How Notre Dame wants to win the mental game

Notre Dame needed a sounding board for its coaches. Derin McMains, Notre Dame’s new Director of Mental Conditioning can go beyond that, helping them also become better teachers.

Derin McMains ordered the red and green enchiladas. He didn’t eat them.

Situated in a downtown Albuquerque restaurant a few years back, the Peak Performance Coordinator of the San Francisco Giants was there to unlock a promising AAA prospect whose career had stalled. Flies buzzed the table. McMains batted them away.

On a micro level, this is what McMains does. Notre Dame’s new Director of Mental Conditioning – the focus of the third installment of Irish Illustrated’s four-part series on an evolving Irish athletics department – gets into the heads of athletes to create an optimal performance mindset.

In other words, McMains renovates the athletic brain.

For this AAA player that meant addressing his fear of never making the majors. He’d been pressing so hard at the plate that his numbers had dropped.

“The thing about trying really hard in baseball is it produces the same results as not trying at all,” said McMains, who’s also helped NFL prospects prepare for combine interviews.

McMains asked the player what he’d do next if the Giants released him, but took latching on with another team off the table. The player refused to answer. He didn’t want to think like that. McMains made him. The player revealed he’d get into coaching and had a friend managing at a university who’d invited him to join that staff.

“So the biggest thing you’re afraid of is helping young kids reach their dream? That’s what I’m hearing,” McMains said. “He was just like, ‘That doesn’t make sense.’ No, it doesn’t.

“All we did was turn on the light.”

The player kept the menu from that dive in his equipment bag, pulling it out to create a new habit. Instead of pressing at the plate, the player relaxed. His fear of failure wasn’t worth the stress. He got a call up from the Giants later that season.

McMains won’t accept more than partial credit for that, but it’s this kind of development that got Notre Dame to hire him last November after working with the Giants. McMains, who was based in Scottsdale, Ariz., was also a former minor leaguer in the organization.

Now McMains has two offices in the Joyce Center but if you’re a coach he’s more likely to invade yours. He’s spent the past six months getting to know most of Notre Dame’s head coaches, a few assistants and a handful of players.

McMains’ position at Notre Dame is believed to be the first of its kind in college athletics.

He tries to meet with a couple coaches daily between staging workshops in the athletic department called Iron Sharpens Iron. One workshop focused on motivation, another hit on mastery. Afternoons are spent watching practices.

Ultimately, McMains wants to build enough credibility around Notre Dame to have those enchilada conversations with coaches and players. He knows that will take time. Notre Dame’s coaches appear willing to give him it.

“We’ve never really had anybody take care of the coaches,” said women’s basketball coach Muffet McGraw. “To have somebody really there for us with these resources right in building, already it’s been phenomenal.”

For McGraw, where Final Fours feel like passing grades, that meant talking with McMains about turning the burden of expectation into celebrations of success. So she split the team’s goals into three, going undefeated in the ACC, winning the ACC Tournament and winning the NCAA Tournament.

The Irish achieved two of those three before getting upset in the Sweet 16. That didn’t make falling short of the Final Four – the Irish had made five straight – any better. It did make everything else about the season easier to process as it unfolded.

“Our goals are so high that you make the Final Four but then it’s, ‘Yeah, but we didn’t win,’” McGraw said. “His perspective is, ‘Dang, you gotta celebrate more.’ We do need to do that. And yeah, I’m guilty of not celebrating victories.”

Men’s soccer is three years removed from its national championship and head Bobby Clark was familiar with McMains’ growth mindset from a former player who was in the EPL. But that was as close as this kind of creative thinking got to the program.

Clark has had McMains meet with a few of his players already, helping them set goals and rules for the program next season. Clark, who like McGraw will enter his 30th season as a head coach next year, is smart enough to know players have changed in his career and that means coaches must too.

“Derin works with the coaches and has helped us become better teachers,” Clark said. “Him coming on board has meant a great deal.”

McGraw and Clark have both attended the Iron Sharpens Iron series, designed for programs to share best practices and see what might apply across different sports. Is motivating a hockey goalie the same as motivating a golfer? How much wiring does a quarterback and point guard share?

McMains wants coaches to ask those questions. The coaches want answers but have never had much of a platform to hunt for them. Beyond an athletic department meeting every couple months, contact among programs is limited. Athletics Director Jack Swarbrick admits he didn’t know how to get his coaches talking and teaching one another. McMains can.

“We’ve been operating in silos for so long, it’s nice to have somebody to pull it all together and make it more efficient,” McGraw said. “He understands what we go through.”

None of that means McMains is charged with directly helping Notre Dame win games. Like that AAA baseball player in Albuquerque, he’s here to create conditions for success more than deliver it himself.

McMains is researching APTUS, the learning evaluation tool used by the football program last season. He’s evaluating the merits of surveys that measure culture and track team psychology.  Professional franchises have reached out for feedback. And McMains has enough credibility that he can poll Major League Baseball for tools to help Notre Dame.

“The more we know, the more we can make a custom approach,” McMains said. “That’s the goal. When we bring a student-athlete here, 750 of them, we want to have 750 different approaches and serve them the best way we can.”

Ultimately, that’s what success looks like for McMains. It won’t be tracked in wins and losses. It’s creating a better environment for coaches to teach and players to learn.

That means evaluating the rehab process, whether injured players would benefit more from interaction with other injured players or doing more community service. It means understanding the difference between the rational and emotional sides of the brain, using one to complement the other.

“When you lay out a plan that just activates the rational side,” McMains said. “How do we get the emotional side to buy in too because it’s our emotions that really change behavior.

“Martin Luther King Jr. said he had a dream. He didn’t say, ‘I have a plan.’ There’s a big difference.”

That’s not a distinction many coaches would make. McMains wants to trigger that change. That might include changing how coaches address players. With the Giants, players were known as “competitors” only. In an ideal world here that might mean changing the term “student-athlete” too.

Notre Dame’s Director of Mental Conditioning has creative license to figure out how to make this happen, even if progress can’t directly be measured in statistics.

Within Notre Dame’s evolving athletic department, that works.

“That’s the fun part of creating a new position,” McMains said. “You get to fail forward.”


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