New Brunswick

How the mental skills needed to win hockey gold are used for all athletes

A New Brunswick-based sports psychologist who worked with Team Canada's junior hockey team reflects on his role in winning the gold.

Sports psychologist Ryan Hamilton worked with Team Canada hockey players and helped them get mentally ready

Ryan Hamilton is a New Brunswick-based sports psychologist who worked with Team Canada before their big win against Sweden in the world junior championship final on Jan. 5. (Ryan Hamilton)

Crowds roared inside the Key Bank Center in Buffalo, N.Y., as Team Canada battled Sweden for the world junior championship title last week. Behind the scenes, Ryan Hamilton was helping the players with the game going on in their heads.

They didn't know it then, but the 22 players would go on to beat the Swedes 3-1.

"If you think about Hollywood movies, this is the game where you save your best motivational speech if you're a coach," said the the University of New Brunswick's sport psychologist, who spent a lot of time working with the players.

He co-ordinated with coaches, the team's management group and medical staff, and his primary goal was to manage the psychological environment for the team.

"This is the game where everything is about being so up."

But Hamilton's advice to coaching staff wasn't about getting the energy up, it was about getting it out in the open.

"We're playing for lifelong goals," said Hamilton, who spent four weeks working with players representing Team Canada.

When a player is under that much pressure, his focus can become internal and he can lose control of what he wants to do, Hamilton said.

Ryan Hamilton was part of Team Canada winning gold in early January. (Ryan Hamilton)

So it's important to manage that extra bit of excitement and emotion.

"It's not about being more motivated, it's about using all of that extra activation and applying it to our systems, to our structure, to our game plan," he said.   

Preparing for the big game

Hamilton said there was a lot of work involved in preparing the team for that final game, not just physically — but mentally too.

"It was my job to weigh in on the psychological side of things," said the Plaster Rock native.

"From things we're doing with the schedule to when we should have meetings, if we need to have a meeting or not."  

People are giving their heart and soul and the emotion is raw and it's real, and it's profound.- Ryan Hamilton, sports psychologist

Leading up to the world junior championships, the sports psychologist also led team building activities and group bonding sessions for the players.

"I encourage the guys on game days, on practice days," he said.

"It was a long process."

One of those activities included a painting session on Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., where they had a massive canvas and had to paint images that represented Team Canada. Other activities included team dinners and community outreach.

"All those times we're together, we're certainly building camaraderie," he said.

Most nights, Hamilton also led a mindfulness relaxation session for players, to "let go of the day." 

But on game day, it was about grounding the players and reminding them of who they are and what they've been working on.

"They don't need to be pumped up, they're playing in the moment they've dreamed about," he said.

"It's about expressing that arousal in their play, activation without application isn't much use." 

Mental conditional vs. physical 

Over the years, Hamilton has been spending his time working on players' psychological flexibility and well-being.

He does this by teaching skills and developing them into habits that enhance mental performance. 

Some of those skills are centred around mindfulness, identifying negative self talk, managing distractions, accepting things that are outside of one's control, getting enough sleep and setting goals to maintain motivation.

He said the sooner an athlete learns these skills, the better off they are.

Canada forward Tyler Steenbergen (17) celebrates his game-winning goal with teammate Conor Timmins (3) in their 3-1 defeat of Sweden in the gold-medal game of the world junior championship Jan. 5 in Buffalo. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

"Sports psychology and mental skills are precisely skills," he said, comparing the use of those to using a new piece of equipment at the gym.

Mental health runs local

But elite athletes are not the only ones investing in their mental health.

Barry Morrison, club head coach for the Fredericton District Soccer Association, said mental health and preparation plays an important role among athletes of all ages. 

Mental health and preparation plays an important role among athletes of all ages and across sports (Submitted)

"Mental skills are like any other skill, you've got to develop it," said Morrison.

"Just as their physical training, or their hockey training or soccer or basketball training would change, increase and grow … so do their mental skills."   

Mental preparation can include everything from team-building activities or setting goals as a team or individually, such as improving on a physical test or making a certain team.

The mental side is what helps them recover and move past some of those disappointments or use those as opportunities for growth.-Barry Morrison,  club head coach for the FDSA  

"That'll be everything from setting a big season goal to setting smaller little achievable goals to help them get there," he said. 

"If they strive to achieve something, they can do it."

Similar to Hamilton, he said there's also a huge emphasis on sport confidence and distraction control for local athletes.

"Ensuring that you're helping yourself remain focused, helping yourself be confident and enjoy your sport," he said. 

But there's also emphasis on overcoming a person's disappointment, which can be challenged for young athletes. 

"That can be where they really kind of get beat up mental health-wise … winning and losing or being selected or not selected for teams," he said. 

"The mental side is what helps them recover and move past some of those disappointments or use those as opportunities for growth."

Often times, the Fredericton soccer coach said sports psychologists will come in and work with players at the club.  

The local soccer coach said mental health and sports have been around for a while, but coaches are now investing more time in it during practices and games.

"It's becoming more available and more sought after," he said.

With files from Philip Drost