SALT LAKE CITY — Justin Su’a wasn't expecting to hear from the first-round major league draft pick who had once considered throwing in the towel on baseball.
Michael Kopech began working with Su’a, a mental performance coach in the Boston Red Sox organization, after the young pitcher broke his hand punching a teammate in 2016. Following a trade to the White Sox, Kopech became an All-Star in the Double-A Southern League this summer. According to Su’a, the two spoke before Kopech took the mound in the All-Star game.
“It totally caught me off-guard because we’re not in touch too much anymore,” Su’a said of the phone call. “And he just said, ‘I just wanted to thank you. I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for you.’”
Their interactions were nothing out of the ordinary. Su'a simply did his job.
But there was a time in the not-so-distant past when Su'a himself was struggling. He was rejected by the master's program he dreamed of completing, a seeming failure that changed the direction of his life. He now works not just for the Red Sox, but for the Cleveland Browns of the NFL, spending his time helping professional athletes believe in themselves. A husband, father and member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Su'a has found that in order to help these athletes, he has to keep his own life in balance by living what he believes.
Many athletes have placed their mentality in Su’a’s hands over the last seven to eight years. Su'a says this trust exists because he tries to demonstrate his genuine care for all he works with.
“Sometimes people share some really personal things...and I care,” Su’a said. “I really do care. Sometimes the message is just, ‘I’m here, you don’t have to suffer alone. You’re going to suffer, it’s going to be very hard, but you don’t have to suffer alone.’”
Su’a, a former BYU baseball player, spent two years as a Mormon missionary in Nicaragua teaching people how to follow Jesus Christ, followed by a professional career teaching LDS seminary students. He's no longer teaching religion, but while his audience and the setting have changed, Su’a has found some common principles that can help athletes succeed.
Su’a had been a seminary teacher for several years when he decided, in 2008, to pursue a master’s degree in religious education. He still remembers the day the admissions decision came in the mail. His wife opened it and said, “You didn’t get in.” Su’a, who thought he was a shoo-in, didn’t believe her initially, but it was true.
Justin Su'a and his wife, Melissa, are photographed with their kids. | Provided by Justin Su'a
“I remember being embarrassed. I remember being sad. I remember thinking, ‘What am I going to do now?’ … I was devastated but I knew in my heart that I was going to make an impact,” Su’a recalled. “I knew that the Lord wanted me to make an impact somewhere, someway.”
At the time, Su’a often spoke about making a change in the world and in the lives of others, until one night as he lay in bed thinking about this desire, his wife, Melissa, called him out.
“You’re all talk,” she said.
He asked if she was serious and she said, "You’re always talking about going after your dreams. You’ve always talked about helping people and speaking ... you’ve been talking but you just don’t do it. You talk but you take no action,” Su’a recalled his wife saying.
“That was literally, I can honestly say, one of the turning points of my life, that brief conversation. And I didn’t sleep much that night because she was absolutely right,” Su’a said.
Shortly thereafter, Su’a read a description for the sport and performance psychology master’s program at the University of Utah.
“I read it and my heart started pounding and I just thought, ‘This is me. This is what I want to do,’” Su’a said.
Su’a says the University of Utah took a big chance on him but that he had professors who made him feel like he had a gift for teaching. He attributes this gift to his experiences as a member of the LDS Church.
“I know this ability to teach came from the mission. It came from growing up in (the) Young Men (program). I just had so many reps,” Su’a said. “I knew how to teach, I just didn’t know what to teach. Once I kept going through my classes I just knew this is what I was meant to do.”
In the years that have followed, Su’a has used this ability to help athletes and soldiers develop mental skills. He has found that each person is an individual with different needs.
Justin Su'a shakes the hand of Cleveland Browns player Myles Garrett. | Provided by Justin Su'a
“We live in a world now where people have ‘5 tips to be confident,’ ‘3 ways to be more focused,’ ‘2 things you can do to live the best life.’ And the reality is everyone is so different,” Su’a said. “What I really want them to do is to realize that they have the answers. They are the ones who have the answers and I serve as a mirror really ... I ask questions and I’m not the one with all the answers and they learn that really quickly. What I really do is I’m a question-asker, I’m a listener.”
However, while acknowledging that each person is different, Su’a said that he also seeks to help each athlete understand that they are not alone in the struggles they are experiencing.
