Walking by the Smilow Field Center this past year, the Yale bystander may have seen football players smashing boards with their heads and eating fire.
These players were not training their muscles — they were training their minds.
With the leadership of sports psychologist Brian Cain, many teams at Yale are working on their mental toughness — the ability to work through challenges mentally and emotionally. Breaking “mental blocks” and eating fire, which are intended to encourage players to move out of their comfort zones, are two examples of the exercises that the Cain has used.
“[Cain] has been teaching us different ways as a team to come together, and ways that we can overcome any mental problems that we have,” swimmer Kate Rogers ’18 said. “He’s very positive and energetic, and I feel as though he really wants everyone to succeed.”
Rogers took part in another exercise Cain conducted last week with the women’s swimming and diving team, in which Cain lit a stick on fire and instructed her to hold it in her mouth. This was supposed to be a lesson in dealing with unexpected challenges.
Cain, a former assistant baseball coach at Cal State Fullerton, has worked with many programs such as Texas Christian University, Alabama and even the Washington Nationals.
The Yale men’s lacrosse team and field hockey team were the first to summon Cain’s help in 2010 and 2011, and football head coach Tony Reno followed suit last spring. This year, Cain has expanded his work to several teams such as women’s swimming and diving, baseball and softball. He visits Yale’s campus three to four days each month and plans to work with as many athletes as he can in the future, according to Rogers.
Wide receiver Robert Clemons ’17 said the team has met with Cain “at least 15 times” since the spring of 2013, and that they also watch Cain’s training videos and go over his reading material when he is not on campus.
“Our first meeting was weird. The guy came in a little hot, playing loud music, getting us on our feet,” Clemons said. “A lot of us didn’t understand how mentally strong you can be, and that you could practice your mentality.”
Clemons added that while players’ opinions are mixed on Cain’s influence, the overall consensus is that he has helped the team’s mentality more than many had previously anticipated.
Following an 8–2 season in which the Bulldogs came from behind in several games and Reno preached every week about “following the process,” it is certainly easy to argue that mentality played some role.
“The whole team has developed confidence and trust in Brian Cain,” Clemons said.
Men’s lacrosse team captain Harry Kucharczyk ’15 also attested to the level of comfort Yale athletes have with Cain. According to Kucharczyk, Cain does not feel like a coach. Rather, he is a helpful resource that Kucharczyk can reach out to at any time — Cain gave him his cell phone number.
This level of comfort transcends sport and has led to success for various athletic teams at Yale. The men’s lacrosse team won its first regular season Ivy League title since 1990 within months of Shay bringing Cain on board in 2010, and the field hockey team won an Ivy championship with Cain’s help in 2011.
Two years later, Reno got in contact with Cain because he felt that mental conditioning was a void the football team had not yet filled.
Baseball captain David Toups ’15 said Cain’s words have been useful to him personally, and that the baseball team has made active changes to its mental preparation since meeting with him in December.
The baseball team has started a poster about perspective, with pictures reminding players that situations they are in are rarely as bad or good as they may seem. Toups said the visual reminder will help keep the idea of mental toughness fresh in their minds.
“Obviously baseball is such a mental game, and that’s a part of the game that not many people think about or train,” Toups said. “If you can control that or make an effort to improve the mental side over the course of a season, it will help tremendously.”
Toups added that Cain, who has worked with many top baseball programs, has shed light on many of the mental strategies those teams use in their preparation.