Jayhawk Insider: Let it Go and Sink the Putt
By Jack Dodd
For student-athletes to excel at their respective craft, it takes confidence, positive reinforcement and a consistent winner’s mindset. Some players tend to get caught up in what the scoreboard reads rather than focusing on persistence and pushing through obstacles in order to help the team succeed.
For the Kansas women’s golf team, it’s the scorecard rather than the scoreboard that can sometimes cause distraction and impede on their progress. The fall season was a stepping stone for building team culture and instilling core values for the group to build on. Their success this fall can be attributed to one consistent person in each player’s life this season, a guy who reinforced each player’s confidence and will to win through the mental side of the game.
Matt Cuccaro is a player and leadership consultant at Telos, a company that provides prospective schools and athletes sports psychology coaching based out of South Carolina. Cuccaro has worked with many different Division I schools over the years including five over the past seasons that were utilized similarly to KU. He originally came in contact with the Jayhawks prior to the season in August and according to head coach Erin O’Neil, the chance to bring in a motivational speaker seemed like too good of a chance to pass up in order to help team building.
“We talked on the phone a couple times and I liked his philosophy on things so we decided to bring him on board for the year and give it a try,” O’Neil said. “We figured it’d be worth it even if it helped just one person.”
For the team, it was worth it because his influence and impact rubbed off on the culture. However, there was one player in particular who stuck out and made strides this season as the most consistent and improved. Junior Yi-Tsen Chou collected three top-10 finishes in only five events in the fall and also posted a career-best round of 68 in the first tournament of the season, the Minnesota Invitational.
“I didn’t have much high expectations about the first tournament because I know we are going to the same place and course,” Chou said. “I really like that course but I know sometimes if I think too much, it will be worse. So I told myself I just won’t think. I kept on with my game plan and I was shocked that I shot the lowest round.”
According to Chou, she relies on Cuccaro’s advice and his reliability since he is available to the players through text or video chat most times of the day.
“Before I met Matt, if I had a bad round I usually think it was because of my mental game and I would blame that,” Chou said. “Now that I know him, we talk about course management, the mental side and how to prepare for a tournament. After all, he said my mental game is actually good and was above average so I started to realize that wasn’t an issue. I instead started to focus on the quality of practice.”
After Chou and Cuccaro’s initial talks, Chou sat down with her head coach to relay the information they had just talked about. To the junior’s delight and surprise, O’Neil also felt that Chou’s mindset was in a good place and to did not want her overthink her approach. Throughout the rest of the season, Chou would call Cuccaro each week and spend 10-20 minutes on the phone to communicate what she worked on that certain week and make sure they’re both on the same page.
“Matt is the one who tells me to learn how to forget the easy, simple and bad shots because I always keep those in mind,” Chou said. “But he’s also the one who tells me to take the challenge and move on. Because, since a golf ball is round, anything can happen.”
Chou has made a name for herself on the Big 12 landscape, racking up five under-par rounds and two rounds of even par golf this season while also leading the team in birdies (43). She was also the top finisher for Kansas in three out of the five events this fall while leading the team in scoring average with 75.53. Her resiliency on the green this season stems from an altered mindset, one that produces results that Chou has expected all along but didn’t know how to tap into.
Cuccaro’s influence can be seen in the results this season. Chou has bounced back after sub-par rounds in many events this season ike the Trinity Forest Invitational on Oct. 29-30. In the first two rounds, she shot 76 each day but came through shooting an even 70 on the final day to put her in the top 10.
“Matt confirmed my mental game so I kept on with my game plan and I was shocked that I shot the lowest round,” Chou said. “I shot a 68 (at Minnesota) and I think Matt is almost the main reason for that. I’m the type of person if I’m confident in something, I can do it really well. I just have to trust it.”
O’Neil mentioned that the strategies he’s provided to Yi-Tsen have shown on the course.
“In the past she would focus on where not to go and would start to guard and protect things,” O’Neil said. “He’s given her some good perspectives on how to look at it and helped her see it a different way. I think she’s learned to embrace it a little more.”
“Yi-Tsen is developing into a steady, consistent competitor,” Cuccaro said. “She has always been a hard worker, so the foundation has been set. Mastering the subtle, yet powerful art of acceptance has enabled many of the student-athletes to maximize their effort and energy more effectively throughout the fall season.”
Other teammates have used Cuccaro’s philosophy and availability as a tool. That list including seniors Ariadna Fonseca Diaz and Chomchana Phuchanbanchob aka “Cake.” The team utilized him in Kiawah Island, South Carolina before they competed in the Palmetto Intercollegiate (Oct. 21-23). He helped get Ari and Cake back on track “strategically and mentally”, according to O’Neil which paid off in the long run for the two seniors. They finished placing fourth and fifth, with Fonseca Diaz shooting a three-round score of 214, a career best that included a blistering 69 in the third round.
Cuccaro chose to instill some philosophies and foundation for the 2018-19 season in order to attack the mental side of the game. The team unanimously chose three core values: Competitive, Passionate and Coachable. Being coachable also means being vulnerable since you need to be able to open up and learn from your mistakes through teaching.
“We’ve tried to reinforce that and we’ve seen a difference in the culture for sure. It’s a good energy right now.” O’Neil said.
The Jayhawks will continue to use Cuccaro’s strategies in their spring season, beginning with the Moon Golf Invitational on Feb. 18-20 in Melbourne, Florida.
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