“A lot of times when people struggle, they tend to feel like it only happens to them,” Su’a said. “And a phrase I always say to my athletes is, ‘I don’t want to minimize what you’re going through, but I want to normalize it. This is really normal.’”
While the things he learned in school about the science and research behind sports psychology are important, Su’a recognizes that he has to be at his best personally in order to help the athletes who come to him for help.
“For me to truly be at my best, I need to be sure that I am living in harmony with what I know to be true,” Su’a said. “My best self is a person who does have the Spirit, who is reading scriptures, who is trying to be the best husband and father that I can possibly be. … From praying to magnifying my calling at home to still having family home evening and praying with my family, that is everything for me and that’s what ultimately helps me be the most effective that I can possibly be.”
Su’a works with athletes who come from many different religious backgrounds, but in working with Christian athletes, he finds that verses or stories from the scriptures often serve as a connection point that allows the principle he is teaching to resonate with the athlete.
“In sports psychology (we talk about) focusing on the process and giving all of your attention to the here and now,” Su’a said, providing an example. “And I connect that to a scripture where Jesus is speaking to his disciples, ‘Take ye therefore no thought for the morrow, for the morrow shall take thought of things of itself' (Matthew 6:34). And I see things like that.
“There’s the story of Peter walking on water in Matthew 14 and he walked on water to get to Jesus but the moment he took his focus off Jesus to look at the waves in the seas, that’s when he began to sink. We learn the same principle in research: you give power to what you focus on and when you put your focus on the things that are effective, that will help you. You’re going to be able to perform at a higher level.”
Deseret News graphic by Elise Madsen
Su’a’s friend, Marc Oslund, a fellow BYU baseball alumnus, says that sharing these principles is just part of who Su’a is.
“If you just follow him on Twitter or you read his books, it’s like you’re reading a conference talk or you’re reading something along those lines, that just makes you want to be a better person ... ," Oslund said.
Another person Su'a has helped is dancer Chelsie Hightower, who credits him with helping her overcome anxiety. Hightower's mom, Laurie Norton, heard Su’a speak in an LDS sacrament meeting in Utah and immediately felt he could help her daughter. Hightower, also a member of the LDS Church, was in the midst of her fourth season of “Dancing With The Stars” when she was introduced to Su’a.
“He really went above and beyond in trying to help me out,” Hightower remembers. “And I knew his caring was so genuine and that just meant so much to me in a time when I was really going through some serious mental struggles. It gave me comfort to know that someone, who was living their life the way I knew Justin was living his, cared about me and was praying for me. I felt like I was in good hands.”
Su’a believes having faith helps athletes. When asked how, Su’a is quick to answer: “It gives them perspective.”
“You can see more,” Su’a said. “Those who have more of a spiritual perspective, those who believe in God and believe in a bigger picture and trust in his timing and what he wants for a person, they don’t get wrapped around statistics as much, they don’t get tied up in adversity they’re facing on the field because they understand that their sport is something they do and doesn’t define who they are.
“I literally have seen that over and over and over again. Athletes who are struggling or who have career-ending injuries, you see that they have this sense of peace in them. Yes, it’s frustrating. Yes, it’s still difficult. It’s still painful. They still don’t want to experience it. However, when the smoke settles, they’re able to be a little bit more resilient.”
In September of last year, with the blessing of the Red Sox, Su’a joined the staff of the Cleveland Browns. Working with both teams presents a unique challenge because in addition to playing two different sports, the teams could not be much more different.
Su’a describes the Boston Red Sox as “a perennial powerhouse.”
“In Boston, you just win,” he said.
On the flip side, the Cleveland Browns almost set the record for the worst season in NFL history last season. Su’a says what intrigues him about the Browns is “this journey” and the opportunity to start at rock bottom.
“To be unified with a bunch of coaching staff and personnel and front office, to be together and say, ‘You know what, let’s try to create something special here’ while being laughed at by the world, while being laughed at by the media, while being laughed at by everyone but being able to say, ‘Let’s put our heads down and let’s go to work and let’s focus on process and see if something special could come out of this,’” Su’a said.
The added responsibilities with the Browns means that Su’a, a father of three, spends 15 to 25 days per month on the road and while both organizations understand the importance of church and family in Su’a’s life, managing his time has become more difficult.
“It has taken a toll,” Su’a said. “But we still have family home evening over the phone. The good thing is when I’m home, I’m home and it’s really nice to be able to spend time with the kids...they’re all really young right now but I know I don’t want to be gone all the time for the rest of their lives.”