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Vai's View: Vai's View: When finding 'the zone' is a full-time job

Published: Saturday, July 4 2015 7:21 p.m. MDT

Vai Sikahema and Justin Su'a at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia. (Vai Sikahema) Vai Sikahema and Justin Su'a at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia. (Vai Sikahema)

The Zone.

It's that elusive place where high-performance athletes reside. And Justin Su'a's job is to lead people there — not just high school, college and pro athletes, but Olympic athletes, soldiers, businessmen, politicians, couples who want more from their marriages, parents raising children and yes, even contestants on "Dancing With The Stars."

Su'a has worked with them all.

Su'a is something of an anomaly. He's a 6-foot-4-inch Samoan who was a BYU All-American as a freshman. But he never tackled anybody or scored touchdowns. He was Vance Law's closer in 2001, who befuddled batters with his split finger and cut fastball, which he threw in the high 80s.

Vai Sikahema and Justin Su'a at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia. (Vai Sikahema) Vai Sikahema and Justin Su'a at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia. (Vai Sikahema)

"I wasn't a dominant force on the mound," Justin told me, "but I was successful because mentally, I didn't think anyone could hit me." They rarely did.

Known for his precision pitching, his location and control were impeccable. He was typically called on to stop the bleeding or put the nail in the coffin, so he pitched middle and long relief in addition to closing games. He was BYU's Mariano Rivera. Heady stuff for a college freshman, but he was simply following in his father's footsteps.

His dad, Murphy, was also a BYU All-American. He walked on the baseball team in 1977 after only playing the game a couple of years in junior college and broke BYU's home run record of 13 by hitting 22 his senior year.

Murphy Su'a was drafted by the L.A. Dodgers and later played and coached in the Milwaukee Brewers organization. He currently is the head baseball coach at Cal State Dominguez Hills.

Vai Sikahema and Justin Su'a at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia. (Vai Sikahema) Vai Sikahema and Justin Su'a at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia. (Vai Sikahema)

Justin Su'a was in Philly this week on business so I invited him to Citizen's Bank Park to spend the day with me. I was there reporting on the Phillies' All-Star second baseman Chase Utley, who was making his 2012 debut after nearly a year of rehab on his ailing knees.

I first met Su'a in Provo when he just 18 years old. I went to watch him pitch at Miller Park with some friends whose kids grew up with Su'a in Torrance, Calif., who also introduced us after the game. I was struck with how poised and polished he was as a teenager.

When he returned from his mission to Nicaragua, Justin called me and we reconnected. He introduced me to a beautiful Argentinean BYU co-ed named Melissa Sanchez he was dating, whom he later married. They now have three beautiful children.

Justin is model-handsome, bilingual and so charismatic I suggested he try TV as injuries derailed his baseball career post-mission. After he graduated in broadcast communications, I helped him get an internship at KNBC-TV in L.A. with my contacts there and he did well enough but his heart wasn't in it. Just wasn't the right fit.

So, he and Melissa returned to Utah and he enrolled at the University of Utah for a master's degree in sport and exercise science with an emphasis in "psycho-social aspects of sport" or performance psychology. To make ends meet, he taught seminary at Mountain View High and institute at UVU.

Slowly, his career path evolved.

He was a coveted fireside speaker and he did the EFY circuit but he couldn't support his growing family on that. However, someone who heard his message suggested to BYU's Education Week organizers to book him. They did. He filled his classroom in the MARB every day, so they created an overflow room that he also filled. This year, organizers are putting him in the granddaddy of Ed Week rooms — the ballroom in the Wilkinson Center.

Justin Su'a is a gifted speaker and a natural teacher. Athletes respect him because he has the credibility of being an All-American Division I baseball player. Businessmen, parents and the U.S. military hire him because of the power of his message. He's careful to point out he's not a counselor or a psychologist. He's a coach, but not a life coach. He coaches the mind. That's an important distinction for him and to the people for whom he works. Like the U.S. Army.

In January, Justin and Melissa moved to San Antonio, Texas, because Justin had gotten a contract with the military to train soldiers and Army personnel at Fort Sam Houston. He works with snipers on enhancing their performance, interrogators on mental skills and the rank-and-file on remaining cool under pressure in difficult situations.

He works with military families on helping their soldier assimilate when they return from war and the men and women in uniform with post-traumatic syndrome. The U.S. military sent him to Turkey and Germany to work with their personnel. It was also why he was in Philadelphia for the week.

As we sat in the press box watching the Phillies and Pirates, I was fascinated with what Justin Su'a taught me about mental toughness. He told me pitchers will throw a steady stream of fastballs through the order before mixing in breaking balls, so no one can get a bead on them. And when they throw curves or sliders, the first one or two won't have the bite or the break they'll have in the later innings because they don't want hitters to see the best stuff early.

Sure enough. Pirates starter James McDonald, a journeyman, threw 12 straight fastballs in the mid-90s to the first two batters before Utley came to bat. Utley received a standing ovation as he was introduced and Justin turned to me and said, "the pitcher is nervous and his first pitch will tell us a lot about his state of mind. If he's confident, he'll throw a first-pitch fastball for a strike to get ahead and to challenge Utley."

McDonald's first pitch was a curve that catcher Michael McKenry had to jump up to snatch before it flew into the backstop. Justin winked at me and said, "He's rattled."

On a 2-2 count, McDonald threw another curve that Utley turned on and hit into the right-field seats. The crowd roared and though we weren't supposed to in the press box, we fist bumped.

Justin smiled and said, "James McDonald is why I'm employed."

To help people find "The Zone."

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