Huskies softball star Danielle Lawrie, who combines mental toughness with incredible ability and competitiveness, is determined that she, and the Huskies, can't lose.
Danielle Lawrie can’t sleep. Her mind is out of control. It’s the night before the 2009 national championship series, and the most intimidating softball pitcher in the college game is in a mental tailspin, lost in excitement, anticipation, strategy, curiosity, outrage, superstition and, yes, fear.
Her mind is dizzy. It’s like her brain cells are rioting, and she feels something very rare for her: helplessness. She thinks she’s going crazy.
“OK, Danielle,” she says to herself. “You can’t be like this.”
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And this is where you learn why Lawrie is so freakin’ good. The University of Washington star can overcome anything, even herself.
Lawrie closes her eyes and gives a stern order: “Visualize the game!” She sees herself pitching tremendously. She sees the exact movements on her strikeout pitches. She sees the exasperated looks of defeated hitters. It’s right there, in her mind, as clear as a high-definition television. It’s so vivid she can almost feel the emotions that go with the images.
“This is how I want it to work,” Lawrie says to herself.
And that’s how it worked. Lawrie shut out Florida the first game and then nipped the Gators 3-2 a day later to deliver the Huskies their first softball national championship last June. She didn’t sleep at all before either game. She was too busy fending off anxiety by previewing bliss.
It’s a glimpse inside the mind of a woman who, over the past five years, has grown from an insecure Canadian prodigy to one of the most beloved bulldogs in Seattle sports history. For all her physical gifts and competitive edge, Lawrie will leave Washington a legend because she has developed a mental toughness detectable in only the most extraordinary athletes.
The unflappable Danielle Lawrie does have a weakness. She’s superstitious.
She spent her freshman season carrying a piece of wood in her softball bag so that she could knock on it frequently. She also used to wear a blue headband, even though the Huskies’ colors are purple and gold, because she thought it brought her luck.
To this day, Lawrie, now a senior, is tempted to find wood and knock on it often, but she doesn’t tote it around in her bag anymore. Nevertheless, she lives with some trepidation that the world is about to turn against her.
“I’m such a karma person,” Lawrie said. “I feel like if I put trash on the ground, I’m like, ‘Oh, God, is that going to bite me in the butt? Is someone going to get a hit off me?’ It’s little things like that. When I mess up, I’m always like, ‘OK, what can I do so I know something bad is not going to happen?’ “
Lawrie was the national player of the year in 2009. She is the clear favorite to win the award again this season. She carries a 35-2 record with a 0.99 ERA and 407 strikeouts in 247-1/3 innings into the Huskies’ NCAA tournament opener Friday. She is also hitting .322 with a team-leading 14 home runs and 55 RBI.
With that kind of ability, she could probably survive an episode of littering. Yet Lawrie wouldn’t dare risk the earth’s wrath.
Still, she’s a mental giant. She throws her best when runners are on base. She thrives under the pressure of performing in games that remain scoreless for a long time, focusing not on a lack of run support but on the need to make perfect pitches because there’s no margin for error. The tougher the situation, the better Lawrie plays.
This trait was most evident on May 17, 2009. Even though the Huskies won the national title a couple weeks later, this date is just as memorable. In two NCAA tournament regional games against host Massachusetts, Lawrie threw 395 pitches that day, including 251 in a 15-inning, season-saving victory.
It’s a day in which Lawrie came to understand her mental edge. When that game ended — with a strikeout, her 24th of the game — she wept, elated, drained. It was 1:18 a.m. Eastern time.
“That game still sets me up to do well now,” Lawrie said.
Before that performance, Lawrie judged herself harshly. “I had the ability to, at times, help carry a team when I needed to,” she said. “But when it got hard, I bailed.”
She admitted a painful truth to illustrate her point. During her sophomore year, the Huskies advanced to the 2007 College Softball World Series. They finished tied for third after Arizona beat them twice. Following that first loss to the Wildcats, Lawrie succumbed to doubt.
“In my mind, I gave up,” she confessed. “I was like, ‘Oh, they’re going to beat us again.’ As soon as you say something like that in your mind, you’re done.”
After that experience, Lawrie, who is from Langley, B.C., took a redshirt year in 2008 and left school to play with the Canadian national team during its Olympics run. She didn’t get to pitch much. For the first time in her life, she was just another girl on the team. She hated it, but she learned how to be a better teammate, how to cheer loudly from the bench, how to fight for respect and recognition.
She also began paying attention to renowned sports psychologist Ken Ravizza, who assisted Team Canada. In the past, Lawrie had shunned his methods, thinking, “Oh, I’m too good for it. I don’t need it.” Now, she accepted his teachings.
They grew close. The relationship reached its apex last June when Lawrie called Ravizza the day after winning the national title.
“I want you to know I wouldn’t have been able to do this without you,” she told him.
Washington softball coach Heather Tarr tried a team-building exercise earlier this year. She brought in Dr. Angela Robles, a former Notre Dame softball pitcher who heads a company (the Forza Institute) that specializes in pinpointing individuals’ strengths and using them to create cohesion.
Robles had the Huskies players and coaches take the Clifton StrengthsFinder test. It helped each identify their greatest traits.
There were 34 possible themes listed, and the test helped the Huskies understand their top five strengths. For Lawrie, who is known for an intense competitiveness that her father helped instill, the competition trait didn’t rate as one of her top five. But there was one characteristic that she possessed that no one else did.
The command theme is about presence. It’s about a person’s ability to take control of a situation, make decisions and keep people captivated. Perhaps that survey peeled back the final layer of the complex superstar. Lawrie’s greatness is all about command.
“For her, I see that,” Tarr said. “She has that strength where she can command a situation. When she first came to Washington, she didn’t have that ‘I’m confident because I work hard’ swagger to her. But she had command. So she could succeed off of that, but it was really easy for her to get too emotional or get out of control.
“That command she has, it’s like she’s a wizard. When she channels in the right direction, it’s amazing to be a witness.”
Two weeks ago, Lawrie showcased her command. During the final regular-season home series of her UW career, she threw a no-hitter (her fourth this season) to start the fun. The next day she received an unexpected pregame request.
Ashley Aven, an 18-year-old Meadowdale High School softball player battling leukemia, threw out the ceremonial first pitch and asked Lawrie to hit a home run for her. Lawrie had been struggling at the plate, so she was unsure she could fulfill the promise. Nevertheless, she envisioned herself hitting a homer.
In the sixth inning of that game, Lawrie allowed a homer to Stanford’s Ashley Hansen. The Huskies trailed 1-0. With teammates wondering how she’d react, Lawrie gathered them and said, “Hey, deep breath. Things are OK.”
Then, in the seventh inning, with the Huskies still trailing, she came to the plate with a runner on first — and hit a walkoff two-run homer to win the game in spectacular fashion.
And the crazy part was, it felt more inevitable than thrilling. It’s just what Lawrie does. She has that command.
“My better is going to beat your better because I am going to give it everything I have on every opportunity that I have,” Lawrie said. “I’m never, ever going to give up. It’s just about having control of your mind.
“When you have that mental side of it, and you have that talent, it’s like you will not be beaten. Nothing will beat me. Hit a home run. Whatever. You will not beat me again. That’s my mentality out there. And I feel like that is our team’s mentality. I’m going to take command and just go.”
And when the resolute superstar finished talking, she didn’t even think to knock on wood.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or email@example.com, Twitter: @Jerry_Brewer