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Bohls: Texas' Steve Sarkisian exploring ways to improve Longhorn players' mental approach

  • Steve Sarkisian thinks most of his team's problems stem from a lack of mental toughness.
  • The coach showed the team the 2018 documentary "Free Solo" about a treacherous climbing feat.
  • Running back Bijan Robinson said he is trying to become more of a vocal leader and "a presence."

One of the world’s foremost philosophers boiled it all down to one simple statement explaining a mindset that was uniquely Lawrence Peter Berra.

You might have better known this Socrates of the ballpark as Yogi.

No one has been quoted more widely as the Yankees catcher spewed out one, uh, truism after another even though he also once said, ”I never said most of the things I said."

My favorite was always his strongly held opinion that "no one goes there nowadays, it’s too crowded."

But one Yogi-ism came to mind Monday during Texas football coach Steve Sarkisian's press conference when he and several players beat home the premise that all of the Longhorns’ problems stem from mindset.

Texas coach Steve Sarkisian spent last week's bye week trying to solve his team's various issues. “If we can do it in the first and second quarter and not in the fourth, that’s us being distracted by outside elements," he said Monday. "Can we keep doing the right thing? We don’t ask them to do something they’re not capable of doing.”

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Or, as Yogi put it, “Ninety percent of the game is half mental.”

Or something to that effect.

I’m not sure if Texas’ issues are 90% mental or 50% mental, but I’m guessing their woes have at least been half physical as well.

Some might argue that the Longhorns became physically fatigued and worn down by their last two opponents and that’s the biggest reason that they were outscored 54-17 in the second halves by Oklahoma and Oklahoma State.

A few might insist those two teams just have superior players, and better players make better plays. That, too, is possible as Sarkisian and his staff prepare for a tough road against 6-1 Baylor.

And since it’s hard to really beef up his players and improve them dramatically in the second half of the season without benefit of offseason drills and spring practice, Sarkisian has to look elsewhere for answers.

But the mental side can be just as critical, and Sarkisian addressed it fully with his team during the bye week. He and four players mentioned the word ‘finish” about 50 times during Monday’s interviews. Texas just hasn’t done it, winning only one of its three one-possession games and even then barely surviving a 99-yard TCU drive to come out with a victory.

Texas quarterback Casey Thompson is pressured by Oklahoma linebacker Brian Asamoah during the Sooners' win at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. The Longhorns have lost two in a row, to Oklahoma and Oklahoma State.

To illustrate his point about mental toughness, Sarkisian even showed the Longhorns the 2018 documentary film called “Free Solo” that profiles rock climber Alex Honnold as he went about accomplishing his goal of a pulling off a free solo climb of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.

“When you’re capable of doing something and do the repetitions, the circumstances shouldn’t dictate the result,” Sarkisian said. “So we watched a video that pertained to that and had a lot of dialogue about that. If we can do it in the first and second quarter and not in the fourth, that’s us being distracted by outside elements. Can we keep doing the right thing? We don’t ask them to do something they’re not capable of doing.”

The message seemed to hit home.

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Bijan Robinson especially took it to heart and will try to apply the lessons to Texas’ final five games. And he cleaned his room during the bye weekend, too, ever the good citizen. The best running back in college football said he learned from Honnold, who “didn’t let anything come in between him and his goal. It was pretty impactful.”

Robinson also studied on his own. He tuned in to videos of the late Kobe Bryant for one and figures he needs to become a better and more vocal leader. He also watched clips of Steph Curry, whom he identifies with as a more quiet team player.

“I need to be a presence,” Robinson said. “I’ve been trying to trickle in here and there. I’ve never been the type to be loud, but sometimes I do because the team feeds off me.”

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Bryant, obviously, was never the shy leader of the Lakers, and Robinson is learning to be more vocal even if it’s not his nature.

Sarkisian recognizes the value of a Robinson speaking up to impress upon his teammates a sense of urgency since Texas has lost two straight and probably has to win out to have a shot at the Big 12 championship.

“Bijan is clearly a guy who can be as vocal as he wants to be,” Sarkisian said. “He’s a great player and a great human being. But I only want him to go down that road when he’s comfortable going down that road.”

Speaking of the road, Texas is back on it, traveling to Waco where the Longhorns last lost 24-10 in a dismal performance in which the Longhorns scored only a field goal until a window-dressing touchdown in the final second of the game.

The coach said quarterback Casey Thompson may have to change his cadence to a silent count at Waco but minimized the need to change much else with the team’s approach.

For sure, it’s a steep mountain to climb with Texas installed as a 2-point underdog. Hence, Free Solo.

Someone should free up Alfred Collins to wreak some havoc on the Baylor offense. Someone has to step up and make impact plays at crucial times.

“Everyone sees us when we’re on our stuff and ready to go,” said Texas defensive end Ovie Oghoufo, who was also struck by the film Sarkisian showed. In the film, which won an Academy Award, the camera crew and director even discussed their attempts to not endanger the climber with distractions or extra pressure to complete the climb.

Sarkisian is big on blocking out the outside noise.

“I loved the video,” Oghoufo said. “It just showed you have to be really strong to climb 3,200 feet and no rope. That is kind of dope. It shows you you’ve got to be all in.”

And, Oghoufo added, when Honnold completed the climb, “he smiled. He wasn’t even tired.”

There’s that conditioning factor again.

Tired players don’t play at their best although Sarkisian has not included conditioning as a team problem. Maybe the mental approach is not consider one’s self tired, even if he is.

What is obvious is the urgency that Texas figures it out soon before it’s too late.

After all, that famous pinstripe philosopher once said, “You've got to be very careful if you don't know where you are going, because you might not get there."