, which is the best in franchise history and puts them as the No. 1 wild card in the NL through Thursday.

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

“It was a masterclass in throwing,” Clevinger, who just returned from Tommy John surgery, said of his teammate. “He does everything.”

Jurickson Profar, an outfielder for the Padres, added, “It’s amazing how he commands the field when he’s on the mound.”

A self-proclaimed late developer, Musgrove has long sought ways to add alternate skills to complement his physical gifts – he is 6ft 5in and weighs 230lbs. At age 15, he practiced the Hoefling method of martial arts, named after Gus Hoefling, who trained star pitchers such as Steve Carlton of the Philadelphia Phillies in the 1970s, and he dabbled in d other psychological tools.

Musgrove said he often asks other players, coaches, coaches and others about preferred techniques, choosing and adding whatever matches his style and approach. He can unearth useful mental challenges almost anywhere, including “turning off the stop button” while jogging in the outfield on hot afternoons and washing dishes.

Even standing at the sink, doing the most mundane of tasks, Musgrove turns it into a challenge by forcing her mind to stay in the moment – ​​like a form of self-taught meditation. He tries to focus solely on washing and rinsing, despite the brain’s impulse to wander, and the skill is transferable. Even an elite pitcher’s brain can turn to outside thoughts, sometimes in the middle of a key batting game.

“Like underwater training, it’s not going to improve your performance or get you out 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 imagine flawless execution and success in his mind. Some pitchers may imagine themselves throwing the perfect pitch or lifting the championship trophy into the air.

But those mental images, Musgrove said, are fantastic compared to the way the sport plays out in real time, in which elbows hurt, grips slip, mounds get muddy and opposing hitters smash home runs.

When Musgrove lies in bed the nights before a start, he often visualizes the small failures and obstacles that inevitably occur – a stiff shoulder, a first home run, bases full of runners while opposing fans scream in his ears and sweat runs into his eyes.

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

When these situations, or similar situations, arise, Musgrove has already planned for them. An elevated heart rate is expected. Panic thoughts are banished. Practical solutions are employed.

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

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

“First batter of the game, bang, home run,” Musgrove said, “and I’m like, ‘That’s exactly what I expected. “”

Ultimately, Musgrove was likely going through Covid-19, as he tested positive for the next day. In retrospect, a pre-game test would have been warranted, but his symptoms remained mild. And Musgrove had trained his brain to fight through obstacles and, as in underwater training, to push itself past barriers.

That day in Chicago, he responded to illness and a poor start by allowing just one more run through seven innings. It was a bit of a 106 slot job. But, of course, Musgrove had prepared for this.

“We’ve seen him take the ball when he’s sick, when he’s in pain, when he’s not feeling very well,” Hosmer said. “That’s the kind of thing you look for in your ace, and he’s definitely established himself as our ace.”

During off-season underwater training lessons, Musgrove learned he could extend his time without breathing from about a minute and a quarter when he started lessons to just over four minutes at the end.

“Sometimes you have to put the brain aside and let the body do its job,” he said.

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

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

nytimes sport

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