Renowned motivational speaker Tony Robbins had been pitching his books, audiotapes and services on late night TV infomercials for years, but some argue he didn’t fully jump into the national consciousness until he stepped inside a hockey rink.
As Robbins tells the story, a minor league hockey coach named Barry Melrose had been reading the self-help guru’s work for years, and when Melrose took over behind the bench of the Los Angeles Kings, he got in touch with Robbins, asking him to come speak to a few players.
Around 1992, Robbins started working directly with Kings’ stars like goalie Kelly Hrudey and forward Luc Robitaille. Robbins focused his efforts on helping the Kings find ways to consistently perform at their peak in a world where 15,000 fans roar their approval or their derision with every move a player makes.
Less than a year later, when the Kings made their first and, so far, only trip to the Stanley Cup Finals, and the secrets to their success were revealed, seemingly every team in professional sports wanted Robbins in their locker room.
But the concept of working on the mental side of the game was not a new idea, even in 1992. One can look as far back as 1926, when the pioneering sports psychologist Coleman Griffith published his landmark book, Psychology and Athletics. Griffith worked with the student athletes at his alma mater, the University of Illinois, and later with baseball’s Chicago Cubs.
“Griffith was ahead of his time, and kind of on an island,” said Larry Lauer, who works with USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich. Griffith embraced the psychological side of sports at a time when there was still very much a stigma attached to issues of mental well-being.
Today, as sports psychology consultants have become more common (but admit that for some “macho” athletes there’s still a minor stigma attached), Lauer is one of many who help hockey players reach their peak mentally as well as physically.
Lauer says that while some players strive to pump themselves up or channel inner emotion, his biggest goals are focus and elimination of negativity no matter what happens once the puck drops.
“I try to eliminate the triggers that create negativity,” said Lauer, who is the director of coaching education and development at the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State University. “If you missed an open net, or if you’re a goalie and you let in a weak shot, focusing on those things can lead to negative thinking.
“When you get caught thinking in the past or in the future, you’re unable to do your best in the present.”
While armies of college and pro scouts descend on rinks from coast to coast looking for the on-ice skills and physical attributes that will make the next great American hockey star, Lauer and others in his profession look for other traits that may not be noticeable on the ice.
“You like players that don’t ride the emotional rollercoaster,” Lauer said, noting the successes of famously even-keeled personalities like goalies Martin Brodeur and Ryan Miller.
Lauer works with players before games to focus their attention and give them positive reminders, and works with them again after games – especially after tough losses – reminding athletes that they can’t control what is in the past, only what they do in response to what has already happened.
Some of the nation’s most renowned and successful coaches feel there are common psychological traits evident in the best hockey players.
“The great ones are really mentally strong,” said University of Minnesota men’s hockey coach Don Lucia. “They have short memories. They don’t allow what happened yesterday or a previous play or the previous period inhibit what they’re going to do in the future. You can’t get caught up in what happened, you’ve got to always be looking ahead.”
Lucia holds the same job once occupied by the legendary Herb Brooks, and has won nearly as many NCAA titles with the Golden Gophers (two) as Brooks did (three). But the modern approach Lucia and other coaches take toward dealing with players’ emotions could hardly be more different from the old-school drill sergeant approach that hard-nosed coaches like Brooks once used.
“We’ve done some psychological profiles on our players so we have a better handle on what makes them tick a little bit,” Lucia said.
“You can get into some kids shirts pretty good and they can handle it, and for other kids that’s not the best way to get at them. We’re a long way from 40 or 50 years ago and the way the coaches were. They were tough on everybody, and now I’m not sure you can do that with all kids.”
In sharp contrast to that calm, even-keeled approach on the ice, you look at NHL stars like Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby, who often demonstrate a fiery side, whether it’s slamming the glass and screaming to celebrate a goal, or verging on the brink of a full meltdown when protesting a referee’s call. Lauer says that the game is different for players with that much talent and historic success.
“The top players are better able to play a more emotional game, because they come with a reservoir of confidence that few people have,” Lauer said.
For any player the greatest moment is when the game is won, and the emotions of putting so much effort into out-scoring the other team can be on full display as friends celebrate on the ice and in the locker room. Of course, the outcome doesn’t always go a player’s way. Thus one can understand the increased focus on sports psychology and on finding players who have the physical and emotional talents to win.
“I think mental toughness is one of the most important traits to being successful as a hockey player and as a hockey team,” said Yale University men’s hockey coach Keith Allain, who took a break from directing the nation’s top-ranked college hockey team to guide Team USA to a bronze medal at the most recent IIHF World Junior Hockey Championships in Buffalo.
“This game of ours constantly challenges you, and people who rise to the top and win a medal are the ones who can handle the down times as well as the up times.”
In other words, modern coaches are focusing on things that pioneers like Coleman Griffith and even Tony Robbins discovered a long time ago: trophies, medals and championships are won by athletes not only with strong and skilled bodies, but with sound minds as well.