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Talking About The Psychology Of Winning

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs
One of the most eminent sports psychology experts in the country, Paul Dennis has a PhD in sports psychology and teaches at Toronto’s York University. The Leafs player development coach, Dennis has worked for the club for 19 years.


Mapleleafs.com's Mike Ulmer visited with him to talk about what everyone wants: a return to the winner’s bracket for the Maple Leafs.

Ulmer: What are the impediments, other than talent, to winning?

Dennis: The individual’s mindset: self-doubt, self-criticism, worry. These are all aspects the athletes is in control of.

Ulmer: Are athletes more or less insecure than the average person on the street?

Dennis: I think they are considerably more insecure. A lot of people would see the glamour and not agree with my assessment. They see hockey players as successful and skillful. That is true and the term we refer to is ‘self-efficacy.’ Players have this unshakable belief in themselves. But what they don’t have is, because there are so many teams, they don’t always have the chance to win a championship. They set such high expectations and goals and I think their self esteem is low on a regular basis.

Ulmer:  Their self-esteem is tied into not having elite achievements.

Dennis: Exactly.

Ulmer:  How do you fix that?

Dennis: The easy thing to say is ‘win all the time.’ What happens is they can’t view their accomplishments based entirely on winning and losing. They can’t think of themselves as a lesser type person if they lose. It’s unhealthy. What they have to do is review their performance and ask the coaches what ‘did I do wrong, what do I have to do better to give myself a chance to win?’
I think what works is not to tap them on the shoulder. I wait for them to come but knowing their performance, I make myself available - Paul Dennis

Ulmer: Talk to me about losing. I’ve always felt the corrosive effects of losing show themselves every day while when they win, athletes are simply  grateful for the absence of the pain that comes with losing.

Dennis: A lot of athletes are perfectionists. The ones that are responsible give credit where credit is due. Maybe they didn’t have it that night. They give credit to the opposition. The ones who struggle the most are the ones with a sort of maladaptive neuroticism, perfectionism is probably a better word for it. They are the ones who view a losing performance as a reflection of them as human beings, not as athletes. The image they want to project is confident and in control and when they lose the game, they lose those qualities. They think the fans, the media, will think less of them. That’s why the losing takes a much more pronounced toll.

Ulmer: Do you think the development system, which takes kids out of their homes in their mid-teens, is healthy.

Dennis: I think if they survive it, then it is. If they feel their emotional well-being is being addressed, that’s okay. If the athlete feels they are being treated like a piece of meat, especially a younger player who is not emotionally mature, it can be devastating. To me, I think it’s a good thing to let them experience as long as you have qualified people to help.

Ulmer:  How do you work? Do you tap a player on the shoulder Do you let them come to you?

Dennis: I think what works is not to tap them on the shoulder. I wait for them to come but knowing their performance, I make myself available. They put two and two together and come in and sit down and we look at some issues.

Ulmer:  How often do you talk to Ron Wilson about the Leafs?

Dennis: Not so much recently. He’s almost like a mental skills coach in himself. He knows exactly the trigger points for his players. My job is probably in jeopardy. He understands the players’ psyche and how to get the very best out of him. He uses a lot of video clips or messages from text, videos or stories. Losing for a long period of time, that’s when self pity will infiltrate the mind. We’ve got to get over that.

Ulmer:  A lot of players love being here and don’t want to leave. Do you think fearfulness over whether they will stay affects players?

Dennis: They’ve heard since they began playing sports that ‘you can’t worry about what you can’t control.’ But they worry about it because they are human beings and human beings want to be in control. But when it comes down to dropping the puck, they can only think about what they want to do for the next 45 second shift.

Ulmer:  Do you think goalies are more psychologically, what’s the word – challenging, than position players?

Dennis: Great question. It’s difficult to generalize that goaltenders are either very anxious or very calm. It’s a continuum. They are always somewhere in between. I couldn’t generalize and say they were one way or the other.

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