A strong mentality

Elite-level athletes synergize physical and psychological training

Women’s hockey assistant captain Danielle Girard’s pre-game mental preparation includes avoiding her cell phone.
Women’s hockey assistant captain Danielle Girard’s pre-game mental preparation includes avoiding her cell phone.

When it comes to sports, an athlete’s pre-game mentality can be just as crucial as any physical aspect.

Just as lifting weights and stretching prepares them physically, players visualize positive outcomes and undertake familiar routines and superstitions to get focused before games.

This can be as simple as eating the same meal before every game — but some athletes have much more elaborate habits.

John Phelan, a professor at the School of Business and mental skills coach for the Vancouver Canucks, said he’s seen athletes use a number of different tactics to get focused before a game.

“It depends on the individual athlete, but a lot of them use music now,” Phelan said. “Other players will use visualization. They’ll see the team they’re playing, the circumstances they’re in, particularly what position they’re in.

“The more detailed it is, the better it is.”

A former captain of the Canadian rugby team, Phelan said it’s best if athletes try to find what methods work best for them on a personal basis.

Like any athletic skill, mental preparation has to be worked on and refined over time.

“Did you learn to skate in one outing? Did you learn to run or play football or any sport in one outing? No, it takes practice,” Phelan said. “It doesn’t work if you do it once, but if you put it into a routine you use even to prepare for practice so it becomes a part of your preparation, then I think it does work and becomes a tool.”

As beneficial as preparation is, Phelan said it can sometimes become negative. When a player feels like they won’t succeed without their routine, he suggests they change what they’re doing.

For Phelan, this is due in part to the role the mental side plays in sports. Athletes are on a more even physical playing field at top levels of competition, he said — which means other forms of preparation move to the forefront.

“The highest level of performing athlete, I don’t think you get there without the physical. I think that’s sort of the card to the dance,” Phelan said. “Now, how many dances you get and if you want to go to the big dance, I think then the mental, emotional, spiritual [sides] come into it.”

With the mental side becoming more crucial, Phelan said combining it with physical preparation can boost both.

He gave the example of focusing on lifting weights in the same mindset that a player would have during a shift in hockey. While their muscles get strengthened, so does the player’s ability to focus on the task at hand.

Striking that balance is something Danielle Girard works on before games.

A fourth-year defenceman on the women’s hockey team, Girard told the Journal via email the two aspects of preparation work in tandem to get her ready to hit the ice.

“If you’re working hard at practice and in the weight room, then part of the reason for that is because you’re focused on the games coming up and want to make sure you’ve done your best to be as prepared as you can be,” she said.

On game days, Girard prepares on an individual basis by avoiding distractions, like her cell phone, and by focusing on the team she’s about to face. Her preparation isn’t all solo, though: she plays keep-up, juggling a soccer ball with her teammates.

“As a team we can discuss strategies, and the type of game our opponent likes to play,” Girard said. “But there is also an individual aspect, where you can focus on certain things that you as a player want to work on for the game.”

By working on her mental preparation, Girard said taking part in pre-game rituals has helped her overall game, similar to the way working out and practicing have improved her play.

“I think these little rituals help keep me calm and focused,” she said. “I like the consistency of them."

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