'No One Else is Beating Up on You More Than You'

The Daily Coach caught up with Tampa Bay Rays' Head of Mental Performance Justin Su'a recently to discuss the importance of asking questions, why self-doubt is so common, and why having confidence can be overrated.

The player was in a big slump — and negative thoughts and self-doubt were creeping in.

“I just lack confidence,” he said.

But Justin Su’a wasn’t satisfied with the explanation. He told the player it wasn’t confidence he lacked, but overall direction, and the negative thoughts he was allowing to mount would ultimately be his undoing.

“You’re focusing on your past failures and ruminating over a strikeout that happened once and replaying it 10 times in your mind,” Su’a, currently the head of mental performance for the Tampa Bay Rays, told him.

“You’re focusing on the future and if you keep playing like this, how you’re going to get released or demoted instead of on what you can control and being where your feet are. It’s not a confidence thing. It’s a focus thing.”

“Oh my gosh,” the player said. “You’re absolutely right.”

For the past decade, Su’a has been helping players shift their mentalities and reframe their thinking on a variety of performance issues.

The Daily Coach caught up with him recently to discuss the importance of asking questions over giving advice, why self-doubt is so common, and why having confidence is often overrated.

This interview has been condensed and edited for brevity.  

Coach, thanks a lot for doing this. Tell us a little about your childhood and some key lessons from it.

I grew up in Torrance, Calif., and played all kinds of sports, but I really wanted to follow in my father’s footsteps. He was a minor league baseball player who was in the Dodgers and Brewers organizations, then opened up a trucking business. He knew nothing about trucking, but he turned a little pickup truck into 30 semi-trucks, and it became a multi-million dollar company.

My mom grew up in Los Angeles and didn’t have a college degree, but she ended up being his vice president. They loved it before they sold it so my dad could get into coaching. He coached my high school baseball teams and at the University of Cal State-Dominguez Hills. My father always showed me his love for me wasn’t predicated on how I did on the field.

You go to Brigham Young University to play baseball and were a serious prospect before making a bold decision to go on a two-year church mission. What led you to that and how did it shape you?

I was a freshman All-American, then I went on the mission to Nicaragua. A scout told me at the time, “This is going to be the biggest mistake for your career.” And he was right! I came back and my mind and body weren’t the same. I was riddled with injuries. But it was a wonderful experience. I didn’t speak Spanish and was living in a jungle with no electricity or water and didn’t talk to my parents for two years.

What I couldn’t have predicted was I now have a love for players who are here from other countries. I know what it’s like to be in another culture now and not speak the language. One of the reasons I struggled when I came back was my perspective shifted so much. My goal was still to be in the big leagues, but my work ethic wasn’t there.

Now, being on the pro side of things, I know that one of the key questions scouts ask is, “Do you love the sport?” If I had looked a scout in the eyes, I would have said, “I don’t love it.” But it wasn’t a knock to my identity, because for two years, I was forging and adding to who I was as a person beyond just Justin the baseball player.

You went to the University of Utah for grad school and eventually took a job working with Army soldiers in San Antonio. What stands out to you most from that experience that you still apply?

I worked with combat medics, military intelligence and warriors in transition (wounded warriors). I was teaching them processes around stress, goal setting, building confidence, resilience. It was a new demographic and an unbelievable opportunity. We were in a meeting at West Point one time and an officer came in with a ton of badges and said, “We appreciate you being here. You’re helping our country and our soldiers.” I felt great. This was my calling.

Then, another came in with intense energy and looked around the room and goes, “How many of you have ever jumped out of a plane? How many of you have ever been in war? What makes you think you’re going to come into our area and teach us how to be mentally tough and perform under pressure?” Now I’m questioning my job and what I’ve gotten myself into. He was right. I knew nothing.

