Sunday, March 18, 2012

No Fear: Fighting through playoff nerves and emotions

It’s that time of year again folks: the time of year where you check the NHL standings ten times a day to see if your team is above or below the top 8 in the conference (or, in the case of Leafs fans, how far below the top 8 they are). Yup, it’s almost playoff time everyone. Hope your nerves are ready for it! And if you happen to be a player as well, your league is likely getting ready for their playoffs too which means that in addition to being a nervous wreck of a fan you also get to be a nervous wreck of a player. 

This brings about an interesting topic of conversation. Are championships won with skill, toughness, speed, or mental strength? The best answer is probably all of the above and that is probably the correct answer too. Up until recently though, I’ve never thought too much about the mental strength component of it. Now I believe that it is the most underrated component – the X factor – in determining who will win championships.

Women are emotional as it is. That’s why I am so proud of our gender for breaking through into the world of sports. Because in addition to conquering the physical challenges of being an athlete, we also have to deal with that wonderful thing called emotions. It is so hard to stay even keeled when things are going bad out there. And for me as a goalie it is so frustrating to have to pull myself together after surrendering a goal. In my case there is a constant temptation to smash my stick against the net. Sometimes I’ve involuntarily given in to that temptation and one time it resulted in my favourite stick ending up in pieces (may she RIP). Every play of every shift of every game brings with it new challenges. Things can change in an instant out there. And there are no do-overs in the playoffs. And yet, while a million thoughts and emotions run through our heads, we have to maintain a poker face. Not show any signs of weakness. Brush off a bad play and get right back on the horse. We have to stay loose, keep our minds clear of distractions, and not become paralyzed by the fear or the nerves. 

There is no 100% fool proof way to handle yourself under pressure. It doesn’t matter if you’re a rookie or a ten-year veteran: the mental aspect of sports is always a work in progress. It is human nature to get nervous and it is natural that when we are passionate about something, we want to succeed at is as much as possible. But in spite of that there are a few things that I try and remember to help me deal with the pressure:

1)      Heroes are human – it is natural that we want to be the hero of the hour for our team. But don’t forget that every hero is also human and every human makes mistakes. Don’t approach games by saying “I’m going to have to be the hero here. If I’m not heroic my team will lose.” You are one member of a larger team. Everyone will make some great plays and everyone will have a few gaffes or miscues. What’s important is that you back each other up and that you battle as one whole unit and not as a group of individuals. The concept of heroes is a figment of the press and media. It makes for better TV drama (i.e. better ratings) and it gives those almost redundant newspaper columnists something to write about.  Behind every MVP is a story of the team mates that enabled that player to be the best he or she could be. Don’t be fooled into thinking that they got that title alone.

2)      The calm swagger – When Hockey Night in Canada shows the players walking into the arena for their game the players are all looking dapper and well….sexy. But they also have a bit of a swagger and a look of confidence to them. Most of our parents have taught us to be modest and not cocky. But in sports sometimes you need a bit of a chip on your shoulder. You have to approach games with an attitude that says “I’m good, my team is good, and we will win this game.” Every doubt you have about yourself or your team is a chink in the armour and it is something that an opponent can easily exploit.

3)      Don’t let others tell you what your job is - at the end of the day you know yourself better than anyone else knows you. Only you know your own capabilities and only you know your mental state. People will try to tell you to play a certain way, they’ll try to give you tips, and they’ll try to tell you what they expect of you. It’s ok to nod politely and pretend you’re listening to them but you are the only one who can set a standard for yourself. Examine what plays, moves, tendencies, and attitudes got you to where you are today. Why are you a successful hockey player? Identify what the best traits of your game are and then stick to them. You playing your style of hockey is always better that you trying to play someone else’s style. Just make sure that your style incorporates your whole team and that it allows for the best possible performance you can have.

4)      No fear – since we were young we’ve been told that for every action there is a consequence. We’ve been told to fear the consequences of a bad decision. In sports fear is paralyzing. Mistakes happen, bad plays happen, and bad breaks happen. You can’t play in fear of them happening. Play in the moment, leave everything out on the ice, and don’t worry about what’ll happen if you make a mistake. Chances are that if you play loose and you are having fun you’ll make less mistakes anyways. Stay focused and stay in the moment but stay loose and take time to enjoy the process. Before you know it hockey season will be over and we’ll be healing our blisters and bruises and saying how much we miss hockey season and our team mates. So while we still have them around us, let’s take advantage and enjoy our time with them.

Like I said, being nervous and emotional, and getting caught up in the moment are part of human nature. We can’t fault ourselves for doing it but we can try to prevent those emotions from taking over our game and our skill. Focus on the team and on the goal. Have no fear, just freedom.