A Mental Game

March 4, 2012

By Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

Tough times again, but for different reasons than last night. I can’t shake this comparison in my mind between Georgia Tech golfer Seth Reeves and Ohio State basketball player Jared Sullinger. It’s driving me nuts.

We have here an unlikely connection, to be sure, but life’s about unlikely.

Add the fact that I’m annoyed by the Yellow Jackets falling short in the women’s basketball ACC championship game against Maryland, and, well, there’s oscillation.

Plus, my twin daughters celebrated their 12th birthday today/Sunday as the Lakers were playing the Heat at the same time the Buckeyes were going for a share of the Big 10 championship AT Michigan State at the same time I was trying to write this.

So I sent a message to an editor saying this story would show up late. It showed up even later than I said it would. Oscillation multiplied.

I’ve spent the day like Seth, the talented redshirt sophomore on one of the top 10 golf teams in the nation who . . . overthinks.

What might he have to do with Sullinger, who entered the season as one of the nation’s top college basketball players?

The link is between the ears.

Ohio State won at MSU Sunday on a remarkable shot with one second left by beleagured senior William Buford. Sullinger is the keystone to that team, though, and if he hadn’t lost his mind a few weeks ago the Buckeyes would be in clover right now, in line for a No. 1 seed.

Reeves hasn’t lost his mind, but — like Sullinger this season — he thinks too much, analyzes too often, self-critiques beyond reason.

This is not my opinion. Well, it is, actually, but it’s Seth’s opinion as well.

He never hits the pause button, nor the mute button, and too rarely does his flush all the clutter. He knows, it, too.

Shoot, Reeves will tell you that he’s been a perfectionist for as long as he can remember. He took some sort of a fancy self analysis test while in high school and . . . surprise! It said he was hard on himself.

“My self-criticalness scale was always really high, which is a good thing and a bad thing. It’s more a bad thing now. It’s what makes me work so hard and strive for perfection . . . now I’m in the process of working against it,” he said.

“I didn’t realize how much of a perfectionist I was. In high school I had trouble with attitude a little because I’d get down on myself, beat myself up on the golf course. That showed me that I have to work on that.”

That high school problem still exists.

Reeves needs to get over it, and he knows it. Sometimes he does, sometimes he doesn’t. He hits the ball longer than everybody on The Flats, and the lefthander is seriously skilled.

But he bludgeons himself upon a misstep.

Reeves is the anti-Bruce Heppler golfer, which is to that while Tech’s golf coach has a bedrock belief that you need to get over it — whether it’s something big, small, or a poor lie . . . NOW — Reeves doesn’t always comply.

“I struggled my first two years here because I was very self critical. Self criticalness can lead to doubt, and I didn’t have any conviction for how I played,” he said.

“I come in here and I’m around all these great players, and I kind of lost confidence in my game and started looking around for different ways to practice and all that . . . and I kind of had to un-learn all that.”

That was, in two paragraphs, a way of Reeves saying he lost his mind.

Golf is hugely mental, and while as a junior he fared so well through the combination of hitting further than everybody else and by out-working EVERYBODY, Reeves showed up at Tech and soon changed.

Mistake.

Reeves was good, and has again on some occasions dating back to last summer been really good because he’s different.

He has that whacker and when he’s on, he’s like the Honey Badger; he doesn’t give a damn about what’s going on around him.

No wonder he dominated as a yute (Joe Pesci word from, `My Cousin Vinny’).

“I always prided myself on being different,” he said. “That might have something to do with being left-handed.”

Actually, Reeves — who writes right-handed — still has at least one corner on the Tech golf team. That’s saying something.

He’s given me cause to use the words, “primal,” and, “paleo,” for the first times — I believe — in my pock-marked career. These are nicknames given him by teammates. We’ll get to all that.

First, you must see that Seth has habits — several of them — which separate him from teammates. He works out like a triathlete, and eats like one as well. He’s so utterly diligent in his faith and his studies that, well, it’s impossible to miss.

It all goes back to that inner drive, that fruitless search for perfection.

This has been his turbo and his air brake.

That inner scream has pushed Reeves to a very good Division I golf program, but it may stand between him and glory. When he doesn’t get it done — sometimes on a hole-by-hole basis — he backs a truck over himself.

“When I was younger I was always in sports . . . like in baseball I was one of the best players on my team. I played shortstop and hit leadoff, but when I struck out, I’d cry because I wanted to succeed so bad,” he said.

“It’s gotten to the point where . . . I’m better at it, but right now it’s all that I’m working on. I’m not good at it, and I’ll admit that.”

Golf, somewhat like tennis and unlike just about every other varsity sport at Georgia Tech, sends up players with a strong and/or strained relationship between parents and student-athletes.

In hoops, there’s high school ball and AAU.

In baseball, travel teams.

In football, well, just the routine.

In golf, who do you think takes the youngsters to all those junior tournaments and then hovers at the practice tee and green before following every round?

Back in Duluth, Mark Reeves has wondered if he done it right.

“It wasn’t always easy between us because he thought the best way was to just get on me about it and that wasn’t the best way,” said the son.

The way Heppler — and men’s tennis coach Kenny Thorne and women’s tennis coach Bryan Shelton — has to deal with the parent-student relationship is utterly different than in other sports.

Ditto the student-athletes themselves.

But as Reeves has come to better understand his hard wiring, “Our relationship has grown,” he said of his connection with Mark/Dad.

Quite often, mom or dad is coach No. 1.

That’s not always great. Tiger and Earl Woods . . . that’s not a repeating sequence to be often found.

That self-analysis test back in high school was a bear (Reeves has had another one since arriving at Tech, as per Heppler method).

It’s helped.

Reeves, though, seems likely to always march to his own drummer.

His high-fat/low carbohydrate diet combined with his workout regimen — he’s big on planking — and the fact that he prefers not to wear shoes — he runs, a lot, in those toed shoes you’ve probably seen — gives teammates an opening.

“They call me, `Primal,’ with the paleo diet . . . a lot of fruits and vegetables and meat,” he said. “And . . . there are all these bones in our body, and we don’t actually need shoes . . . I feel like they have respect for me because I don’t necessarily care what people think.”

How necessary was that word, “necessarily?”

Reeves has not yet been able to stop over-thinking.

If he does, watch out.

First, to Betsy, I’m sorry for the late story. And for those of you wondering about the Sullinger comparison . . . he was — after being one of the nation’s best players as a freshman, rocking over the first two-thirds of this season (despite some injuries), but hit a wall a few weeks ago. He began whining about officiating, touches and more. Ohio State’s dynamic changed completely. As a freshman, the most remarkable thing about Sully was his indifference to all the noise around him. Then, the got sucked into the noise, and his team fell stuck between gears. We’ll see what happens from here. He went for 14 and 10 at MSU, where the Buckeyes overcame a 15-point first-half deficit to give the Spartans the only home loss of the season — on MSU’s Senior Day. Oh, and the Lakers won. Kobe rocked, and Dwayne fouled out. Plus, the girls will be 12 Tuesday.

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