Notre Dame faces mental, emotional challenge against Syracuse

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

Welcome. Take a seat on the couch.

The doctor is in.

Given the roller coaster ride the Notre Dame football program has endured over the last five weeks, Saturday’s matinee with Syracuse will challenge more than the physical skills of the Irish.

Three stunning losses, the dismissal of defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, and head coach Brian Kelly’s terse message to his players after the loss to Duke have shivered the timbers of the inner sanctum.

A revival against Syracuse will be as much about mental and emotional recovery as it is improving the physical play on the field.

That’s where Dr. Bob Winters comes in.

A native of Walton, Ind. (about 60 miles south of South Bend, between Logansport and Kokomo), and a two-time Ball State University grad (undergrad and master’s), the 63-year-old Winters — now based in Orlando, Fla. — is one of the pioneers in sports psychology.

After getting his doctorate from the University of Virginia, he spent eight years on the school’s athletic staff working with athletes. Since then, he has become a best-selling author and world-renowned speaker on a variety of concepts of sports psychology.

He also has some opinions about what’s going on at Notre Dame right now. It’s a fragile time, with a lot hinging on Saturday’s performance at The Meadowlands.

A Purdue fan by birth (and, “after eight years at Virginia, I’m also an ACC guy,” he said), Winters knows Notre Dame a bit. He’s watched games. He’s taken the tour. He’s slapped the “Play Like A Champion” sign.

He understands 1-3 is a concern.

Overrated

Kelly thinks the “sacks” statistic is overrated. Ditto for how Winters feels about the emotion of “confidence.”

He’s more of a practical — do your job and success will follow — sort of guy.

“You throw confidence out the window,” Winters said. “Confidence is probably one of the most exaggerated and embellished terms in all of sports.

“If you can get a team, an individual, to focus on their task, focus on execution, you don’t need momentum; you don’t need confidence.

“These people are doing their task; doing their job. Stay vigilant. If you’re doing that, I guarantee you’ll have success. The more success you can do, it builds up this momentum. The residue of all that success is what we call inferring confidence.

“Don’t talk about confidence, talk about doing your job and focus on execution. That’s what the Irish need to do.”

That’s probably a good thing for the Irish. There isn’t a lot of confidence anywhere in the program these days.

“I’ve been studying about anxiety, stress and confidence for about 40 years now,” Winters said. “It always comes back to that.

“’Are you going to play with confidence? Or, are you going to play with fear? Are you playing to play great? Or, are you playing not to lose?’

“That’s the fork in the road that every athlete, every coach, has to look in the mirror and say, ‘OK, who are we going to be today? Are we going to play like champions? Or, are we going to play like pretenders?’

“It’s a really big question.”

Appreciating change

Change had to happen with the Irish program. There was just too much frustration and too many concerns to travel through the final eight games of the season on the same course.

VanGorder’s firing was the cornerstone of that change. Kelly has adjusted his role and focus to the defense, while elevating Greg Hudson from an analyst to defensive coordinator.

Winters has no question the Irish players will be able to process the upheaval.

“When you’re playing big-time athletics, which is what Division I football is, it isn’t just about having fun and enjoying it,” Winters said. “It’s about playing football, being efficient, and winning.

“There’s a lot of pressure put on the (athletes) of any sport. They are the ambassadors of the school. They are student-athletes, especially at such a prestigious school as Notre Dame.

“When you lose someone for the betterment of the team, players nowadays are good at adapting to that.

“(The firing) will get people’s attention, especially when the head coach is saying, ‘Every position is in jeopardy — including my own.’ When he says that, he’s really giving (players) a wakeup call.

“When you’re 1-3, it’s about starting fresh. You’ll never get those losses back.

“The Irish are going to have to get back to basics: Hit hard, tackle well, move the ball as efficiently and effectively as they can, and play one play at a time.

“They have to forget all of (the bad stuff), put that behind them, and play one down at a time. Do that for 60 minutes of the game.”

Legendary Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka said the past is for cowards and losers. Winters has his own opinion.

“The past is where the doubt and the worry reside,” Winters said. “Notre Dame does not have the option of looking at the past. That’s a done deal. That’s Thomas Jefferson. That’s history.

“Syracuse is thinking, ‘Notre Dame is ripe for getting upset.’ Duke had the biggest victory of their football legacy. They pulled the ultimate upset.

“Each player and coach has to look in the mirror and say, ‘If it is to be, it’s up to me.’ The Alpha and the Omega of any sports team, it begins with the individual.”

Letting loose

While he’s calling on his players to show more emotion on the field, Kelly said it’s time he took the shackles off of himself and has promised to be more animated on the sidelines.

That should be good news for all those amateur lip readers.

“I can still be demonstrative, but I just feel like (the players) have to see that passion from me as well,” Kelly said. “I don't have to be a loon on the sidelines and throw chairs and do that kinda stuff. But they have to feel that from me as well. That's very important in this game of football.”

“Coaches are going to say a lot of stuff: Some of it is educational; some of it is inspirational; some of it is huff and puff,” Winters said. “You’ve gotta be able to separate the wheat from the chaff.

“Every player needs to put himself on alert. ‘You know what? I’m going to play with this carefree confidence. I’m going to give myself the freedom to go out and play the way I know I can play.’

“If they’re looking behind; if they’re looking over their shoulder; or, if they’re, ‘I better not be making any mistakes…’ that’s the surest way to make a mistake. We call that the Ironic Thought Process.

“What you don’t want to have happen, happens. ‘We’re 1-3. We’ve got to give ourselves permission to be the Irish.’

“Some of the most effective coaches, whether it’s John Wooden; whether it’s Bob Knight; Woody Hayes — these great coaches were always talking about mental discipline, structure, routine and execution. That’s the hallmark of a great team.

“That’s what Brian Kelly has to focus on the most.

“When you’re coaching, you’re totally involved with the players on the field. You have very little concern with what people are seeing on the sidelines or up in the crowd.

“Are you coaching your athletes? Or, are you coaching for the alumni?

“Notre Dame is slightly different. It has a microscopic eye on it. The whole world’s watching. Expectations are higher. The stress is higher.”

Especially at 1-3.

A crossroads

How the Irish play Saturday will be a testament to their character.

It will also go a long way toward fashioning the blueprint for the rest of the season — and, in the big picture, the future of the program.

It’s hard to underestimate the significance of this game.

“(The players) are probably shell-shocked right now,” Winters said. “It’s important to bring them back down to earth. ‘Are you going to be the Notre Dame Irish? Or, are you going to be a 4-8 team?

“’We have the opportunity to turn this around and have an unbelievable season. We’ve gotta start with one game.’

“Any type of change … The brain says, ‘Oh, this is different; this is new.’ That’s the whole point. The onus of responsibility is on the Notre Dame team. They have to prove to Syracuse they are worthy of Syracuse’s respect.

“With the rest of this season, where do you put your energy at? You’re always going to have the boo birds, the naysayers.

“You have to take a look at the glass: Is it half empty, or half full? (The players and coaches) have to say, ‘Let’s start putting some water back in the glass.’

“Every day you’ve gotta perform. As Notre Dame players have found out, a reputation never beat anyone.”

Too bad. That would come in handy now.

Dejected Notre Dame players walk off the field after their loss to Texas in double overtime of an NCAA college football game, Sunday, Sept. 4, 2016, in Austin, Texas. Texas won 50-47. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)