In 2018, then freshman Emily Ackerman stepped foot on Cal Poly’s campus for the first time as a Division-I tennis player.
Ackerman was either the No. 6 or No. 7 player on the team. With only six players in a lineup, this meant she was in and out of the lineup. As a result, she said she was in her head constantly about whether or not she was good enough.
The mental struggles Ackerman faced are unique, but they are not exclusive to her, tennis or even Cal Poly. Every athlete faces mental challenges, whether it be trying to make the lineup, coming back from injury or playing through personal struggles off the court.
The one man that helps in all these different cases is Jeff Troesch. Troesch’s official title for Cal Poly is Performance Specialist, but he classifies himself as a “mental strength and conditioning coach.”
In the Purple Patch Podcast and the Nick Symmonds Show, Troesch compared the brain to any other muscle in the body. Like weight-lifting for athletes, they also have to practice building the mental component of their game to be the best athlete they can be.
“One of the things [Troesch] talks about is that you can look at something either as an opportunity or a threat,” Ackerman said. “Our team kind of centers a lot of our conversations around [that idea].”
Mental practice is essential to high-level athletic competition.
“I don’t want my athletes to ever be surprised when something is difficult,” Troesch said.
Cal Poly and collegiate sports
Since 2004, Troesch has served as a mental skills and performance enhancement coach for Cal Poly. He is currently under contract with all of Cal Poly’s Division-I teams on campus. In the past, he has worked with the Seattle Mariners, Detroit Tigers, professional golfers, tennis players, Olympic medalists and still is individually contracted with other university programs. According to Troesch, the names of athletes cannot be listed because of confidentiality reasons.
Troesch initially started working with the Mustangs by chance. He ran into an old pitching coach for the Mariners who was working for the Cal Poly baseball team. Troesch went out with the Cal Poly team and believed his work partnered well with head coach Larry Lee’s philosophies.
He now primarily works with golf, tennis and baseball at Cal Poly, but athletes on any team can work with Troesch at any time.
Troesch said that the needs of collegiate athletes are different from professionals.
“A lot of professional athletes eat based on how well they do… professional golfers, professional tennis players and triathletes, this is their livelihood,” Troesch said. “With collegiate athletes, there is a broader spread of motivation. Some of them use the athletic portal to get into Cal Poly… they see Cal Poly as the finish line.”
Troesch said that the spread of motivation, interest and commitment is particularly noticeable at Cal Poly because the school does not have a storied tradition of athletic excellence like schools such as Stanford or UCLA.
While many coaches examine athletes’ technique or tell them how to train, Troesch is one of few to speak about the game in a way that is not exclusively about technique.
Troesch’s fundamental practices
Troesch said he has thousands of different models and phrases he uses. One of the most foundational practices he coaches is to “be process-oriented rather than outcome-oriented.”
“One of the big challenges for athletes is they get too distracted with outcomes and they don’t pay attention to the task,” Troesch said.
So, Troesch said he works hard with athletes on “relentless execution” of their task. For a hockey goalie, that task is reading and stopping pucks. For a linebacker, that task can be spying the quarterback and getting tackles. For a golfer, that task can be hitting a blind 180-yard approach shot over trees.
He says many athletes will focus or worry about the score, whether they win or lose, instead of putting their attention on executing their task.
Troesch’s other foundational practice that accompanies a process-oriented mindset is being “intentional about getting one day better every day.”
“The goal I really care about with every athlete in every sport is to fixate on a developmental process where they are intentional about daily progress and what that progress is,” Troesch said.
In the same vein, on the Nick Symmonds Show, Troesch discussed that he works on getting his athletes to focus on “what they are doing” rather than “what something means.”
Many will have a bad workout and think about what that means. On the other hand, an athlete may have a good game and get caught up in the storyline of what it means to play well.
“He has helped me learn that my identity and my worth is not dependent on how well I do in my sport,” Ackerman said.
Instead of having either of those two juxtaposed thought processes, Troesch said he believes an athlete should centralize their focus on what they are doing in the current moment.
Impact of injury
For many athletes, the biggest psychological challenge they can face is rehabbing from injury.
“One of the common themes [for injured athletes] is the anxiety around the uncertainty of return to play,” Troesch said.
In his time, he has seen many athletes get frustrated in their process of recovery and said that it is a harsh reality for athletes knowing they are not going to be as sharp or skilled when they first step back onto the field.
“[With] the ‘one day better’ notion, you are just coming back from an ACL tear,” Troesch said. “Are you better than you were yesterday? That feels better than ‘I can’t run like I did six months ago.’”
Ackerman had a fractured fibula her freshman year, which caused her to miss a quarter. In her sophomore season, she would wear a boot and take it off to play.
“One thing Jeff taught me – not related to injury but it could be applied to injury is – they [injuries] are things we can’t control,” Ackerman said.
Ackerman said that Troesch has also helped her voice when injuries are worth speaking up about and when she is making things a bigger deal than they are.
“He, a lot of the time, played liaison between us and the coaches… it was kind of a bridge for us when it came to injuries,” Ackerman said.
Troesch said he’s worked with “at least 30,000” athletes in his time. This experience puts him in a very unique role.
Besides the individual person-to-person work he does, Troesch plays a part in team building and cohesion. He works with both coaches and players to make sure everyone at each level is communicating with each other in the most beneficial way.
“Jeff has helped me learn how to communicate better and be a better communicator on the court,” Ackerman said. “I have a hard time talking directly to my teammate… and that was one thing I never really had before college [and working with Troesch].”
Wang, meanwhile, said that at the beginning of each year, the new team and coaches sit down together with Troesch and they do DiSC profiles. DiSC stands for the four main personality profiles in the model: (D)ominance, (i)nfluence, (S)teadiness and (C)onscientiousness.
Troesch used Cal Poly baseball to help explain the team aspect of sports.
“We all look at everything in life through our own lens,” Troesch said. “There’s 30 guys on the baseball team, they’re experiencing 30 different experiences at the same moment. It’s one game with 30 different perceptions.”
Thus, according to Troesch, it is crucial that teammates, coaches and administrators learn how to communicate in a healthy way with each other.
“I’m not a coach, I’m not an administrator; so people tell me their intimate truths,” Troesch said. “Athletes tell me what’s real and coaches tell me what’s real.”
Cal Poly golf
Troesch regularly travels with the Cal Poly women’s golf team. At the NCAA Stanford Regional from May 9-11 this year, Troesch was named an assistant coach so that he could be on the course with the team instead of behind the ropes with the fans.
“Having him on the course allowed me to stay more in the present and focus on my task at hand,” Cal Poly senior golfer Vanessa Wang said. “At Stanford, before every single shot, he would remind me of my breath and tempo.”
Over the years, taking a deep cleansing breath before each shot is something Wang has worked hard on adding into her pre-shot routine. She said she was “grateful” to have Troesch there with her before every shot.