Canada practises mind control; Psychologist aims to give team mental edge
Wed Dec 21 2011
Byline: Farhan Devji
Source: Edmonton Journal
Call it a choke job or call it a fluke, just under a year ago the Canadian junior team suffered one of the greatest collapses ever witnessed in the world junior hockey championship.
With a 3-0 lead heading into the third period, Canada seemed destined for its sixth gold medal in the past seven years.
But it was not to be. After surrendering five unanswered goals, the Canadians saw their gold-medal dream dashed by a resilient Russian squad.
Rather than playing to win, it seemed as if the Canadians were playing not to lose. It looked like they lost their mental focus.
In such a short tournament, mental training can be just as important as the long hours in the gym or on the ice. It can be the difference between winning and losing, between gold and silver. That’s why Hockey Canada has turned to sports psychology guru Peter Jensen.
“If you asked any of these junior players or any Olympic athlete how important the mental side of the game is when you’re in competition, the lowest rating I’ve ever gotten is 90 per cent,” said Jensen, the founder and CEO of Performance Coaching Inc. “You have a lot of people with similar skills. They’re all good. But who’s going to be able to access their skills on any given day?”
This isn’t the first time Canada’s national junior team has worked with a sports psychologist, but there hasn’t been anyone in the past few years, according to Hockey Canada’s communications director Andre Brin.
Although this is Jensen’s first year with the juniors, he has worked with the women’s national team for over six years, including two Olympic Games.
Jensen’s work with the juniors began at Hockey Canada’s goaltending camp in June. He also interviewed all 47 invitees at the team’s summer development camp in August.
“Very few of them had any formal training in this,” Jensen said. “Everyone knows how to get physically fit, but for most, the mental fitness realm is a little hazier.”
At those initial stages, Jensen emphasized four different areas: perspective, energy management, focus, and imagery.
Situations like playing in a gold-medal game in front of a home crowd aren’t inherently pressure-filled; it’s all about perspective, Jensen said. It’s about teaching the players how to look at situations in a more constructive way.
“Life often chooses information, but we choose the frames around that information,” he said.
In tournaments like this one, energy management is also important. It’s often a challenge for some to keep their arousal levels down. That is something Steve Yzerman spoke about to the women’s national team before the gold-medal game at the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver, Jensen said.
“If you’re too pumped up, you’re going to make all kinds of mistakes,” he said.
With Canada’s roster set and the tournament opener just around the corner, Jensen’s focus has shifted to accelerating the development of a team. This was one of the goals of the team’s recent trip to Banff.
The team had a draft among themselves and competed against each other in a bowling tournament, for example. They also established a set of guidelines, discussing things like curfew and the use of cellphones, Jensen said.
“When you involve people in those kinds of decisions, it pulls them closer and closer together,” Jensen said.
Brett Connolly, one of four returning players on Canada’s roster, said these kinds of exercises have really helped the players feel like a team.
“We’ve been with each other now for about four days in Banff, and it feels like we know each other almost as good as we can,” said Connolly, who played 28 games with the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning this season before being loaned to the junior team.
Connolly said working with Jensen has changed the way he looks at the game from a mental perspective. Think about the big picture and focus on the process – that’s the message Jensen’s preaching, Connolly said.
“We’re getting guys out of their comfort zone and really talking about themselves and I think that’ll go a long way,” he said.
Jensen’s work with the team will continue throughout the tournament. There are five or six sessions planned, Jensen said. One of them will focus on dealing with adversity, where the team will talk about what to do when things start to slide, like they did during last year’s gold-medal game.
At the summer camp, Jensen said he spoke to the seven returning players about the collapse. There was no consensus.
“It’s hard to think that they suddenly lost all their skill in the third period,” Jensen said. “Maybe when you’re up 3-0, you think your job is done. I don’t know.”
The team will talk about last year, but they’re not about to obsess over it, Jensen said.
“You’d hate to be saying after the tournament, ‘I wish we talked about that,’ ” Jensen said. “But you don’t want to feed it, you don’t want to fertilize it, water it, and hose it. This is a whole different group of people, a whole different team.”