Gaining a mental edge: How Ilya Bryzgalov can maximize his potential

Photo courtesy of The Globe and Mail.

As some of you may already know (if you’ve been following my tweets, you probably do), I took a sports psychology class this term at Carleton.

Our major assignment was to develop a psychological training plan for a professional athlete. I considered three players: Sidney Crosby (and the mental component to his injury rehabilitation), Roberto Luongo, and Ilya Bryzgalov.

As you can see, I chose the latter — mainly because of this. Here’s what I came up with.

Gaining a mental edge: How Ilya Bryzgalov can maximize his potential

“I’m terrible . . . I have zero confidence in myself right now.”

These are the words that Ilya Bryzgalov uttered to reporters after his Philadelphia Flyers lost 9-8 to the Winnipeg Jets in October.

Bryzgalov, a 31-year-old male from Togliatti, Russia, is widely recognized as one of the most talented goaltenders in the National Hockey League (NHL). Not long ago, he was one of three finalists for the Vezina Trophy, which is awarded annually to the top goalie in the league. He also led Team Russia to a gold medal at the World Hockey Championships in 2009.

Bryzgalov has come a long way since he cracked into the league over eight seasons ago. He started off as a back-up goaltender with the Anaheim Ducks, before moving on to Phoenix where he thrived as a starter with the Coyotes. Last summer, the Flyers shook up their roster considerably to accommodate Bryzgalov, offering him a nine-year, $51 million contract.

Gone are the days when Bryzgalov could sail under the radar in Phoenix, a lowly market that has traditionally struggled to fill seats. Now, Bryzgalov is front and center in Philadelphia — a hockey hotbed that has some of the most passionate fans in the league. In Philadelphia, mediocrity is not considered to be an option.

Clearly, the stakes have been raised and the pressure Bryzgalov is facing has increased drastically. However, although some things have changed, Bryzgalov is still the same goalie he was in Phoenix in terms of his ability. Evidently, he is having some serious confidence issues, but that is not to say he is “terrible.” He simply needs to find a way to boost his confidence.

Taking responsibility

Before getting into how he might do this, it is important to acknowledge that Bryzgalov is already showing some positive signs on the road to recovery. Bryzgalov could easily attribute his new environment, the Flyers’ organizational culture, or the team’s lackluster defensive structure as the cause of his inconsistent play to start the season.

It surely is not easy being thrown into the fire, so to speak, on a brand new team in a brand new city — not to mention the fact that the Flyers defense has struggled early on in the season. But Bryzgalov is not using any of this as an excuse.

Instead, he has taken a different, and more constructive approach by displaying an internal locus of control and taking personal responsibility for his outcomes.

“The bottom line is I’m the goalie,” Bryzgalov said. “I’m the guy who has to stop the puck and clean the mistakes behind [the defensemen’s] butts.”

It is important, and certainly encouraging, that Bryzgalov is assuming personal responsibility, rather than believing he is at the mercy of external events. This is the preferred approach according to Weiner’s two-dimensional model. By internalizing the cause of his poor performance, the power is in Bryzgalov’s hands to turn things around, whereas he would have otherwise had no control over external factors.

However, this is only the first step. The next step is to actually make use of this power. Assuming personal responsibility would be of no use to Bryzgalov if he thinks of the cause as permanent or stable and if he allows it to harm his self-esteem. Instead, he needs to look at the cause as an unstable one and get in the mindset that things will improve in the future.

Bryzgalov cannot sit idly and accept that his poor performances, no matter what the cause, will continue. It is vital that he looks at all of this as an opportunity — an opportunity to make things better.

Struggling with self-confidence

As previously noted, the primary issue that is adversely affecting Bryzgalov’s performance at the moment is a lack of self-confidence, which seems to be caused by an abundance of negative self-talk. His self-efficacy levels seem to be at an all-time low, as judging by his comments, Bryzgalov is lacking the belief that he’s going to perform his desired task successfully and stop the puck, or play well enough for his team to win the game.

It is important that he finds a solution to this soon, as it has commonly been found that there exists a direct correlation between self-confidence and success. An increase in self-confidence will help facilitate Bryzgalov’s concentration, help him interpret negative shifts in momentum positively, increase his effort, and allow him to set more challenging goals, all while improving his performance and outcomes in the process.

To begin with, Bryzgalov must stray away from his distorted and irrational thoughts — two in particular. Bryzgalov seems to be framing his thoughts in a polarized manner, meaning he is referring to himself in absolute terms using a label. He called himself “terrible,” for example, based on a few bad games.

This could also be said to be a one-trial generalization, where Bryzgalov is making generalizations based on limited experiences. It would be different if he had been playing poorly the entire season, but that is not the case. Just because he had a few poor outings, it does not mean that he is terrible. He cannot simply ignore all his previous successes.

