Forget the countdown to Christmas. It seemed that everyone in Canada was paying more attention to the countdown to the opening day of the World Junior tournament on Boxing Day instead.
The pressure and excitement continued to build as each of the respective teams played their pre-competition games in their final preparations for their much-anticipated first games. With the opening games far under their belts, and as the tournament continues, you can’t help but wonder what is going through the minds of these young athletes.
As an Olympic hockey player speaking from experience, the combination of everything that is occurring leading up to and during an event of this magnitude can be so overwhelming that there are times when you yourself are not even sure what is going on in your own mind.
After all of the hype and build-up, there is no doubt that the players are still excited and pumped up to have finally started the tournament. The entire experience most likely feels a bit surreal as they realize how fortunate they are to be representing their countries on the world stage in front of millions of viewers. There is also no doubt that they are ready physically to endure the intensity of the 11-day competition. The physical preparation is the easy part. The real challenge will be managing their thoughts and emotions consistently game-in and game-out in a way that will allow them to optimize their physical performance, which is a challenge that all elite level athletes face in competition.
In preparation for the 2010 Olympics, I learned a great deal from our sports psychologist, Dr. Peter Jensen, who, ironically enough, is also the sports psychologist for Canada’s 2012 World Junior team. He is the most insightful and brilliant person I have ever met, and we were very fortunate to have him on our side. One of the main topics we focused on was how to manage your thoughts and emotions in different environments in order to optimize performance. We worked on this both individually and as a group. I suspect that Dr. Jensen has been exhorting the players to focus on this exact topic, which only makes sense with the two events being so remarkably similar.
I am sure many of you have heard the expression, “gripping your stick too tight”. It sounds a bit cliché, but this is precisely what happens when, as an athlete in competition, your emotions are running too high, and you let them get away from you. You tense up, you make mistakes, and miss passes or shots that you wouldn’t typically miss. Your adrenaline gets running so high that your performance is compromised. Plain and simple, you choke, and it happens all too often in the world of sports. Obviously there needs to be a certain level of energy and excitement available in order to get yourself “up” for the competition. The key is figuring out at what level your energy needs to be so that you can be at your best, which is different from one athlete to the next, and balancing that with the energy in your current environment.
Everything that goes on around you affects your energy levels, including the criticism and skepticism of the media, the demands of family and friends, the injuries of teammates and opponents, your own quality of individual performance from one shift to the next, and even the amount of ice time you get. What can most visibly affect the mental state of these players is the thousands and thousands of enthusiastic fans that will take the noise and energy in Rexall Place and the Saddledome over the top. Rather than allowing this to be a distraction, it is something that they have been feeding off for energy while remaining focused and keeping their emotions in check.
The Canadian Junior team has demonstrated their ability to manage their emotions as they dominated Finland 8-1, then the Czechs 5-0, and lastly Denmark by a score of 10-2. As they stepped out onto the ice for each of these games, a sea of red and white absolutely erupted. I know that at that time, their energy levels, emotions, and adrenaline shot through the roof, just as mine did in each of our games in Vancouver. What an unbelievable rush of adrenaline! They have kept their composure, but have continuously come out with the intensity required to control the games from start to finish, just as we did. Dr. Jensen has obviously prepared them well.
The question is, can they continue to manage their emotions and stay mentally focused day-in and day-out as the tournament continues to unfold and the stakes are raised. Mental preparation, which is often overlooked, is imperative under these circumstances, especially when there is a gold medal on the line.
Author: Meaghan Mikkelson