By Samantha Strejeck
Big 12 Campus Correspondent
Mental toughness: determination, concentration, self-confidence, poise and resilience.
These are characteristics that describe an individual who can effectively deal with pressure, challenges and stressors, and one who is able to perform at the highest level.
Whether it is wearing a lucky pair of socks in a game or doing quirky routines, these rituals are what uniquely differentiate athletes. These characteristics can increase mental toughness.
West Virginia University’s left-handed pitcher Ross Vance has mastered his mental game through his journeys as a baseball player.
“It’s a game, play it like one,” Vance explained. “I like to have fun when I’m doing something, no matter what I’m doing.”
The quirkiness the McKinney, Texas, native brings to the team is a win-win for everyone. Waving to the catcher, kicking the ball around like a hacky sack and shouting ridiculousness from the dugout creates an all-around comfortable environment for his teammates when they see his relaxed approach.
“It makes the fielders feel a little more comfortable knowing ‘well, he’s not rattled, he’s got it, and we can back him up,’” Vance said. “No matter whether I’m mad about what’s going on in the game, I do the wave, and it kind of loosens me up at least a little bit going into that inning and makes me feel a little bit better.”
An outcome of a game can either affect an athlete’s performance positively or negatively depending on their attitudes. With Vance, he tries to focus on the positives and not let things get in his head. He has a mission that cannot be deterred and that is to help lead his team.
“If I have a rough inning, Ill sit by myself for a minute but usually between every inning, I’m up for a minute yelling and saying my ridiculous things that I do from the dugout,” Vance said. “The bottom line is that it’s a game, and I want to have fun out there.”
When batters step up to the plate against Vance, they overlook his capabilities. With the lack of intimidation that he presents on the mound, as soon as that leg rises high and that arm flings forward, the sudden look of shock strikes the opponents away.
“Once the leg goes up, it kind of throws my momentum down the hill. I had one of my junior college coaches try to get rid of it, and I wasn’t nearly as effective without it,” Vance said. “I don’t know what part was missing, but it gets me going down the hill, and I think it adds a little bit of deception and funkiness that goes with my mental part of the game. It kind of matches everything together.”
His quirky movements on the field and his 5-foot-11, 180-pound appearance disguise his solid, interchangeable pitches. Although Vance doesn’t have the velocity and average appearance, his numbers back him up.
“He’s that guy on the scouting report that says he really doesn’t have anything to get you out with and yet he keeps getting you out,” noted coach Randy Mazey. “Hitters walk back to the dugout and they’re talking to each other frustrated. The hitting coach is having meetings on how to hit this guy and that’s kind of how he pitches.”
He has an ERA of 3.21, leading with 43 strikeouts in 53.1 innings pitched this season, but this took practice.
During the offseason this past summer, Vance knew that in order to be effective he had to work on his fastball command. He would practice innings without throwing breaking balls. He wanted to perfect his ins and outs and ups and downs on his fastball.
“If he has fastball command, then he doesn’t have to throw so many secondary pitches, therefore he is more efficient and he can go deeper in the game,” pitching coach Derek Matlock said. “He’s a guy that can sink the ball and it runs out of the box, but I know if he is on when he throws that fastball for strikes.”
This hard work showed when the Mountaineers defeated Kansas State. He threw a complete game, three-hitter, succeeding the 5-3 victory to even the series.
Starting in 2011, Vance was recruited out of high school by Paris Junior College (Texas). That mid-spring, Vance suffered an injury that affected his left arm forcing him to undergo Tommy John surgery, and he was removed for a year to properly heal.
“I hadn’t had more than a week off throwing since I was five years old,” Vance stated.
Although the time off was tough, Vance’s determination to get back out on the mound and do what he does best motivated him to quickly recover and get his strength back.
After a year’s of recovery, Dodge City Community College (Kansas) picked Vance up in 2013 where he posted an 8-3 record with a 2.00 ERA and was ranked second in the Jayhawk West Conference.
“My whole thought process on it was that I don’t want this to be something that affects me as far as my mental game on the mound, like it can affect me physically I can’t control that, but I put it out of my mind completely,” Vance said.
Vance’s collegiate baseball career has been a learning experience as well as a way to grow. He was clear that he wanted to play Division I baseball but made it to his attention that it has to be under ‘top-tier staff’, which West Virginia provided for him.
Coach Mazey has been someone who Vance respects.
“He understands the game and he sees what’s going on in a way that I can’t see it when I’m out there,” Vance said. “I feel like he sees the matrix of the game.”
Vance strives on perfecting his overall performance and competing at higher levels to gain that challenge. He looks forward to his aspirations for the next season.
“If I can play anywhere, just somewhere where to get some work in and face some good competition so I can perfect my game a little more in order to come back and dominate,” Vance explained.