At the same time, some might wonder if it was only a few games, and if for the most part he were performing admirably, why would Bryzgalov even need to follow a psychological training plan? It is still important because Bryzgalov cannot expect to go through an entire 82-game season without having some bad performances — no goalie or player in any sport can, regardless of their ability.

It is inevitable that at some point over the season, there will be some challenges, some bumps in the road. And when they do occur, Bryzgalov cannot let them attack his self-confidence like he has early this season. This plan will allow Bryzgalov to remain positive and confident in the face of obstacles, which will help keep his performance at an optimal level.

How to defeat self-defeating thoughts

In order to defeat these maladaptive beliefs, it is important that Bryzgalov begins with identifying the event that he believes caused them in the first place, in accordance with the ABC Cognitive Restructuring approach. In this case, we will use the Flyers’ previously noted 9-8 loss to Winnipeg as an example, but this is an approach that should be followed whenever Bryzgalov is experiencing these self-defeating thoughts.

To make things easier, Bryzgalov should keep a diary in which he records these activating events. The Flyers’ head coach, Peter Laviolette, could even help Bryzgalov with this, or at least encourage him and monitor his progress. This is important because Bryzgalov will be more likely to continue with the diary when he is receiving positive feedback, whereas he would normally only receive feedback on his performance.

Bryzgalov should be recording all of the events that he believes caused a negative reaction, because it is the negative reactions that lead to irrational beliefs. Accordingly, identifying the activating event is the first step. But that is the easy part. Athletes are generally aware of the events they believe caused a negative reaction. Bryzgalov surely realizes that the Flyers’ embarrassing loss to Winnipeg sparked his minor psychological break down in front of the media. Now, it is just a matter of recording these events in a diary.

It is even more important, however, that Bryzgalov records his self-talk during the activating events, because it is not the event itself that causes maladaptive thoughts and behaviours, it is the athlete’s interpretation of the event. Therefore, Bryzgalov must acknowledge his dysfunctional and irrational thoughts during the activating events, and again, put them down on paper.

As previously mentioned, some of these thoughts might be, “I’m terrible,” or “I lost the game for my team,” or “I just can’t stop the puck,” which he also said to reporters after the loss to Winnipeg. Before moving on to the final step of actually countering the dysfunctional thoughts, Bryzgalov should identify and record the consequences associated with them.

He may have lost focus, for example. Perhaps he started sweating profusely, or started playing less aggressively in the net, which may have been the reason for allowing goals that he normally would have saved. These are all possibilities. At this stage of the process, Bryzgalov needs to simply acknowledge the consequences of his irrational thinking.

So far, according to the suggested ABC Cognitive Restructuring approach, Bryzgalov has had to simply identify the activating events coupled with his irrational thoughts and their consequences, and record them all in a diary. The next step is a little more challenging, as now it is time for Bryzgalov to dispute these thoughts and reframe them in a positive manner.

This is challenging because often times, athletes are comfortable with their self-defeating, irrational thoughts, so it’s difficult to do away with them. Since this is the most important step, the Flyers’ coach or even the team’s goalie coach Jeff Reese, who works more closely with Bryzgalov, should offer their input during this stage of the process, and again, offer him encouragement.

Before trying to come up with a response to the negative thoughts, however, Bryzgalov needs to ask himself some questions, which will hopefully help him understand how detrimental the irrational beliefs truly are. These questions could be: “Are the irrational beliefs based on an objective reality? Are the beliefs helpful to you? Are they helping you achieve your goals?” By asking himself these questions, Bryzgalov will realize that his irrational beliefs are serving no benefit.

At this point, Bryzgalov can start countering the beliefs with rational arguments. For example, he can tell himself: “Sure, I allowed more goals than usual, which is disappointing. But so did the other goalie. It was just one of those games. I’ve bounced back before, and I’ll bounce back again.”

Or, Bryzgalov could focus more on not letting such a performance occur again: “That wasn’t my best game, but I’m going to put in extra time after practice to work on my rebound control and on my endurance, and I’ll be fine.” These are examples of how Bryzgalov can simply interpret the activating events in a more constructive manner, which will prevent his reactions from becoming self-defeating.

As previously mentioned, Bryzgalov will have some poor performances and the Flyers will lose games — how Bryzgalov interprets these events will make a world of difference in his self-confidence.

Eliminating negative self-talk during competition

The ABC Cognitive Restructuring approach is most beneficial after the event takes places, because as discussed, it involves recording the events and irrational thoughts in a diary and building a logical case against them. Ideally, using this approach would prevent these irrational beliefs from occurring again in the future; however, this might take time, depending on the individual.

For Bryzgalov, who has been playing hockey for several years and presumably experiencing negative self-talk throughout his career, it may be a lengthy process.

As a safeguard, there are also certain methods Bryzgalov can start practicing to control his negative self-talk during the competition itself. Since it is unrealistic to expect self-talk to stop altogether, Bryzgalov needs to focus on controlling it during competition. At this time, Bryzgalov’s self-talk seems to be distracting his focus and reaffirming negative messages — this needs to stop.

There are a few simple methods that Bryzgalov can use to stop his negative self-talk, and some that are more complex. Bryzgalov should be encouraged to use the ones he feels most comfortable with, or to even suggest some of his own. It is important to present him with different options to choose from, so he feels as though he is actively involved in the decision-making process, rather than being an un-engaged passenger to this psychological training plan.

First off, Bryzgalov can simply think, or say, “stop” when his negative self-talk occurs. For a greater effect, he could even say it in his native-tongue, Russian, so it comes more naturally and does not feel forced. Although this option may seem somewhat trivial, often times it is the simple approaches that are most effective. Alternatively, Bryzgalov can use a physical cue.

For example, he can bang his stick against the posts of the net. This is something many goalies do already, so it would not result in any added attention towards him or a decrease in his comfort level, which could have its own unfavorable effect. Bryzgalov would be just doing so strategically, by learning to associate the ringing sound of the post with the departure of his negative thoughts.

Finally, Bryzgalov could opt to use imagery in attempt to eradicate his negative thoughts — this may require a little more thinking, but the benefits could be substantial. Imagery involves creating or re-creating an experience in one’s mind, as vividly as possible. Bryzgalov could choose to re-create the experience of winning a gold medal with Team Russia — this will surely bring back positive feelings and thoughts, which would ideally serve as a replacement to the negative self-talk.

Whichever method he chooses, or even if he decides to make use of them all, Bryzgalov cannot expect them to be effective from the outset. That would be a recipe for disappointment, which could set back the entire training plan. Just as athletes practice the technical aspects of their game before they are able to excel in competition, they need to practice the mental aspects as well.

Accordingly, Bryzgalov must use these negative thought-stoppage techniques during practice, both with the team and on his own time, and during the off-season, to the point where they become natural and automatic. Bryzgalov should not need to think about what to do during competition when he is experiencing negative self-talk — this could distract him and throw off his game even more. Instead, he must practice these techniques over and over again until they become second nature.

Imagery: practice without actually practicing

As previously discussed, imagery could be an important tool for Bryzgalov to stop his negative self-talk and counteract his irrational beliefs, but the use of imagery could go beyond that. Bryzgalov could also use imagery to actually build confidence. This way, as opposed to using imagery exclusively as a reactionary measure to halt his negative self-talk, Bryzgalov would be taking more of a proactive approach.

Bryzgalov should therefore be encouraged to adhere to the following imagery program. Some athletes use imagery as a skill acquisition or refinement mechanism, but as previously mentioned, Bryzgalov already has the tools; therefore, this imagery plan will focus more on helping him gain a psychological edge by re-creating his past successful performances and building confidence.

The first step is to simply introduce imagery to Bryzgalov. Imagery is a cognitive intervention technique that programs the mind and body to respond optimally. When used correctly, it can help an athlete build confidence and reach the upper limits of their potential. These are some of the things that could be discussed at the introductory stage.

At this point, Bryzgalov just needs to understand what exactly imagery is and how it might help him — it would serve no benefit to get into the intricate details of the different types of imagery and how they work at the scientific level. It is important here to be realistic and to the point. A professional athlete like Bryzgalov will not be fooled, nor will he appreciate exaggerations. Bryzgalov will be most receptive when he is presented with facts.

Once introduced, Bryzgalov needs to be convinced that the use of imagery will actually benefit him. There are a few different ways to proceed from this point. One option is to bring statistics into the conversation. For example, 99 per cent of Canadians used imagery during the 1984 Olympics.

A more effective strategy, however, might be to present Bryzgalov with testimonials, which speak to the benefits of imagery, written by athletes he respects. This could be from someone like Vladislav Tretiak, who is considered to be one of the best Russian goaltenders of all time, or perhaps more feasibly, from his teammate Jaromir Jagr, a highly accomplished forward who Bryzgalov has already expressed admiration towards this season.

Either way, Bryzgalov simply needs a little persuasion before he can be expected to follow any plan.

Before getting into the actual plan, however, Bryzgalov’s imagery skill must be evaluated, with a sport imagery questionnaire. This is a series of questions that will help assess how proficient Bryzgalov is at using imagery, which will in turn help determine what basic exercises Bryzgalov should practice and what the imagery plan itself should focus on.

Depending on the results of this evaluation, it could be found that Bryzgalov needs to focus on either the visual, auditory, kinesthetic, or mood aspects to imagery — all of which are important in constructing realistic images. Either way, Bryzgalov’s basic training exercises should focus on helping Bryzgalov’s images become as vivid as possible.

It is important to keep the imagery plan simple and easy to follow. Otherwise, it may seem like a chore to Bryzgalov, rather than just another element to his training schedule. The imagery plan should not seem like an added weight on Bryzgalov’s shoulders, just as it should not be presented as something extra Bryzgalov can use whenever he has extra time. Instead, it should be a systematic and continuous plan that is implemented into his daily routine.

Accordingly, after every team practice, Bryzgalov should sit in the stands directly behind the net and spend about five minutes to himself. Any longer than five minutes may be too much to ask after practice, when Bryzgalov will be physically and mentally exhausted, making it difficult for him to maintain vivid images for any extended period of time.

During these five minutes, Bryzgalov should try to re-create his best saves from the practice. Doing this right after practice in more or less the same location will make it much easier for him to re-create vivid images. Sitting behind the net will also make it easier for Bryzgalov to view the images from an internal perspective, through his own eyes, which will add to the vividness of the experience.

Perhaps more importantly, however, is for Bryzgalov to re-create his best game performances, since these will surely bring back more positive feelings than simply stopping the puck in practice. With positive feelings associated to them, the images will be more vivid, and will therefore have more of a lasting effect. To facilitate this, the Flyers coaching staff could provide Bryzgalov with a highlight package on DVD of his best saves, which he could watch on his own time.

The best time for Bryzgalov to imagine his previous successful performances is three hours prior to competition, so the images and emotions associated with them will be fresh in his mind when the game begins, without interrupting with the team’s pre-game routine. Again, Bryzgalov should sit directly behind the net and spend five minutes imagining his top performances, which could include the gold medal game at the World Championships.

In order to extract the most possible emotion, Bryzgalov should not only imagine how he performed during the game, but also how he felt raising the trophy and celebrating with his teammates, what his self-talk was at the time, what he was thinking, and so on. This is where the previously referenced basic training exercises will come in handy. It is vital that Bryzgalov identifies these elements so he can try to replicate them during competition.

Once the five minutes are complete, Bryzgalov should spend five more minutes in the same location to anticipate any elements that might threaten his focus during the game, and think of ways to respond. This will help him foster an unshakable mental focus during the game when things might not go his way. He can think of the heckling he may receive from the away crowd, for example, or the poor ice conditions. Bryzgalov can plan to push off a little harder on his side-to-side movements if the ice conditions are poor.

Alternatively, he can anticipate that the boisterous crowd may result in negative self talk, at which point he can resort to the previously discussed negative thought stoppage techniques. Whatever the case may be, he simply needs to acknowledge any potential distracters, and plan a response so he maintains an unshakable focus during competition.

This imagery plan simply calls for an additional five minutes to Bryzgalov’s regular training schedule after practices, and an additional 10 minutes prior to games. This should not be too much to ask. As previously mentioned, however, in order for the plan to be most useful, Bryzgalov needs to follow it regularly and view it as an essential component to his training schedule.

Although this plan is tailored for in-season competition, Bryzgalov should also be encouraged to use imagery during the off-season, when there is more down time and more opportunity to focus on the mental side of the game.

The key to success

Self-confidence is the factor that most consistently distinguishes highly successful athletes from less successful ones. Its importance cannot be overstated. Bryzgalov is already one of the premier goaltenders in the league in term of his ability, which is why this plan did not touch on any specific physical or technical skills he should work on. It is his lack of self-confidence that is holding him back from achieving more.

The techniques discussed throughout this plan will help discipline Bryzgalov’s conscious mind and increase his confidence, which will improve his consistency as a result. That said, it is important to acknowledge that this psychological training plan does not incorporate all the elements that could have an impact on Bryzgalov’s self-confidence.

This plan focuses largely on internal factors that are within Bryzgalov’s control. It should be noted, however, that sport confidence occurs within a social climate, and therefore there are inevitably a number of external factors that could also have an effect on his self-efficacy levels.

For example, positive verbal persuasion and social support from a variety of sources will certainly help Bryzgalov gain confidence, whereas negative comments would have the opposite effect. Furthermore, the Flyers’ coaching staff and captains need to display strong leadership qualities, which will have a snowballing effect on Bryzgalov’s confidence.

As true as this may be, this plan has established a number of strategies that Bryzgalov can follow to train his mind and acquire the mental edge he needs to be successful. The more confidence Bryzgalov has, the more likely he will be to reach his full potential. In the end, that is all anyone can ask of him — and perhaps more importantly, that is all he can ask of himself.

Farhan Devji
Farhan Devji is an author, journalist, and communications professional based in Ottawa. His work has appeared in the Ottawa Citizen, the Edmonton Journal, the Vancouver Sun, and the Montreal Gazette. Contact him directly at fdevji@gmail.com.

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