Hunter Lipscomb has undoubtedly annoyed opposing pitchers and catchers, and maybe some umpires, but the Winthrop outfielder is going to take his time in the batter’s box. Regardless of their opinions.
Rhythmic breathing is a staple of Lipscomb’s approach. It’s one of the techniques that Winthrop baseball players learned from Ben Ehrlich, a mental conditioning coach that began working with the team in 2016. Eagles coach Tom Riginos is banking on Ehrlich’s work helping the team to consolidate its hold on first place in the Big South Conference standings, beginning this weekend with a home series against Gardner-Webb.
“Ben makes us better,” Riginos said before Thursday’s practice.
Ehrlich is staunch in his belief that mental conditioning coaches and sports psychologists (slightly different based in part on amount of schooling) should operate in the background, but wanted to speak to The Herald for this story because “a lot of colleges and professional teams are using this and it’s normal. It’s not strange, it’s something that should be part of everybody’s preparation.”
Winthrop faces Gardner-Webb, Campbell and Radford in its final three Big South series of the regular season.
That’s especially true in baseball, a slow-paced game where struggling players can mentally destroy themselves before their next at-bat or inning pitched.
Ehrlich played baseball at Winthrop from 2001 to 2006 and now teaches and coaches at Blythewood High School. Riginos said that Ehrlich - not a far-out flower child but a former Winthrop baseball player who played on two Eagles NCAA Tournament teams - easily connected with the players. And they commended Ehrlich for making sports psychology ideas applicable to them as 20, 21-year olds that play college baseball.
For Lipscomb, it was rhythmic breathing, especially during at-bats. The powerful outfielder likes to take his time in the box, an approach that’s paid off. He’s hitting .270 with four home runs and leads the team in RBI (38).
“It’s not one of the quick, short breaths, it’s a deep one,” Lipscomb said. “It slows your heart rate down and makes you feel comfortable.”
Pitcher Thad Harris uses breathing techniques to calm himself on the mound and also picked up on Ehrlich’s message about trying to play within himself and his abilities. Harris focuses on employing the unique skills that got him recruited to Winthrop, and doing those things on a daily basis. A lefty that doesn’t consistently throw in the 90s, he knows he can’t sling his fastball like his teammate, Nate Pawelczyk. Harris’ fastball needs to dip below the hitter’s knees.
Pawelczyk has arguably been the best pitcher in the Big South this spring in part by better “knowing his number.” That’s an idea Ehrlich uses to help players understand what their level of excitement and adrenaline needs to be before games. Pawelczyk said that some Winthrop players, like fellow pitcher Harris, are pregame nines or 10s. Pawelczyk, who is 6-1 with a 2.21 earned run average, is more of a two or three.
“I perform better when I’m calm and cool and relaxed out there,” he said. “Knowing my number is a big thing because sometimes I would get too jacked up and try to do too much.”
Key for all three techniques is the player understanding himself. That’s not always easy for a college-aged person to do and requires introspection but many of the Eagles have committed themselves to the process.
“You have to step back away from the game and really try to help yourself and fix your problems,” said Harris. “It’s tough. You have to be mature about it.”
Asked to remember a time when he struggled with that, Harris laughed and said, “last night!” Winthrop lost a mid-week contest to N.C. A&T and Harris had a rough time in the one inning he pitched. For the committed athlete, psychological sharpening is a never-ending process.
And there were definitely some text messages and emails exchanged between Winthrop players and Ehrlich after the Eagles lost to The Citadel 34-8 back in March. Those are the occasions when mental conditioning has proven the most valuable for the Eagles.
“Baseball, it’s a game of failure. You fail seven out of 10 times and you’re still considered good,” said Riginos.
Riginos’ players will keep that in mind as they chase a regular season conference championship and the program’s first NCAA regional appearance in 11 years. That leads to one of the biggest points Ehrlich makes to Winthrop players: the importance of keeping perspective on performance and what it means - remembering to have a good time and enjoy the ride, even when it gets difficult and stressful.
Big South baseball standings (as of May 4)
Big South record