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Mental strength coach helping BYU

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Head Coach Bronco Mendenhall coaches during a BYU football practice at BYU's practice fields, Thursday, Aug. 14, 2014.

Head Coach Bronco Mendenhall coaches during a BYU football practice at BYU’s practice fields, Thursday, Aug. 14, 2014.

Michelle Tessier, Deseret News

PROVO — BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall is taking advantage of as many resources as possible to help his football program — including bringing aboard a man who holds the title of “mental strength coach.”

Craig Manning, a former professional tennis player and former BYU tennis coach, has been a longtime friend of Mendenhall’s. Manning is a sports psychologist who wrote a book called “The Fearless Mind” that helps coaches and athletes tap into their potential.

“I met Craig Manning when I was dealing with the unique pressures of BYU,” Mendenhall said.

Manning will be “embedded” with the team, Mendenhall said, which includes traveling with the Cougars on road games. “Our team has really benefitted,” Mendenhall said.

Backup quarterback Christian Stewart has enjoyed working with Manning.

“He’s really helping us to focus on what we can do and getting better each day. I’m setting new goals for myself every morning that I really want to work on during practice," Stewart said. "They’re small things like keeping my feet towards my target, or having my release high so my passes aren’t sailing on me — little things to help tighten up every day. It’s really made a difference.”

Manning has spent considerable time with several players, including Stewart and starting quarterback Taysom Hill.

“He’s teaching us to control our mind and occupy all 100 percent of our mind, not just 10 percent of our conscious brain,” Stewart said. “It’s made a night and day difference. Guys on the team are meeting with him individually. He met with the quarterbacks (last Thursday morning). He’s making a really big difference on our team.”

How has he made a difference?

“For one, a lot of guys like to focus on negative things. That’s the way it is,” Stewart said. “You make mistakes and you want to correct them. That’s not what Craig Manning is about. If we’re harping on those things subconsciously, we’re ingraining in our mind negative habits. He’s all about positive reinforcement, focusing on the positive and subconsciously we’ll be gaining those skills.”

FEELING LIBERATED: During fall camp, Mendenhall seemed more relaxed than usual, smiling more and cracking jokes with the media during interviews. One day, he brought out a box of doughnuts to share with reporters, offering a treat to the one who asked the best question.

It’s a conscious approach Mendenhall has embraced as he enters his 10th season at the helm. He’s spending more time fulfilling head coaching responsibilities rather than focusing so much of his efforts with the defense, as he has in the past.

Mendenhall added that he has a great deal of trust in his defensive coordinator Nick Howell, offensive coordinator Robert Anae, and special teams coordinator Kelly Poppinga.

“I kind of feel liberated to some extent,” Mendenhall explained. “Hopefully it all plays out that way and we perform well so it can keep going in this direction.”

BYU VS. AAC: The season-opener at Connecticut marks the first meeting between BYU and the Huskies of the American Athletic Conference. The Cougars own a 16-2 all-time record against teams from the AAC. In its last game against an AAC foe, BYU edged Houston 47-46 in a thriller last season.