The Cal Poly women’s basketball team had just lost to rival UC Santa Barbara in the finals of the Big West Conference Tournament in 2009, and Kristina Santiago was beginning to think she just couldn’t do anything right in two trips to the Anaheim Convention Center.
“I don’t play good there,” Santiago said. “I need help. I don’t know what to do. This is not my favorite place to play. Last year, I messed up big time.”
Neither parents, siblings nor any other family or friends got her first phone call. She didn’t go to head coach Faith Mimnaugh or any assistant coaches.
Santiago’s crisis call was received by a member of the Mustangs athletic department relatively unknown to the public — sports psychologist Jeff Troesch, whose work counseling players and coaches at Cal Poly has them swearing by his methods. “He helped me clear my mind,” Santiago said. “I’ve never really talked to any kind of psychologist or anything before. It’s just so amazing how he can release all your stress and lift it off your shoulders.”
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In his 24 years as a licensed mental health counselor, Troesh, 50, has experience with the NBA, MLB, professional golf, tennis and with elite amateur athletes. He brought that experience to San Luis Obispo in 2004 and quickly found a niche at Cal Poly, while still working with his existing clientele as well as sports programs at UCLA and Cal.
With counseling from Troesch, the Cal Poly baseball team made the program’s first appearance at a Division I regional. So did the softball team. The women’s basketball team has gone from a perennial middle-of-the-pack squad in the Big West to a regular-season conference champion.
“My philosophy, if I was trying to sum up part of it, is every athlete that I’ve worked with has exactly the same goal,” Troesch said, “and the goal is to get one day better every day. When they’re fixated on that, and they’re not worried about the outcome and have a quality plan to do that, we really see them thrive.”
Success in sports is so often quantified by wins and losses, measurable statistics, tangible accomplishments. It’s Troesch’s job to help divert an athlete or coach’s mental attention away from those goals as a means to relieve the pressure and anxiety associated with achieving them.
But while failure in his field is much harder to quantify, how much of the Mustangs’ success between the lines can be attributed to Troesch?
The answer is simple to Mimnaugh, who marks the beginning of Troesch’s tenure counseling her program with a simple line of demarcation.
“Pretty much when we started winning, if that’s any indication of the impact he’s had on our program,” said Mimnaugh, who had her first winning season in 2008-2009 and has competed for titles each of the past two years. “All those games we lost by one point or two points or three points, we’re now winning by one point or two points or three points.”
The women’s basketball team is just one example. Troesch works with nearly every athletic program on campus. Excluding football, volleyball and men’s basketball, he’s helped the rest deal with performance anxiety, goal orientation, injury rehab and many other aspects to the mental side of sports.
Troesch was a three-sport athlete himself growing up in Seattle before an injury curtailed any future he might have had as a baseball player.
With a marketing degree from Washington State, Troesch was hired by the Seattle SuperSonics as a media relations director fresh out of college, but it was during his time in the NBA that he decided he wanted to go back to school to pursue sports psychology, a relatively new frontier in the United States in the early 1980s.
His career led him to continued work in the NBA, jobs with the Seattle Mariners and their minor-league affiliates, a spot developing programs at IMG Academies in Florida, and eventually a move to Palm Springs, where he helped found his own golf academy.
When Troesch decided to settle his family in San Luis Obispo, Cal Poly baseball coach Larry Lee just happened to be one of his new neighbors. And when former Cal Poly pitching coach Jerry Weinstein recognized Troesch from his minor-league days while volunteering at a baseball fundraiser, Lee welcomed the help of a professional.
“If used the proper way, he has a lot of say so in wins and losses,” Lee said. “That’s how big the mental side of the equation is.
“Sometimes, the reason why our players give him a call or set up a meeting is when it’s a 911 call, when they’re hitting rock bottom. That’s not what you want. You want to have a foundation," Lee said. “Baseball’s a very mental game, and when you’re struggling, it feels like you’ll never get back to where you want to be, and the good athletes in all sports have that something, that quiet mind, and that’s what you’re trying to do.”
Some call it being calm under pressure. To Troesch, it’s not about being calm in uncomfortable situations. It’s about expecting the uncomfortable situation to arise and putting yourself in enough of them to learn how to proceed.
“It’s like building a competitive callous,” Troesch said. “A lot of times, people think mental training is about helping people be calm under pressure, but it’s so that they become hardened to it.”
Troesch’s philosophies on mental discipline have also worked for his daughter, Tori, a junior at San Luis Obispo High and reigning PAC 7 girls tennis champion.
Not wanting to be a meddling sports parent, Troesch won’t push his teachings on Tori, who’s ranked as a three-star college recruit by tennisrecruiting.net.
Though Tori has been eavesdropping on his calls with clients for years, he waits until she comes to him.
It’s the same way with Cal Poly athletes. They have the choice to see Troesch or not.
“I would say that our very best players opted to utilize him,” Mimnaugh said. “Some of them have been reluctant to use him. I don’t know that they’ve ever become the best that they probably could have been, but I applaud the athletes that have taken advantage of his great skills.”
Santiago was skeptical at first. But as she rehabs from a torn ACL to return for her fifth year at Cal Poly, she’s glad she has Troesch.
“It was kind of awkward at first,” Santiago said. “I talked to him a couple times, and I was like, ‘I don’t know if that’s really my thing,’ but as time when on, I realized it’s nice to talk to someone who understands and knows the sports world.”