There’s a song that Tigers wide receiver Tucker Barnhart used to follow, a song that’s still central to the philosophy behind everything he does.
This song is not the typical jock jam. It is not intended to raise blood pressure or raise adrenaline. On the contrary, Barnhart was drawn to “Universal Sound” by singer-songwriter Tyler Childers for all the opposite reasons. It’s a soothing melody, an ode to the quiet beauty of life’s most basic function. A reminder to breathe.
My mind is a mile a minute, and my thoughts, they bark like dogs
I focus on my breathing and the universal sound
“It reminds you,” Barnhart said in his locker last week, “and makes you think about it.
Baseball is a sport where stillness drives the action. Long periods of silence and waiting, followed by a fast-twitch explosion. It is believed that the average duration of action in a baseball game is around 18 minutes. This creates a challenge for athletes who play this sport at the highest level. They need to maintain a sense of calm while still being ready for action. And therein lies the genesis of one of Barnhart’s most important training techniques. Breathing and breath control are at the heart of everything Barnhart does.
“It’s actually really cool when you watch it and read it and listen to it,” Barnhart said. “I thought, ‘Dang, that makes a lot of sense.'”
The idea started a few years ago when Barnhart was training in the offseason with Indiana-based hitting instructor Benny Craig.
Reviewing Barnhart’s swing and the fundamentals of his game, Craig posed a simple question: Are you breathing?
Barnhart must have thought about that. And he realized he had no idea if he was actively breathing in the middle of a swing.
“To be honest, I never thought about it,” he said.
Says Craig: “OK, the first thing we’re going to work on is your breathing.”
This led to watching videos of another sweet science. Many boxers see breathing as an integral technique, a way to control strength, conserve energy, absorb impact, and stay focused even when the adrenaline is pumping. Boxing quickly resonated with Barnhart, who is a fan of mixed martial arts.
“When I’m done playing, I’ll probably get involved in some way,” Barnhart said.
With his compact build, tattoos and overall looks, it’s not hard to imagine Barnhart stepping into an octagon.
“I want to train like this,” Barnhart said. “I don’t really want to fight, but I want to train like this. … I think what it does to your mind, to your body, it teaches discipline, I think that’s a really cool thing.
Barnhart watched videos featuring sports doctors and psychologists. He started practicing breathing techniques on his own. And the more he thought about it, the more Barnhart realized that MMA and breathing could apply directly to baseball. Perhaps more for catching than any other position. Being a catcher means mastering a strange mix of intellectual focus and grueling work. This is the position that puts the most strain on the knees and the mind.
“I think more than anything, (breathing) helps slow your mind down,” Barnhart said. “I only speak for myself in this case, but when my mind races, everything else falls apart. By being able to slow my breathing, it slows my mind and helps me think more clearly.
Batting, too, is a tough act, and no amount of batting practice can quite replicate the tense thrill of a major league batting. That’s why Barnhart found additional inspiration in a video from batting company Warstic, co-founded by former Tigers infielder Ian Kinsler.
Warstic publishes promotional material that talks about baseball as a battle. It’s one of the most overused clichés in sports, but the analogy can also tell you something about how top athletes feel about their profession. In this video, Kinsler and a few other MLB players spent time at a ranch with former Navy SEAL Stephen Holley. At one point, Holley asks if players practice batting or throwing with an elevated heart rate as a way to simulate the adrenaline of in-game action.
“You know what, that’s a hell of an idea,” Kinsler says in the video.
Holley takes players through a military-style training exercise, where men run up a hill, do push-ups and airlifts before firing a rifle at a long-range target. There’s no way to simulate the chaos of a firefight. Training with a high heart rate is as close as possible. And to perform while your heart is racing and all hell is breaking loose around you, it’s essential to control your breathing, slow your heart rate, and allow your mind to focus.
“They train in a certain way to raise their heart rate to a level that reflects pure panic,” Barnhart said. “What he was saying – they were training so that when that firefight happens you’ve been in that situation and you know how to get your heart rate down.”
Barnhart found all of this helpful when it came to baseball. This perhaps explains the sense of calm it brings behind the plate. The two-time Golden Glove winner got off to a slow start this season with the Tigers but quickly began to show why he is considered a trusted veteran. Many of his most impactful actions on the pitch are invisible to the untrained eye.
“He’s imperceptible,” manager AJ Hinch said earlier this season, “which is a compliment.”
Barnhart is best known for his pitch blocking. He uses a combination of MMA-like athleticism and a calm mind to glide, get into position, and absorb the impact of baseball. In two of the Tigers’ recent wins, Barnhart made ninth-inning blocks on dirt pitches that could have scored a run. Barnhart has scored slightly above average in the Blocking Runs metric in every full season of his career.
“Bullets in the dirt, I don’t know what metrics support it, but it’s elite,” Hinch said. “When you watch games, it’s amazing to see him controlling the runners by controlling the ball in the dirt. … I think his timing is really good. I think his body control is really good. … His technique n It’s no different than anything we’ve learned as catchers, he just has the ability to center the baseball on his chest and stomach and kill it in front of him without any runners advancing.
At plate, Barnhart is hitting .272, not yet drawing power but still serving as one of the most productive members of an otherwise struggling offense.
The more we see Barnhart in Detroit, the more we learn about his game. Like breathing, we sometimes take the little things for granted. Like breathing, the simplest functions often have the greatest impacts.
(Top photo: Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images)