ORLANDO, Fla. – There’s something different about this year’s University of Central Florida team. No, it’s not just first-year Knights head coach Greg Lovelady strictly enforcing new diet habits (no more McDonald’s and Taco Bell). No, Lovelady’s effect has been much more personal. Compared to last season, both young and veteran Knights are playing with more freedom and less concern.
“Honestly, I’d have to say just the overall atmosphere of our locker room and our dugout and everything,” freshman first baseman Rylan Thomas said before practice Thursday. “Coach likes to keep it real loose. And so I think that frees us up to have fun and play loose and, in turn, makes us play real well.”
Said sophomore left-handed pitcher Bryce Tucker on the new-feel Knights before practice Thursday: “Lots of things are different. Definitely a lot more loose. Just having a good time being with each other and just a good group of guys to be with. Just having a lot of fun and just playing baseball. So, it’s definitely going good so far.”
Lovelady’s wants to allow his players to perform in that kind of environment. Rather than instilling fear of failing or fear of being yelled at for making a mistake, the two-time national champion wants his players to embrace failure.
“I think it’s something that allows the kids freedom to enjoy themselves and understand that, for me, if they’re having fun and enjoying themselves and not scared of me or scared of failure or scared of the moments that they’re gonna be able to maximize their ability,” Lovelady said before practice Thursday. “We’ve made mistakes, and that’s okay. That’s part of the game. I think when you allow that, I think, it allows for growth, and it allows the kids to be able to make mistakes and not be worried that if you do that, they’re not gonna play or that they’re gonna get yelled at.
“Mentally, you’re trying to teach them that failure is okay and that losing, if you’re doing it the right way, is okay—which isn’t a very popular belief. You get judged on wins and losses, which in the end of the game, we all do, but we try to judge ourselves on the standard a lot.”
Rooted deep in this approach is a newfound focus on each individual’s mental game. In Lovelady’s first season, one of his first actions was providing his players with a reading list. The focus of that list was to give his players insight into the significance of the mental aspect of baseball. For Thomas, who leads the team in RBIs and home runs, the mental game has helped significantly.
“For me, it’s just staying within myself, not trying to do too much,” Thomas said. “Like earlier in the season, I’d come up, guys on base, and I’ve just been so anxious to drive to drive ’em in, and sometimes you get outside yourself. And that’s when problems happen. But, in the book [Play Big by Tom Hanson] and stuff like that, it kinda teaches you to stay within yourself and believe in what you have and believe in the hard work that you’ve done prior.”
That trust in what each player has worked toward starts from the top. When the going gets tough, Lovelady and his team stick to what has consistently produced results. That was nevermore exemplified when UCF endured its two two-game losing streaks to Florida State University and Dartmouth College.
“There’s gonna be times when things go wrong and things hit the fan and you don’t play the right way,” Lovelady said. “Mental game comes into play big time in that because you wanna stop that from snowballing into something bigger. So, we go on a two-game losing streak… And we had two choices: We could panic and freak out and abort all the things that we had learned in the last eight months and say, ‘Okay, well, now that things are starting to get more pressure-packed, nothing’s working, let’s go back to the way we thought we were doing before or whatever the case is.’
“Or we look inward, we go to each other, we look for help from each other, and we practice harder, and we go out there, grind it and get through it and trust the mental game and not try harder or try a different way.
“We just keep doing the same things we’re doing. And then we were able to turn right out of it. And so you turn a three or four-game bad streak, and you end it. And you start getting back to the way things were. But I think without the mental game, then that turns into a six- or eight- or 10-game streak where you’re not playing well.”
UCF starts conference play with a three-game home series against the University of Houston on Friday at 6:30 p.m. at Jay Bergman Field.