Focus critical for Notre Dame at Florida State

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Big football game here Saturday night. Playoff implications. Plenty at stake.

Lost in the glamour of the spectacle that is Notre Dame-Florida State is the fact that those larger-than-life gladiators are really just 18-to-22-year-old young adults.

They feel pressure. They recognize the millions of dollars that could hinge on a single misstep. They understand — and sometimes wrestle with — the dynamics of competition.

But, with the eyes of the college football world focused on them, dealing with either success or failure can be a monumental task.

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly goes to great lengths to prepare his players — physically and mentally. He is the guy delivering the message. He is the one charged with walking a path his players can follow.

What’s his plan to be mentally ready for such a daunting assignment?

“What we try to do is stay on course all year for all of our games and not to try to get too high or too low,” Kelly said. “I've done a pretty good job of setting that as the standard which keeps us within reasonable amounts of up or down. What we don't want are high spikes of emotion and low spikes.

“(The players) know that this is a game that everybody has been looking forward to. I try to keep that at a minimum, one way or the other, so we don't do a lot of talk about hyping the game. We talk more about, ‘It's still going to be about your preparation. It's still going to be about how you play the game and how you execute.’

“We're all kidding ourselves that there is a little bit more here because there are two undefeated teams playing on the road and in a primetime game. They know that. But we try to keep it to a minimum because we have so many other games that we have to play.”

A pretty solid approach to what could be an overwhelming situation for even the most stable and grounded individuals.

Results — positive or negative — can get in the way of performance in a situation like this. Dr. Mick Franco, a staff psychologist for Notre Dame’s counseling center for 25 years, has seen it often.

Franco knows football — he played at SMU in the ‘80s. He knows the Notre Dame culture as he has regularly helped student-athletes during his time on campus. He had worked closely with the football program through the Charlie Weis era but no longer is involved.

The distance he has now allows him to take a big-picture look at the challenge the Irish players will face Saturday night.

“Mark my words, Saturday will come down to the team that is the most intensely committed to staying focused. Focused on what? Fundamental assignments,” said the 53-year-old Franco. “Do you know what can become a huge distraction on Saturday? Winning. Fear of failure is going to be something (with which) everyone will have to negotiate.

“If winning can become a distraction, the scoreboard — if (Notre Dame) is on top — can become a distraction.”

Amnesia, according to Franco, has to be a big part of the Irish game plan. Letting go of what happened on the previous play — good or bad — is imperative. A winner will put all his concentration and effort into the play at hand — not the next one or the last one. Living in the moment is the key.

There’s a lot going on under those gold helmets. In the past, what Franco tried to do was to confront the issues head-on.

“Sometimes the game can take on an identity of its own,” Franco said. “It can create a thing called ‘stereotype threat.’ If you believe there’s a stereotype about you: Let’s assume there are players that are dealing with the stereotype that Notre Dame football can no longer win the national championship; that Notre Dame can’t win the big one (by the way, since 1999, the Irish are 1-16 against Top 5 teams) … Let’s say that’s the stereotype. When you believe there’s a stereotype about you, you are so committed to make sure you don’t fulfill that stereotype’s expectation, what will happen is that you’re going to get anxious for fear of fulfilling that expectation. In the anxiety, you under-perform. In doing so, you fulfill the prophecy.”

Franco has dealt with individual situations before. Years ago, Irish running back Jonas Gray had a problem with fumbles. Franco said Gray’s issue was that he didn’t feel he could grip the ball tightly and still run at full speed. Once Gray was convinced that wasn’t the case, he went on to a breakout senior year and an NFL opportunity.

Irish quarterback Everett Golson’s recent turnover troubles — five fumbles and three interceptions in the last three games — caught Franco’s eye. But so did something Golson said after the North Carolina game.

“I come in (to face the media) every week for the last couple of weeks saying I have to do a better job,” Golson said. “Right now, it’s time for me to stop saying that and time for me to put my words into action and actually do that.”

“What he’s communicating is that it’s not about a change of attitude or mentality; this is about a visible change in behavior,” Franco assessed. “When you’re running with the ball, what’s the fundamentally sound way to run with the ball? Can you commit to running with the football in a more fundamentally sound way? If you meet that standard of excellence, the ball is going to be OK.

“The interesting thing about Everett, when the chips are down and the game is on the line, I’ll be darned if that kid hasn’t been able to hold onto the fundamentals and perform.”

In other words, Saturday’s challenge is really pretty simple for the Irish: Stay in the moment; forget the scoreboard; believe victory is possible; and play fundamentally sound football.

Maybe this game’s not so big after all.

ALesar@SBTinfo.com | (574) 235-6318

Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson gets the offense ready during the Notre Dame-Michigan game on Saturday, Sept. 6, 2014, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. (SBT Photo/SANTIAGO FLORES)