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The Notre Dame coaches' coach has made psychology a priority

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- When DeShone Kizer or Malik Zaire break the huddle, be it in practices or games, they have their own routines. Whether through a mental checklist or a simple hand movement, the two signal callers understand the importance of relaxation amidst the otherwise pulsating moments.

They know this because they are Notre Dame quarterbacks, and with such responsibility comes a certain measure of self-control. They are able to exercise control more routinely through repetition and mental conditioning, through nagging from their coaches and through simple self-reminders.

They are able to keep from being prisoners of the moment through ... Buster Posey?

Well, that's one of the examples Notre Dame can draw from Derin McMains, the program's director of mental conditioning who was hired late last fall after serving as the San Francisco Giants' peak performance coordinator. The athletics department-wide position was believed to be the first of its kind in college sports. It gives McMains a front-row seat to Irish coaches, with the intent of helping to unlock the keys to their players' best efforts through the sometimes-amorphous concept of sports psychology.

"(Posey would) have his routine: unstrap the glove, wipe off -- whatever it might be, right? It's arbitrary," Irish quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford said, relaying a lesson learned through McMains. "But he'd always have one buzzword at the very end, and for Buster Posey it's, 'Just put barrel on it, OK?' And so same thing with the quarterback -- Hey, last word you think, 'Just rip it,' or, ‘Just get my feet and my base strong.' Whatever it may be, you can give quarterbacks those buzzwords and keep just drilling it and drilling it and drilling it where in time it becomes second-nature."

Athletic director Jack Swarbrick pursued McMains with the idea that Notre Dame's coaches needed a resource for themselves. In an ideal world, those responsibilities would fall on the AD's plate, but time demands and the fact Swarbrick has no coaching experience made creating this post a priority.

"I became very focused on a need for the resource for the coaches," Swarbrick said. "Everyone thinks of sports psychology in terms of the athlete. I want Derin's customers to be our 26 head coaches."

McMains played in the Giants' organization from 2001-08, rising as high as Triple-A. He also held a number of coaching roles with the club, which developed an interest in creating a sports psychology role. Hesitant to bring in someone without playing experience, the Giants asked McMains to chair that effort, so he obtained his masters degree in sport and exercise psychology from the Arizona School of Professional Psychology at Argosy University in 2012. From there, he created the Giants' peak performance program, working across all levels of the organization.

At Notre Dame, McMains tries to attend two different sports' practices and meet with coaches of two different teams a day, maximizing his reach. His duties can include anything from getting several coaches in a room together for idea exchanges to dealing with groups of players in leadership summits.

“We have a head coach who’s phenomenal at the postgame talk with the team, both in content and delivery -- well, there’s other coaches in our hallway that can benefit from learning how (to do) that, right?” said Mike Harrity, Notre Dame’s senior associate AD for student-athlete services, who first came across McMains at a leadership forum in Atlanta. “So how do we create a community, a conversation where they’re sharing some of that?”

Staring down the gap between really good and perfection can create tension and doubt. The biggest motivator, McMains said, is progress. If you fail to celebrate progress, motivation becomes much trickier.

"When you talk about mental conditioning, it's knowing what to think when you're supposed to think it, and the only way you know that is you've got to know what you're aiming for, and so it's gaining clarity around that," McMains said. "I believe there's power and I've seen the success, the importance of that, but it's all about getting the players to take ownership over what they want to accomplish. The example I use all the time is: You don't wash you rental car. So it's getting the players to own the vision. There's a process and an art to that."

"I remember Jack [Swarbrick] told me last year that we were the first university in the history of the NCAA to have a football team with a 10-win season and then two basketball teams and a hockey team all reach the Sweet 16," McMains said. "And when he told me that, the fact that I hadn't heard that -- I thought we would've thrown a party. The first school to do that in NCAA history? Wrap our heads around that. And the fact that that wasn't celebrated blew me away. But I do understand we're trying to win national championships here."

McMains counseled coach Muffet McGraw and her women's basketball team, which had been to five straight Final Fours from 2011-15 but had no national titles to show for it. Upon winning the ACC title in the spring, the program threw a party, something the 30-year Irish coach says she never would have done in the past.

"If you truly believe that you can't control results -- which at the end of day we can't, all we can only control is our preparation and our evaluation after the results -- then we should celebrate," McMains said. "We should celebrate wins and be happy that we won, because I think it feels good to feel good."

To get there requires uncluttering and simplifying the task at hand for all to understand.

Head football coach Brian Kelly had that clarity of purpose in mind when he organized a retreat with McMains on a summer Friday at the rowing team's new 15,000-square foot boathouse. A couple dozen or so players were asked to attend.

"I wanted him to do some unit leadership [workshops], where he takes each unit and sets some standards within each unit: Above the line behavior, below the line behavior," Kelly said. "He just has a really good way of explaining and prompting our guys to invest in the leadership component of what I was asking for."

Specifics of the rendezvous weren't divulged, but the team's identity came into focus that day, Kelly said. McMains became an outlet not just for the coaches, but for the players as well.

"A lot of us were like: Why do we have to do this on a Friday afternoon? Then we went and it was really beneficial," senior captain and defensive end Isaac Rochell said. "Literally setting standards and expectations for the season, it was a powerful moment for our team -- it didn't make anything gray, everything was black and white: 'This is what we're gonna do, this is what we need to do to win.' "