How Notre Dame's 'Traits of Excellence' might translate into wins

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

This is not a pipe.

It is a painting. It’s titled “The Treachery of Images,” completed by Belgian surrealist painter René Magritte in 1929. In it, Magritte depicts an easily identifiable, run-of-the-mill brown and black pipe, which is presented in front of a beige backdrop.

Under it, five cursive words are scribbled in black ink:

Ceci n'est pas une pipe.

This is not a pipe.

But, pipes aside, what’s Magritte’s point? The most efficient explanation was authored by Polish-American scientist and philosopher Alfred Korzybski, who has been credited with two interlocking premises:

• The map is not the territory, and

• The word is not the thing.

Simply put, a representation of a thing is not the thing itself. Paintings of pipes are not pipes. Words are not the actions they describe.

And, when it comes to Notre Dame football, the words are exceedingly clear.

Attention to detail. Laser focus. Attitude. Smart. Grit.

These are what eighth-year Irish head coach Brian Kelly dubs Notre Dame’s “Traits of Excellence,” necessary to accomplish the program’s longstanding mission: to graduate all of its players and win a national championship.

The words are printed on a poster hanging inside the Guglielmino Athletics Complex’s auditorium, bulleted and in bold gold caps. They’re littered throughout the transcript of Kelly’s season-opening press conference (21 times, to be exact). They’re pasted on the back of the Irish coaching staff’s T-shirts, worn each day as a reminder of the ladder they’re climbing — each trait another rung.

“We’ll wear a different (shirt) each day for the next five days,” Kelly said Tuesday, the words “Attention to Detail” and “Details Matter” draped across his back. “All of our traits will be brought to light each day. Tomorrow will be attitude. We want to make sure that’s the emphasis of each practice.

“So today it’s about attention to detail. If you didn’t line up right, if you didn’t execute the coverage, those things matter tonight when we watch film. It’s not about how many catches you had or if you pressured the quarterback. It’s, ‘What was your detail?’ They matter.”

The words matter, too, but not without an accompanying action.

Or, as senior linebacker and team captain Greer Martini so eloquently put it: “It’s all talk until you act on it.”

So, how are the Irish acting? Is there any proof Martini and Co. are producing some actual pipes?

“You see people focusing on the little things,” graduate student tight end Durham Smythe said. “That’s the thing that has really stuck out to me, at least thus far. You see little things that guys in past seasons have neglected or overlooked, even small things like showing up to meals all the time on time. We have a questionnaire we do every day … filling out the questionnaire on time every day.

“Things like that in the past have kind of slipped through the cracks, and I think with the things we’re focusing on this year, everybody’s focusing on getting the little things done.”

Attention to detail — in principle, and practice. On Tuesday, as Notre Dame wrapped up its first fall session at Culver Academies, graduate student left tackle and two-time captain Mike McGlinchey stood before his teammates … and reminded them not to listen to music while eating dinner, so the group could talk and grow.

As for words like “attitude,” “smart” and “laser focus,” both Notre Dame’s players and coaches have been working with a sports psychologist and mental performance consultant — Dr. Amber Selking, a former Irish women’s soccer player — to translate those traits into habits.

“Dr. Selking works with the entire team on an individual basis, a unit basis and a physician basis,” Kelly said. “When I'm able to craft my message and we're all able to get on the same page, mental skills coordination gets everybody rolling in the right direction.

“So our players can really understand what total preparation is now when we talk about the physical, we talk about the technical, the tactical. They understand the mental now is part of that total preparation.”

Of course, in a sport like football, the physical aspect cannot be overlooked. That’s where first-year director of football performance Matt Balis comes in.

He creates adversity, fosters competition … and in doing so, develops “grit.”

“Through this offseason, by going through all these difficult workouts and coming together as a team,” Martini said, “we’ve been able to build a culture that goes towards these goals.”

Attention to detail. Laser focus. Attitude. Smart. Grit.

It’s not enough to say it.

The Irish are beginning to show it.

“We all know exactly what is expected of us now. That’s been the biggest thing,” McGlinchey said. “Obviously you go about your career and you know how football is supposed to be played, but when there’s not a clear outline or people are on a different page than you think they’re on, that’s when you start failing.

“You see guys that have changed drastically in the last seven months in their attitude, their body makeup and the way that they play. Across the board, we felt changes from the youngest guys to the oldest guys. It’s definitely been because of outlining the process that we’ve put into place.”

A year ago at this time, Notre Dame’s rallying cry — on T-shirts and in training — was, “Leaders eat last.” Even so, Kelly conceded Monday that he did a “poor job in developing our leadership and the message was not clear within the program.”

These things are easier said, and written, and printed, and worn, than done.

But what if, when Sept. 2 rolls around, all of Kelly’s deliberate messaging pays off? What if endless hours of mental training mold an unshakable psychological resolve? What if Balis’ excruciating workouts yield long-awaited fourth quarter breakthroughs?

What if the “Traits of Excellence” are embraced and embodied? What if the words become the things?

Then that “mission” Notre Dame keeps chasing?

It is not a pipe (dream), after all.


Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, right, talks to players during the first day of fall camp for Notre Dame Football Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2017, at Culver Academies in Culver, Ind. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN