Natasha Cloud and Tayler Hill talk all the time and about almost everything. They chat in the locker room, on the bench, on the court and everywhere else. When they’re apart, they speak on the phone. Last week, when Hill returned to the court after tearing her right anterior cruciate ligament last July, Cloud turned words into actions, getting a custom shirt with Hill’s picture and the phrase “Comeback Kid.”
There’s one thing, though, Cloud and Hill haven’t talked about.
This year, Cloud regained the starting backcourt job she lost last season, but as Hill works back into the rotation, Cloud could lose it again. This dynamic is an unspoken understanding between them, Cloud said, but she’ll “take whatever role this team needs from me.”
“People are looking around the locker room, and they know they got to play against each other every day and earn minutes,” Mystics Coach Mike Thibault said the night Hill returned. “We’ll have some interesting battles in practice probably for the next month.”
This transition comes at a crucial time. In a contract year, when Cloud badly wants to remain in Washington, the point guard is averaging career highs in points (8.0) and assists (4.8). Her pass-first approach also has revitalized a Mystics offense (ranked third in scoring) by freeing up star guard Kristi Toliver and others for better three-point looks.
Cloud trusts a lineup shake-up won’t disrupt her production in large part because she’s using the mental mechanisms learned from Stu Singer, a Maryland-based consultant who serves as the Mystics’ director of performance psychology. As the margins of trying to find an advantage shrink in training, strategy and technology, sports franchises have turned to the mind. Currently, 26 of 30 MLB teams reportedly employ a psychologist, and the numbers seem to grow every year in other leagues. The Mystics and Dallas Wings are the only WNBA franchises that list one on their coaching staffs.
“It’s all science-based,” Singer said. “I have no tricks . . . In sports, we overtrain the body and undertrain the mind. Often, we reach a place where the body is doing what the body can. The real jump is actually in the brain and understanding why sometimes we get in our own way.”
Singer works with about a dozen teams, including Maryland women’s basketball, to develop “mental performance skills” for players to overcome struggles with confidence, doubt, fear, anger, frustration and a lack of focus or motivation. Singer believes athletes often fail because their thoughts lead them to believe they will. He wants to teach them how to control their thoughts during difficult situations, to respond rather than react, to envision and experience success.
“Think of the brain like a muscle,” Singer told the team the first time he met them, in 2015.
Singer started coming to the facility twice per month for team workouts and held roughly 30-minute individual sessions. Cloud liked the training, but her loud, hyperactive style seemed to work okay, so she reacted as Singer said many clients do: with “a bravado that was like, ‘I can handle this; I don’t need help.’ ”
In 2016, the first season they worked together, Cloud started for the Mystics and the schedule didn’t allow for consistent meetings with Singer. But in the offseason, when Cloud played professionally in Australia, she felt trapped in routine and feared she wasn’t improving at the rate she once did. She started FaceTiming Singer at 11 p.m., just as he started his day in the United States.
Singer and Cloud formulated a plan to save the energy she exerted on wild reactions and repurpose it to help her focus. Cloud struggled at first but stuck to the weekly appointments and soon found herself saying things such as, “It’s a pace,” or “I need to control the controllables.”
Cloud’s favorite technique of Singer’s was probably his simplest: Breathe in for six seconds, hold it for one and exhale for seven. Repeat three times. The deep diaphragmic breathing triggered a relaxation response in her central nervous system, Singer said, and works as “emotional regulation.”
“I was crazy my first two years here,” Cloud said. “I’ve really worked hard on [controlling my emotions] in the offseason, especially, and during the season, just to kind of mellow myself down . . . I’m always hyper. I’m always on the go. I’m the hype man, but I also need to keep it level.”
Now, Cloud reads almost daily about mental conditioning and completes exercises on Singer’s app, “DoSo.” On June 15, against the Los Angeles Sparks, Cloud committed three turnovers and missed five of her first six shots. She walked into the locker room frustrated but paused for a moment.
Breathe in . . . four, five six. Hold. Breathe out . . . five, six, seven.
In the second half, Cloud still struggled against the Sparks’ defense, making three of nine shots and turning it over once, but she felt more in control.
“It’s human nature to have anger and frustration,” she said, “but I’m able to get myself back quicker. If I can just calm my whole system down and get myself into neutral, it just helps me refocus.
“I need that in the heat of the game.”