Mental conditioning piece big for Jim McElwain

This was supposed to be a fun visit to the Northeast where Jim McElwain could talk a lot about his 2016 Florida football team. Instead, most of the day full of interviews with ESPN hosts turned into sessions asking about two recent arrests of freshmen on his team and how he is dealing with it. McElwain has a different approach to curtail the issues that face college athletes’ off-the-field issues.

When true freshmen Rick Wells and Tyrie Cleveland were arrested early Monday morning, it marked the first arrests for Jim McElwain’s football team since the start of the calendar year. That hasn’t been the norm at Florida over recent years and the lack of issues is likely in part due to a sense of understanding that McElwain is trying to instill on his players about doing the right things.

“You have freedom of choice, you don’t have freedom of consequence,” McElwain said on his stop as part of the Paul Finebaum Radio Show Tuesday. “This incident is not something we take lightly. They are remorseful of their actions and yet because of those actions there are consequences that will follow.”

We have yet to learn what the consequences will be and in all likelihood McElwain doesn’t know what those consequences are just yet, but for him he wants to try and use this as a teaching movement, to curtail something like this from happening again.  

“What we can learn from our actions is more important than beating on what it is right now, but rather how we grow from it and grow as a team,” McElwain continued. “That is kind of how we deal with things.”

There is a bit of frustration for some coaches for the public perception of how things should be treated. Certainly there are times when the team punishment should be swift and stern, but at all times that punishment should be measured to fit the action. More than anything the frustration stems from the perception of a program when deeds like this happen.

“Every incident is different,” McElwain told Finebaum. “I get a kick out of that, everybody’s finger print is different, yet we want to treat the finger print all the same. Each case is an individual deal and in this case these are two guys that made some bad choices. I spent the day at ESPN talking about that rather than the fact we were SEC East Champions, we have a lot of good things going on, we have some great recruiting happening, and the Florida Gators are anxious to get on the field.”

There is no doubt that Cleveland and Wells will get their share of intervention work because of the big mishap, but off-the-field troubles are just part of the McElwain ‘Mental Conditioning’ element that he has installed to make sure the young men on the team are prepared for life’s potential road blocks.

“There are a lot of current world issues that are part of what we talk to our team about all the time, not only through our mental conditioning coaches, but also through speakers we bring on a consistent basis… to hit those, and it’s hard.

“It’s actually something we do on a weekly basis, even before we come back (for fall practice). We have some wonderful people in the ‘how you think’ department and ‘how you choose to deal with situations’ and ‘how you feel about situations’. That’s something that we are really fortunate about and Jeremy (Foley), our Athletic Director, was fantastic about seeing the value of the mental conditioning piece. It’s not a line item that a lot of people have in their budget.

“It’s okay to go buy a new weight machine because you can touch that, it’s tangible. Yet, the most important thing about how we go about our daily lives is the intangible way in how we think.”

Importance of the offseason…

You hear college coaches all the time say just how important the offseason is to the season ahead. The hard work put into the team, the leadership developed by the leaders on the team, the extra routes run by receivers, extra lifting, etc. all help build up the foundation for success.

McElwain believes the success of the 2016 team will come from the time he isn’t even allowed to spend with the players.

“I am of the belief that this team’s record has already been shaped based on what they did from the day we got home from the bowl game (in January),” he said. “Not that there aren’t things that will go on during the season, however I do believe your destiny is a little bit based on the work you’ve put in when no one’s looking.

“The idea that I can flip a switch and go… no. We play in week one, but we’ve been preparing for whether it’s week one or week 13 or week 15. We’ve already been working towards that.

Don’t think you are going to get a book full of cliché’s from McElwain to help motivate his team.

“I don’t have a lot of mottos and that kind of stuff. I believe you work hard, you do your job, and you do it to your fullest. If you do that on a daily basis, you have an opportunity to be successful.

When August rolls around, the staff has an idea just how well the offseason went and from that they can manage any change in expectations for certain players and make changes accordingly.

“You have a pretty good handle on it… you can see,” McElwain said of knowing right away at practice what to expect.

“I think teams are made over the offseason. Now sometimes you catch fire or somebody steps up, this isn’t something set in stone. Ultimately the work that was put in and how the locker room was put together in that time… you know how hot it is in Florida and you’re out there working… when you see the unity that comes from that, now you know you’ve got a chance.”

“If you don’t see what you want, that is the hard thing.”

“When you don’t see it, you have to adjust the way you’re thinking as a coaching staff in the approach. In some cases, part of the team’s problem is there isn’t great leadership, but that isn’t putting it on the players, that is when we have to come in and make sure we’re doing things that give us the opportunity to win, especially when you see some faults in some position groups where we can’t rely on some and you need to adjust moving forward and make sure that they make themselves relevant, or they maintain irrelevance and don’t let them effect the rest of the ball squad.”

McElwain excited about his coaching staff…

One thing that has been tough at Florid for the last several years has been keeping the coaching staff together. McElwain did make one change in the offseason, but kept nine assistants and landed a big time replacement for the one that was let go.

He’s a coach that trusts his instincts in his hires, so he wants his assistants to be themselves and coach the kids the way they are comfortable with.

“I am fortunate and have some great ones,” he said of his assistants. “In hiring this staff, we have guys that have a lot of SEC experience, guys that have been in it before in coaching and recruiting. We have a lot of guys with southern ties in the footprint and guys that people on the team already knew because they were recruited at other places.

“One of the things that I learned at Colorado State was to hire good people and let them do their job. Set the parameters and in the end it may not be exactly how you and I might do it, but the end result is what you’re looking for. I have some great guys that I trust within the organization and some great people within the organization. You know what, good things are happening with the Gators.

It isn’t easy being the coach at Florida…

The pressure is great to run the Gator program. But McElwain is dialed in with the pressure and loves that Florida is a place that has high expectations.

“I don’t think you ever quit learning,” he said. “That is something I take with me every day. There is an opportunity to get a little bit better and learn something and learn from the past. In our case, I am really fortunate that we have a great administration and have people who really care. We have a passionate fan base that is ready to get rid of me already. Maybe the jury is still out, yet that is what makes it such a great place… people care.

“The passion and expectation, if you are going to do a job, why not do it at a place where the expectation and passion is there. I have been in enough of those places where no one really cares. So, I’m okay with it.”

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