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In May 2009, Sports Illustrated wrote a cover story about a high school baseball player named Bryce Harper, calling him “Baseball’s LeBron”—a sports prodigy who possessed talents far greater than some in the majors.
The writers predicted greatness for him, and they were eventually proven right when, just three years later, Harper was named the National League Rookie of the Year, hit 22 home runs, and had a .340 on-base percentage, the best average for a teenager in close to 50 years, all in his first season with the Washington Nationals.
Months after SI featured Harper, he earned his GED and started playing in the National Junior College Athletic Association and, as hard as it may be to believe now, was outperformed by most of the players there.
“I kind of got dominated pretty bad right when I got there,” he told a crew of reporters at Under Armour’s 2020 Human Performance Summit. “I kind of second-guessed it, kind of thought if I should be there or if I should be in high school again.”
Harper tried, but failed, to re-enroll at Las Vegas High School. “The principal told me, ‘You kind of tested out, so there’s nothing you can really do,’ ” he recalled. “So you got to toughen up and try to get through it.”
Luckily for the baseball world, Harper pushed through those challenges in Junior College and is now one of the best players in the game. “It’s all about getting through those moments and getting through the adversity you’re going to face, in life or anything,” he says. “You just have to go through it the best you can.”
“There’s going to be pressure, there’s going to be expectations every single year,” says Harper. “That’s just how sports are in general for everyone.” So how does he deal with it? “I have a very small circle of people who are there for me every single day. It starts with my wife, and I got great teammates.”
He’s also aware that he won’t put on an MVP-caliber performance each game and has now accepted that. “If I can look myself in the mirror and say I worked hard that day and did everything I could to help my team win, but I just didn’t play that well—well, that’s just going to happen.”
His advice for other people struggling to perform their best: “Your mind will shut down before your body does, so if you can push through that, then you’ll be where you need to be.”
Teams, and players, go through slumps. The trick to getting back to the top, Harper says, is not letting it get to your head. “You can’t really think about or dwell on what you did the night before,” he says. “If you’re 0 for 4 or 4 for 4, it doesn’t matter. It’s that fifth at bat that matters.”
Harper says his off-season fitness routine doesn’t differ much from what he does from March to October. He stretches out, does a 45-minute full-body workout, then works on swinging, running, and other baseball fundamentals.
His regimen stays consistent, even as he’s become a new father. (He and his wife, Kayla Varner, welcomed their son, Krew, in August 2019.)
“I married an athlete, so it’s great,” he says. (Varner was a star soccer player in high school and college.) “She takes him in the morning if I need to train, and I’ll take him in the afternoon or evening.”
Speaking before Covid-19 put a halt on most sports throughout the United States for 2020, Harper told Muscle & Fitness his main goal was preparing for his division’s ruthless pitchers. “The NL East is a juggernaut of pitching. Having to face [Jacob] DeGrom, Max Scherzer, Noah Syndergaard—it’s going to be tough,” he says.