Michigan's mental toughness put to test at Indoor Championships

Sunday, March 11, 2018 - 11:41pm

Mental fortitude isn’t something that comes to mind when talking about weight throws and shot puts.

But for the Michigan men’s track and field team, that wasn’t the case this weekend at the NCAA Indoor Championships.

“I was thinking too much,” said junior Joe Ellis. “That was the real bane of the throwing events. You just have to let your body take over, and I started to think, ‘I just really want to blast each as far as I could’ instead of just letting the process naturally happen as it happened all season.”

The mental aspect of the sport was put to the test early in the rounds for both weight throw participants, Ellis and senior Grant Cartwright. Coming into the championship, Ellis had posted career-highs in all areas. He credits the recent success to a shift in emphasis towards technique.

Whereas last year was frontloaded with room strength training — specifically squats — this year was fully focused on improving techniques.

“I added an extra turn,” Ellis said on his technique changes. “I do four turns in the ring and I think that added a more difficult, technical aspects, but when I hit a good one, it’s usually farther because of that. I’m a lot more technically sound.

“This year was way more on the technical (side), trying to figure out how to just throw far right away, and I’ve done that all season. I threw pretty deep all season, and this was kind of a shocker, when I fouled my first two, because before this meet, I had only fouled two or three throws.”

The result, despite finishing fifth in the event and earning First-Team All-American accolades, was not what Ellis had expected or wanted. Breaking multiple school records through the regular season, expectations couldn’t have been higher for him.

However, he just couldn’t cash in.

“It’s the nature of the event,” Ellis said, “and you only get six chances or three chances, and if you’re lucky, you get all six.”

Though disappointed he couldn’t do better, Ellis’ performance wasn’t one to forget.

“I’m phrasing it a lot like it wasn’t a successful weekend, but in fact it was,” he said laughing. “Becoming a First-Team All-American is super difficult, and this is my highest performance I’ve done yet at any national meet. … You were saying improvement from last year. You know seventh (last year), I felt like I squeaked in, but fifth, I felt like I was really part of the conversation all year.”

It just so happens that Ellis had found himself in the highest-leverage situation he’s been in all season — and on the biggest stage. Fouling his first two rounds out of the sector put immense pressure to throw a big one for the third round with the goal of ultimately qualifying. Already swamped with thoughts that troubled him in the early rounds, he stepped back and took to his friend and teammate Cartwright.

Cartwright calmed him down and brought him back into focus. As Michigan coach Jerry Clayton put it, it was a “competitive advantage” to have friends both participate in the same event — the NCAA Championships at that. But for Ellis, it was a helpful beacon to remind him it was just another throw, allowing him to post a 22.55-meter mark.

Cartwright faced a similar situation as Ellis, but rather than fouling the first two rounds by throwing outside the sectors, he committed foot fouls. For his first attempt, he threw what could have been a qualifying First-Team All-American throw, but he couldn’t hold the front of the ring. For his second throw, just narrowly, Cartwright fouled on another good throw, which was met with skepticism from the Michigan coaching staff.

After filing a protest to challenge the call, his throw was reviewed and confirmed a foul. Just as Ellis had, Cartwright had to face his final throw with mounting pressure to make the final round. He failed to qualify, throwing 20.82 meters to get a 12th-place finish, good for Second-Team All-American honors.

“You have to go after the throws and hit the rhythm,” Clayton said. “The problem is you can’t — I guess people say to just take a ‘safe throw’ — but you can’t really take a safe throw at this level and make the finals, especially with two fouls.”

Sophomore Andrew Liskowitz also got Second-Team All-American honors with his 18.38-meter shot put. Just as the other Wolverine participants, his first two attempts were met with fouls.

“That week, you always have on your mind, ‘You have to make finals,’ and there were 16 other people in the heat which was a little irregular,” Ellis said. “And so when you have your first one, you wait about 15 minutes before you have a chance to get back in the ring, and so it really takes a toll on you mentally.”

The mental strife was evident through Michigan’s performances for what was an underachievement by the standards of the players and program, but there was plenty to learn from for the players going forward.