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Becoming Mentally Stronger

Feb. 26, 2011

By Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

Kristen Adkins and her Georgia Tech softball teammates are in the midst of a rare weekend off, which they can use to recalibrate. After a 6-0 start, the Yellow Jackets have lost four of five, most recently falling 4-1 Wednesday at Kennesaw State.

At 7-4, they are not where you might expect to find a team that ranked in the high teens.

Perhaps nobody on that team might better be able to lead a recalibration process than a certain senior from McKinney, Texas.

Adkins veered off course last season, and has gone through great mental duress to get back on with her faith riding shotgun in a sidecar.

After transferring from Florida following one season with the Gators, Adkins was smack in the middle of the Jackets’ drive to the ACC title in 2009. As a pitcher, she was 24-7 with an ERA of 1.69, pitching a whopping 182.1 innings. As a part-time third baseman/defender/pinch hitter, she batted .273 with nine home runs and 40 RBI.

The bottom did not exactly fall all the way out last season, but the floor dropped.

The arrival of freshman pitching/hitting sensation Hope Rush had a lot to do with that.

Adkins knew ahead of time that matters were going to be different, and she thought she was equipped to adapt.

It turned out she wasn’t ready to pitch less than half as frequently as she had, and while the damage to her psyche was more notably manifested in her offense, Adkins changed in more ways.

She pitched a modest 88.1 innings, sporting a record of 8-2 with an ERA of 2.30, and her batting average slipped to .183. Her appearances on defense dipped dramatically.

Not exactly an afterthought, Adkins was nonetheless not on par with the player who’d been named second team All-ACC in 2009, when she was also the ACC Tournament MVP.

Talk to her a few times, and the idea of using the word ego doesn’t seem at all right, but something of hers took a hit last season. Maybe pride is a better word.

“I knew my role was changing, but at the time I probably wasn’t ready to deal with it,” she said the other day. “I really just wasn’t prepared for it mentally.

“I thought I was ready for it, and obviously I wasn’t. I had a little bit of a mental snafu maybe a quarter of the way through the season, and really had to figure out how to pull myself out of a slump.”

Adkins said she’s a much stronger person – and not just on the field of play – now than she was then. But, “It wasn’t easy. It’s never easy,” to get to this place.

It would not be fair to Adkins to suggest that her entire process of mental re-trenching could be described here because it wasn’t so simple. Yet key elements should resonate.

Foremost, she believes that strengthening her relationship with Christ was central.

She also read quite a bit of literature on becoming mentally stronger.

And her relationship with a former teammate who was going through a similar process, former Tech pitcher Jessica Coan, was huge.

Last summer, the two attended a worship-based conference in Jacksonville.

Coan – who along with Adkins and Rush handled virtually all the pitching duties for Tech last season – was looking at other options.

Adkins said that even in the midst of her lowest point, she was never considering transferring. She was looking for a way to pick herself up. Coan was looking elsewhere.

“We were at the conference, and it was like a light came on,” Adkins said. “We stayed up all night, discussing matters. She was going through about whether or not to transfer. She was saying that she hadn’t been shown a way to go.

“She had been talking to the Auburn coach and the Baylor coach, and literally that night . . . she had two voice mails, one from the Auburn coach and one from the Baylor coach saying `Sorry, things aren’t going to work out.’ Instantly, she knew.”

Coan transferred to North Georgia, where she’s studying to become a teacher, and leading the Saints’ softball team, which is ranked No. 3 in Division II.

Coan pitched six innings Friday, allowing one hit and striking out 11 in a 7-0 win over California (Pa.) For the season, she’s 6-1 with a 0.17 ERA having allowed 13 hits in 41 innings. She has 69 strikeouts.

At that same conference in Jacksonville, Adkins said she too had – her word – an epiphany. “We stayed up all night long, and cried all night long . . . out of happiness. I can remember that clearly,” Adkins said.

Her epiphanal moment came in the realization that she had been playing for herself, to satisfy her goals, and that it was a mistake to go about business that way.

Now, “It’s not about me. I’m not playing for myself, for my parents, I’m playing for God,” Adkins said. “Colossians, 3:23-24: `Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, 24 since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward.’ That’s become a mantra for me.”

Adkins has been moved, this time more distinctly than in a lesser moment of divine intervention that previously steered her to Tech.

“Moving towards it had a lot to do with my transferring from Florida. Not even 24 hours [after a conversation with the Florida coach], I got a phone call saying that Georgia Tech was looking for a pitcher/third baseman,” she said .”I felt like that was him speaking through me, and leading me in a certain direction.”

Through her grind last season and summer, Adkins was in contact with Tech coach Sharon Perkins and her staff. They had not misled her. She had to some degree misled herself in the way she prepared for her reduced role.

“It’s so hard for [coaches] because they have so many girls,” she said. “They have a completely open-door policy. I know I can go there. That time that I’m in there, it’s not about softball and that’s a great thing. I did take them up on that many times last year.”

Ultimately, Adkins had to do a great deal of self-sorting.

She has.

She and Rush are each 3-2 now, although five of the 10 runs Adkins has allowed in seven games have been unearned. Her 1.15 ERA leads the team, as do her 33 strikeouts. She’s just behind Rush in innings (30.1 to 31.2) and has walked just 11 to Rush’s 23.

There has not been an offensive role for Adkins, but if that’s bothering her it’s impossible to tell in a 20-minute conversation.

What’s impossible to miss is a sense of peace laced with persistence.

“In the words of Pat Summitt . . . I was a huge Lady Vols fan growing up . . . I have become a mental giant rather than a mental midget,” Adkins said. “Whatever I take on, I take a relentless attitude regardless of the outside circumstances. Control what I can control, and adjust my plan if I have to adjust.”

“I still have a long way to go [pitching], a lot of growing to do. It’s still really, really early. I’m just trying to gear for the long haul.”

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