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Therien's Take: Body Language Gives You Away

by Chris Therien @ctherien6 /

In sports, we see many things on a nightly basis that give reason to cheer. Teams that show resiliency to overcome adversity and win a hard-fought game. Teammates inspiring teammates. Superstars delivering in the clutch. Role players who step up at just the right moment.

Then there's the other side of the coin. These are negative things that are noticeable not only to spectators in the stands and fans watching on TV. Things that the players and coaches pick up on, too, and which can provide a jolt of energy to the opposition. 

In my thinking, there are two things that players do that unwittingly energize the wrong team. One is making dumb, smack-talk comments to the media to publicly show disrespect for your opponent's abilities. The other is demonstrate bad body language during a game. Yes, body language could cost your team a game. Here's why.

There are two primary kinds of body language issues that you will run into in hockey. I can't speak about other sports but it hockey there's the "I just took a bad penalty" body language. As long as your team kills the penalty, this one kind of fades away quickly, and is quickly forgotten. You're a little ticked off that you put your team at a disadvantage. OK, now the team has bailed you out. Go out and show your appreciation by playing the right way on your subsequent shifts.

The other kind of bad body language is more damaging. It's the "I just gout outworked and out-competed" type. Maybe you lost a puck battle in the corner and the puck ended up in your net. Maybe you've been on the receiving end of a few heavy -- but legal -- bodychecks and you are none too eager to hang in for another one. Or perhaps you're a goalie and you let one in that you think you should have stopped. 

No one wins every battle. Everyone makes mistakes. It's how you bounce back that matters. If you demonstrate bad body language -- slumped shoulders, face pouting, skating wearily back to the bench rather than with purpose -- your teammates will notice. Your coaches will notice, even if they don't say anything in the moment. 

Worst of all, the opposition notices. It sends them a clear message: "We've got this guy right where we want him." Be damn sure they aren't going to let up. They'll come right at you, again and again.

On the flip side, if you continue to project confidence and positive body language, it sends a message to your team that you may have lost the battle but you're still determined to win the war. It lets the opponent know that you're not at all rattled.

You can't hide out there. I can speak from personal experience. There were times, especially early in my career, when I was a bad body language guy when adversity hit. I tried not to let on, but I gave myself away. It was something that I had to work through. Eventually, I did. You can't hit a five-run home run, even with the bases loaded, right? Go out next shift, and make the right play for that situation. Put aside the mistake from the last one.

One of the most prominent examples I can think of to illustrate my point: The deciding game of the 1987 Canada Cup. Trailing 3-0 early, things were not going well for the Canadian side until Mike Keenan sent out his fourth line -- featuring the Flyers' Rick Tocchet along with Brent Sutter and the highly skilled Dale Hawerchuk-- with greater regularity. 

Tocch and Sutter physically punished the Russian team, and wore them down a bit. As Canada surged, you could see some bad body language -- hints of doubt, betraying that the price being paid was almost too high for some players -- set in. 

We all remember how that game and series ended, with the historic Wayne Gretzky pass that Mario Lemieux buried in the back of the net to win the game, 6-5, and capture Canada Cup. But the seeds of the historic comeback were planted.

Here's an example from my own career: I'm sure many Flyers fans remember what a war of a series we had with the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round of the playoffs in 1996. We won Game 1 in a blowout and scored very quickly in Game 2. That was when the Lightning started running our best players, and the series turned into a war of attrition. 

People forget that, although we trailed in the series, two games to one, after back-to-back overtime losses, Tampa only led within a game over the entire series for less than 3 minutes (first period of Game 3). Finally, in Game 6, after another series of fights, we started to pull away on the scoreboard. 

We led 3-1 after the first period, and had the Lightning on the ropes. We just needed to deliver the finisher. A little past the midway point of regulation, Bob Corkum scored to make it 4-1. We could see the body language on the other side. The Lightning, to a man, knew they were done. 

On the very next shift, Eric Lindros extended the lead to 5-1. That confirmed what what already knew. Although there was one final set of fights near the end of the third period, the outcome was long since sealed before the final buzzer sounded and the players who hadn't been tossed out of the game lined up to shake hands.

Hopefully, this provides some clarity on why it's such a big no-no hockey to give in to bad body language. At some point, human nature takes over, but showing signs that you've checked out of the battle early almost always becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

When a team is a losing streak, pay no attention to the quotes in the newspapers. Everyone denies that their confidence has been affected. Here's the real test: Look at the body language. 

The less bad body language you see, the fast the negatives get turned back to positives and the quicker the team will start to find ways to win instead of finding ways to lose.

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