Then he smiled and goes, “I know none of you have done those things. Your job is to come in here and partner with us. Do not go into your units thinking you know everything. Trust the expertise and acknowledge the experience of the men and women you’re going to work with.” I took that advice to heart. I just tried to convey that I came with respect and I didn’t know everything and that I would be a guide on the side, not a sage on the stage.

A lot of times, you can get caught in the trap of thinking you’re an advice and counsel giver. With more experience, you realize everyone is the expert of themselves. I changed from being someone giving advice to asking better questions. I got more into genuine relationship building. I’ve heard this phrase: “You want to build relationships that are so strong that they can bear the weight of truth.” I like to do that more and let conversations organically flow rather than come in with five steps, six tools, do this.

You’ve worked with IMG Academy, the Boston Red Sox, Cleveland Browns and now the Tampa Bay Rays and have developed some pretty original views on performance. One of these is that you feel confidence is overrated.

A lot of people say, “I want to be more confident.” I often ask in response, “Have you ever been really confident and performed poorly? Have you ever had no confidence and performed really well?” They say yeah. To me, the amount of confidence you have is not an accurate predictor of future success. I get it. We’d rather have it than not. But what I don’t want is an athlete who doesn’t have confidence going into a game thinking they can’t perform.

I was working with another professional athlete who was working on a new technique and was really struggling, to the point where if people were to see him, they wouldn’t have believed he was a professional. I go up to him after and say, “Do you ever worry that working on something new is going to rock your confidence?” He goes, “I didn’t do that to build my confidence. I practice to build my competence and I let the confidence follow.”

People who are focusing on just building confidence are essentially grabbing air. You can’t control the level of your confidence. You can control the effort you put in every day and focus on the present to get better on a drill. We don’t focus on feelings or how much confidence we have or don’t have. We focus on our level of preparation, which is something we have 100 percent control over.

On social media, you touch a lot on negativity and why defeat really sticks with us. Why in your experience do so many of us get trapped with negative thoughts?

A lot of it is the evolutionary process. It’s a protection mechanism. We try to avoid pain, physical and emotional. When we experience pain, it’s encoded in our brains and is memorable. Our natural inclination is to mask it by either lying to ourselves, or mask it with positivity or by numbing our minds with other disassociating activities. When we lose, we feel that pain, but pain is a catalyst to change.

We always say, “Learn from failure.” What people don’t mention is failure is painful, it hurts, it’s embarrassing and people don’t want to experience it. A lot of well-intentioned people are going to tell you, “Hey, it’s O.K. Be positive. Get back up.” No, let them process the pain because athletes put so much heart and soul into doing what they do. Losing is easy to remember. That’s why we’re so afraid to fail — the pain that’s associated with it.

You’re really big on seeing small victories along the way. Why do you feel they’re so important?

I think it just comes from physics. Newton was awesome. An object in motion tends to stay in motion unless acted upon by an equal and opposite force. We want results, the big sweeping results. But there’s a lagging effect between the process and results.

The world doesn’t see the micro failures behind the scenes. I really feel the tiny wins build momentum and that you need to catch yourself winning. It’s so easy to get down on yourself and identify your deficiencies and weaknesses, but if you pause, confidence comes from doing what you said you were going to do and stacking wins on your private, personal scoreboard. No one else is beating up on you more than you. It’s important to say, “I’m winning as well.” There’s power that comes with progress and making tiny gains. All of a sudden, those behaviors that you developed to get those tiny gains become habits.

You really dislike the phrase, “Sometimes you win. Sometimes you learn.”

It suggests you don’t learn from winning, but success leaves clues, too. A lot of times, we only pause and reflect and try to get back to the drawing board after a loss. We don’t do that as much after we win. “What did I learn? How did I prepare? How did we get lucky?” We celebrate, go out, put it on social media and move onto the next things when I think we can pull out so many lessons from success.

I would rephrase it. “Sometimes you win. Sometimes you lose. You learn from both.”

Q&A Resources

Justin Su'a ― Linktree