2019 NCAA softball tournament: How butterflies and TED Talks boosted Georgia's Alyssa DiCarlo
ATHENS, Ga. -- When the national anthem plays, the butterflies stir. Alyssa DiCarlo knows the routine well. It's not fear, exactly, that the Georgia softball star feels. It's her own special blend of anxiety and excitement.
The national anthem signals she's minutes from getting to play the game she loves. The anxiety comes from her fear of not playing it right and disappointing her teammates and coaches. And then there are the fans. The senior understands all too well the expectations -- mostly unreasonable -- that people have of her.
"They want me to hit a home run every time I'm up to bat," she said. "And when I don't do well, it's like I'm letting everyone down."
It's easy to look at the senior shortstop, who will try to guide Georgia through the regional round of the NCAA tournament this weekend, and see a softball machine. Even her coach, who would be wise to take some credit for her development, admits that the Arizona native was great the minute she set foot on campus in 2016 -- a true plug-and-play star. DiCarlo drove in more runs than any freshman in the country that year (63), and ever since she's been mentioned among the best players in the game.
Her stat line during her four years in Athens has been absurd, beginning with the fact that she's started 242 of 242 possible games. She's a career .380 hitter. She leads all active Division I players in RBIs (248) and total bases (535). She already owns the school record for home runs (66), and there's an outside chance that with a deep run in the NCAA tournament she could catch the SEC mark of 71 set by Florida's Lauren Haeger.
In April, the Chicago Bandits took DiCarlo with the fourth pick in the National Pro Fastpitch draft. A week later, Georgia coach Lu Harris-Champer said, "She hasn't realized how good she is. ... She's just a ballplayer that comes out and wants to work for her team every day. She's a quiet leader who leads by example. She's always done that."
But beneath that quiet exterior isn't metal and wires rigged for the sole purpose of driving in runs. There's a person who, on the day of the draft, wondered whether she was really good enough to be selected in the first place. Intellectually, she understood that she was being ridiculous, but it didn't stop her from asking, "Am I?"
Hers is a lesson in how to handle nerves, how to handle doubt. Because looking as unflappable as she appears does not come easily. It's something that has taken patience and practice to develop.
Earlier in her career, she sometimes let nerves get the best of her. She had devoted everything to the sport -- "It's my life," she said. "I didn't go to prom, didn't go to homecoming. I didn't do anything but softball" -- and the idea of not living up to expectations made her timid on the diamond.
Her sophomore year, in particular, was a struggle. The team went an underwhelming 6-18 in SEC play, and by Alyssa DiCarlo standards, hitting .360 was a disappointment that led to frustration and anger. There were times when she said she felt there was nothing she could do to fix it.
"I felt like I was drowning," she said. "I was stressed and anxious. And when you're already stressed and you go up to bat, it's like I'm freaking out and I'm trying to hit this ball but I can't see straight because I'm so in my own world."
With time and repetition, her swing came back around. But perhaps more important than that, she said she learned how to better manage her emotions and stay neutral.
In a sport where hitting .400 means you're failing six out of every 10 at-bats, to play with the kind of consistency DiCarlo has requires a different kind of strength -- one she practices daily.
"Being mentally tough," she said, "keeping your emotions at bay is something I've had to work on a lot."
Sometimes that means watching videos or reading lectures from performance coaches such as Craig Sigl and Brendon Burchard. A TED Talk about accepting failure and using it as an opportunity for growth really hit home for her recently.
During practice, she said she'll actively ramp up her emotions -- "because that's when your pathways are open to your subconscious mind" -- to make the game environment less stressful.
"You have to keep working on it," she said. "It's easy to get complacent. You take a day off and it's easy to get in a bad mental state."
As a junior, DiCarlo avoided those bad days and hit .400 with a team-high 67 RBIs. Georgia reached the Women's College World Series for the fourth time in 18 seasons under Harris-Champer
This season, Georgia is on the road, headed to the Minneapolis Regional, but with a different outlook than in the past. DiCarlo is still the star, hitting a sparkling .391 and slugging a preposterous .910, but there's a new attitude -- one she's helped instill all season long.
Rather than just being happy to reach the WCWS, as the Bulldogs were last year, DiCarlo wants the goal to be to win it all. In a career with seemingly nothing left to accomplish, she said winning a World Series is "top of the list."
"I've been twice now, and both times we went it was like, 'Ah, we're here.' " DiCarlo said, exaggerating a sigh of relief. "It was like, 'Who cares? We're here and it doesn't matter anymore.' But now I want to compete for a championship. That's the reason we're going there -- to win a championship."
But whatever happens, there's perspective.
The star shortstop, the home run-hitting machine, isn't putting too much pressure on herself or her teammates. While the secret to her success might lie in her ability to keep her emotions in check, it's those same emotions that allow her to understand there's more to it than the numbers on the scoreboard.
"It's the end goal," she said of winning the WCWS, "but I've had an amazing time with my teammates and coaches. As a senior, I'm taking in the moment we have, like joking around and laughing. I'm trying to look at the bigger picture. When I leave here, I'm going to remember them."