TCU players credit sports psychologist for finding winning routine

Sports psychologist Brian Cain visits with former TCU pitcher Brandon Finnegan while he played for the USA Collegiate National Team in 2013. Finnegan is now with the Kansas City Royals.
Sports psychologist Brian Cain visits with former TCU pitcher Brandon Finnegan while he played for the USA Collegiate National Team in 2013. Finnegan is now with the Kansas City Royals. Courtesy

The highlight begins with the ball leaving the pitcher’s hand.

But to see when the successful execution of Elliott Barzilli’s game-winning hit actually began Monday, you have to rewind to when he approached the batter’s box.

With TCU and North Carolina State tied at 8 in the bottom of the 10th inning, the sophomore transfer from Georgia Tech stared at the left-field foul pole, drew a deep breath and then released the negative and anxious thoughts he had.

Then he fully focused on the task at hand — winning each pitch at a time.

“The routine is the thing you can control,” TCU coach Jim Schlossnagle said. “You can try to put your best swing on it, but that day your swing might be a little off or the pitcher may be a little bit better. There are so many things in baseball you can’t control.”

Barzilli knocked in the winning run, but even he agreed that the real MVP of that situation was sports psychologist Brian Cain.

Cain, who is based in Southlake, has worked with the TCU baseball program since 2006, providing ways for players to think about the mental part of the game and, most important, setting up routines to help them live in the moment.

Every player’s routine is different, but each contains some aspect of focusing on a single point (whether it is a foul pole or an X drawn on a bat) and taking deep breaths while thinking positive thoughts.

“What that breath helps them do is be in control of themself, mentally and emotionally,” Cain said. “You have to be in control of yourself before you can control your performance.”

In his years of work with TCU, Cain’s program has gone from helpful advice to a daily culture at Lupton Stadium, making it easy for freshmen and transfers like Barzilli to integrate into a heightened awareness for the mental game.

“Last year, I didn’t have Brian Cain with Georgia Tech and this year I do, and I think it’s helped me a lot throughout baseball and helped me keep my mind straight in big situations like that,” Barzilli said.

Cain visits the TCU baseball program several times during the season, offering presentations that help emphasize the mentality needed at that point in the season.

On Sunday, after TCU’s loss to N.C. State the day before, Cain showed the team a video of Matt Hughes’ UFC 52 fight in 2005 against Frank Trigg, where Hughes took an illegal knee to the groin that was not seen by the referee. He withstood a near two-minute assault of punches before finding a way to wiggle out. He would eventually win the bout.

“He was done,” junior outfielder Evan Williams said. “He was like us, we had gotten kneed in the groin a couple times. We were on the ground in a chokehold and we were done, but the guy gave him some life and he flipped him around and got him up, turned him around and made him tap out about 30 seconds later.

“It was pretty fitting because that’s what happened to us. That’s exactly what they did to us.”

Cain preached the value of “working the cut,” before TCU’s final two games against the Wolfpack. That meant focusing on jabs at the opponent’s weak spot instead of going for the knockout every opportunity.

That’s what Cain believes won Monday night’s thriller for the Horned Frogs

“I don’t think there’s a more clear example of working the cut, staying patient in the face of adversity and then winning pitches in the history of baseball than maybe Monday night,” he said.

When Cain isn’t working with TCU, he’s traveling the country working with mixed martial arts fighters such as world champion Georges St-Pierre and other college teams. The Saturday before the Fort Worth Regional, Cain was in Las Vegas in the corner of fighter Vitor Belfort before he went to Oklahoma City to spend time with the LSU softball team at the Women’s College World Series.

A series of errors and executed hits led to TCU’s improbable come-from-behind win, but third baseman Derek Odell said without the work put in by Cain before the fact, the outcome would have been much different.

“No shot. Doesn’t even come close to that happening,” he said. “I don’t think that last night even comes close to happening if we don’t trust our routine and trust in each other and just truly compete pitch by pitch, winning each and every pitch individually.”

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