Mind the puck

Get your head in the game.

It’s a phrase that athletes at all levels have heard before.

Be it in practice or when the games really matter, coaches are preaching the mental side of sport more than some might think.

Carleton Ravens men’s hockey team forward Andrew Self said he knows about the importance of psychology in sports.

“The big thing is confidence. It’s a snowball effect,” Self said. “Once you find yourself going down from your peak . . . you’ve got to get worse before it gets better.”

Self said when players find themselves in a slump, their focus turns to figuring out what they’re doing wrong and how they can fix it.

“Your confidence is down, and instead of just playing, you’re worrying about what you need to do to get better,” he said.

Self has had concussion problems for the past two years — concerns like these can weigh on a player’s mind.

“You go out on the ice, and in the back of your head [you think], ‘One more, one more like this might be it.’ You try to block it out – [but] it’s your head, you don’t want to take that too lightly.”

Legitimate concerns like this can take away from a player’s focus. That’s where mental toughness comes in, Self said.

“That’s what I think being mentally tough is. Just being able to focus 100 per cent at what you’ve got to do, at a given time,” Self said.

But seeking help to become mentally tough is something that players aren’t always interested in.

“I’m pretty stubborn, I like to do things myself,” he said. “I don’t really like to get help from people in situations like this.”

Varsity mental skills

Varsity athletes need the most guidance when dealing with psychological issues that affect performance, according to Adam Naylor,  sport psychology coach and director at Boston University’s Athletic Enhancement Center.

“There’s more of a thirst for direct knowledge with the younger guys. With the pro guys, they already have all the answers, and I just service the resources to help clean up the answers,” said Naylor, who has worked with both professional and varsity level athletes, dealing mainly in the sport of hockey.

“With guys that range from about 16 to 22 years old, they know they’re looking for something but they need a lot of help with the answers. So I balance between teaching them something and supporting them while they struggle to find the answer. I’m kind of just the tour guide to help them find the answers.”

Naylor is quick to caution against lecturing players, especially those at a young age. As opposed to simply creating a situation where a message can become stale, Naylor prefers to engage his athletes through discussion.

“College guys will let you lecture all day long, but I’m not convinced that they’ll learn anything if you do,” he said. “I try to put things in their reality that tries to challenge them to think about it differently or even to have one of them say, ‘Hey, that’s bullshit.’ When it reaches that level, then they are learning.”

The relationship between sport and psychology was not always a pleasant one, according to Naylor.  

“It’s grown and become more prominent in that it’s more accepted,” he said. “I’ve been in this field for quite a while now, and when I got into it, the thought was you couldn’t use the word psychology, because people would think you were sick, so they would avoid you. Now, people appreciate it as a science and accept that it is a part of sports.”

Ravens getting zoned in

For Carleton Ravens men’s hockey coach Marty Johnston, the mental side of the sport may even outweigh the physical aspect.

“I think at our level, it’s probably the most important part of our game,” he said. “In terms of the physical ability in our league, I think things are pretty much even, so that difference comes down to mental toughness. I think it’s a huge part of the game and everyone is really trying to tap that resource.”

Canada’s favourite hockey player provides a prime example of this, Johnston said.

“If you look at a guy like Sidney Crosby, he’s not the biggest or fastest guy, but for whatever reason, he can play at a high level every single shift and that sets him apart from everyone else,” Johnston said. “Strong-minded individuals are successful in our sport.”

While the men’s team at Carleton doesn’t employ anyone to work specifically with the team in this regard, it’s something Johnston said he’s looking into. Regardless, the second-year bench boss said the experience of the team’s coaching staff is a key factor in making up for not having a hired professional.

Each member behind the Ravens’ bench has playing experience — something Johnston said is key in helping them relate with the players.  

“We try to recognize as coaches, when players are feeling good or bad about themselves and help them out,” he said. “We’ve talked with players about being able to put themselves out there and take that first hit when they come back from injury."

Over on the women’s side of things, head coach Shelley Coolidge has a mental skills coach to work directly with the players.

“Prior to every game they play, we give them specific goals and focus points to work on and we have a post-game reflection on how they felt they did at achieving their goals for the game,” Coolidge said.

One player who has used these resources to take her game to the next level is goaltender Tamber Tisdale. The Red Deer, Alta. native has posted an impressive .927 save percentage so far this season, putting her in the upper echelon of the Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) rankings.

“[Tisdale] did a lot of one-on-one work over the summer in that area, and you can see the difference in terms of her confidence and ability to move past mistakes,” Coolidge said. “Mistakes are going to happen, hockey is a game of mistakes, and seeing her just let it go and move to the next puck is a definite sign of progress.”

Coolidge said she believes that 100 per cent of the game is mental.  

“You need to be able to read what is coming at you and react, so every single skill that you perform in the sport is about a decision first,” she said. “The better you are at making the decision and the right choice, the more successful you’re going to be on the ice.”

But there’s a reason why this practice took so long to be recognized, Coolidge said.

“There is a stigma attached to [mental skills training] as opposed to looking at it as just another coach that is going to help you become the best you can be.”

Professional impact

In recent years, word has spread throughout the hockey world to eliminate this stigma, as more teams are not only using mental skills professionals, but also acknowledging the fact publicly.

From the Vancouver Canucks going public about their partnership with legendary sport psychologist Leonard Zaichkowsky — Naylor’s self-proclaimed “mentor” — to individual players stepping up, the field is certainly gaining in prominence.

Coolidge said the professional impact is something that cannot be overlooked.

“You need those pro athletes to stand up and speak out about what they are doing and how beneficial those people have been in helping them.”

Gordon Bloom is one of the men working with those professional athletes. The director of the Sport Psychology Research Lab at McGill University, Bloom has worked with Vancouver Canucks goaltender, Roberto Luongo.  

For Bloom, that type of relationship is a sign of progress in the field of sports psychology.

“The discipline is growing both in the educational system and in the professional sporting world,” he wrote in an email. “Sports like golf and tennis are known to have sport psychology professionals working full-time with their athletes. The evolution into professional team sports has been slow, but I suspect that domain will eventually latch on to mental training in the same manner that our Olympic programs have.”

At the moment, each member of the Canadian Olympic team has access to mental skills professionals.

Naylor said he sees that trend as one that will continue — if some things are ironed out first.

“I think [organizations] need more consistent, quality service, to make them feel like we are worth the money,” he said. “I think they need to see more of those intangibles where players’ performance actually improves, and less of the motivational speaker kind of guy who takes their money once and walks away.”

Strengthening the brain is no different than putting in hard hours at the gym, Naylor said.

“Just like you go in the weight room to add flexibility or core strength, this is the same thing to figure out where you need to be in order to get to the next level.”