After arriving from the University of Texas, ASU softball coach Megan Bartlett introduced a new wrinkle into the program she felt played a considerable role in the Longhorns' postseason success a season prior; a mental performance coach.
Bartlett said Justin Foster spends one or two days with the team and assists with many mental health-related tasks.
"After I hired my staff, my next immediate hire was our mental performance coach, Justin Foster," Bartlett said. "So that was a move we made between year one and year two at Texas that made, quite honestly, the difference between a solid postseason team that was able to make that run in Oklahoma City."
Foster's presence has been massive in the Sun Devils' clubhouse. It's one of the many reasons senior Yannira Acuña praises the mental support she received during her time in Tempe.
"I think working on the mental side has helped me throughout the five years that I've been here, just allowing me to gain that confidence," Acuña said. "Because I feel like my body already knows how to play softball. It's always just how I'm working with the mental side of the game and how I'm better as an athlete with the mental side of the game, not just physical."
Before the regular season began, senior outfielder Jazmine Hill said she was excited about Foster's implementation of personal profiles for each player, allowing them to focus on their tailored strengths and weaknesses. Hill said she feels Foster does "a little bit of everything" to prepare the squad for games and even credits him for bringing the team closer together.
"Justin (Foster) was one of the many things that allowed our team to start bonding and connect," Hill said.
Hill, who has had an up-and-down season, credited her support system early in the year for helping her break out of a slump in a big way, tallying seven RBI and helping the Sun Devils rout the Michigan State Spartans 15-2 at Alberta B. Farrington Stadium on March 4.
While Foster has helped the hitters, he's been just as effective on the pitching side.
"He just works with us on the awareness of where we're at mentally and recognizing when we're getting too high or low," graduate student pitcher Marissa Schuld said.
Additionally, senior outfielder Jordyn VanHook who didn't receive much playing time in her first three seasons has credited the team's coaching staff all season long, and pointed to a higher level of confidence as a significant factor for her breakout season as the Pac-12's home run leader.
According to ASU Associate Professor in Counseling and Counseling Psychology Alisia (Giac-Thao) Tran, Mental health is an underrated aspect of sports. Many athletes face issues on and off the field that often go unnoticed due to a lack of communication or awareness.
"Among student-athletes, including softball athletes, we see things like feeling overwhelmed, especially with the time demands placed on them around having practice or competition," Tran said. "We also see things like depression, disturbances in sleep, and disordered eating behaviors because there is so much balancing going on."
Tran praised ASU for its decision to support and endorse its athletes to seek mental assistance and said it's a "great opportunity." She said studies showed that institutional figures' normalization of mental health treatment is linked to students seeking and getting needed mental health services.
Tran said having a sports psychologist on the softball team could foster a supportive culture, enhance performance, and break down mental health stigmas that might deter student-athletes from seeking help.
Foster's impact on the softball team can't be understated, and its impact will extend to the Sun Devil program beyond just this season.
"He's a super important part of the program," Bartlett said. "Not just how does this one group of individuals come together, but what's the common lingo and the values and the norms we're enforcing in the clubhouse? That's going to pay dividends for years and years and years."
Edited by Walker Smith, Piper Hansen, Shane Brennan and Caera Learmonth.