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Mental preparation key tool for coaches to instill

by Pat LaFontaine
In this week's "Making of a Royal" blog, coach Pat LaFontaine discusses his team's preparation habits for major national tournaments. LaFontaine and his assistants -- Steve Webb and Scott Donahue -- draw inspiration from the coaches who shaped them as they implement mental and physical preparation.

One thing that Steve, Scott and I, the three coaches, constantly do is look back at your playing days. I think you earn an appreciation and a greater respect for all the other coaches -- I was very fortunate to have some tremendous coaches during my playing days -- but you constantly reflect back and appreciate and respect the job the coaches do to prepare the team on a regular basis.

I think about the National Hockey League and the teams, the 82-game schedule -- we're probably going to play somewhere in the range of 60 or 70 games -- but everything they do to prepare the team, off the ice as far as game plans and systems, and having them prepare physically on the ice, it's work. It's a constant preparation of getting kids ready to play, to learn the systems and execute. That's something we talk about all the time, is just a greater respect for our coaches and coaches in general. Not only to prepare, but to motivate and succeed.

I think one of the things that's so important is mental preparation. Early in my career, I had the privilege of playing under [longtime New York Islanders coach] Al Arbour, who was just a tremendous coach from a pushing buttons and psychological standpoint. He knew what players needed to get the best out of them. I learned that by going through adversity and succeeding, that way you become much more mentally tough.

Making of a Royal feature

At a certain age, these kids know a lot about conditioning, the skills aspect and systems -- which you continually work on since the game hinges on details -- but a lot of the game is how you prepare yourself mentally. When things don't go your way, how mentally strong you are, how well you channel that into a positive direction. How you react to situational adversity. As coaches, we try to teach the kids that every time there's a stimulus, there's a reaction. When you're faced with a certain situation, how do you overcome that. The mental aspect of the game is so critical, and it's something that you continually have to teach.

The "O" in Royal is for optimism. We continually want these guys, when things don't go their way, to look at the positive side, pick each other up. How can they be better, how can they have a better shift than the last? It's constant reinforcement, it's repetition, and it's teaching. Sometimes it goes right through, but other times they get knocked down and get right back up. So we're constantly thinking, how are we going to be a better team? How are we going to deal with adversity next time? You learn success from failure, and we want to be a team that wants to improve each and every game and each and every week, and we can only do that by growing from our failures.

LaFontaine went on to discuss the recent tournament the Royals played in Chicago and the mixture of success and disappointment they encountered.
One of the big tournaments we just played in was Chicago; you have those a handful of times during the season. They're important as showcases, you want your team to play well, and individually guys just rise to the occasion. We just talk about, you don't want to over-emphasize it to the kids since most of them already know it themselves, but nutrition, game preparation, sleeping and getting rest, and just focus. You have to compete at a high level usually for three days, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and you usually play six games. It's really important that everything -- nutrition, hydration -- is strong because you're playing six games in three days. Conditioning is a key factor.
We actually came out really strong the first couple of games. Friday morning the guys competed and played really well [the Royals beat Toronto Eagles (Ont.) and Ice Jets Academy (Tex.)]. Saturday morning, we played Indiana Ice, and our preparation level wasn't there. If you go over the course of a season, you're going to have times where the kids are out of their element, sleeping in hotels, and it's real important, especially those early-morning games, that you need to get rested and prepared. We came out and played Detroit on that same ice, but we just didn't come out focused and ready to play and we gave up a couple early goals.

As coaches, you can say it all you want, but at the end of the day, your actions speak louder. The coaching staff wasn't happy with the preparation, so we let them know, you can have success but you're only as good as the game you play right now. With success, you can't control it and you can't let it go to your head. By the third period we had picked it up and played our game, and we ended up winning, but as a coaching staff you can't afford to have mistakes like that and win all your games.
LaFontaine also gave a look ahead to this weekend's showcase games in Connecticut:
Every game, and every tournament, there is a learning curve and learning opportunities, and in some cases life lessons, too. You're tested at every tournament, you're tested at every game. So, the teams that continue to improve, and the teams that continue to work on their weaknesses, and the players consequently do the same … you're always looking to improve. You're always looking to find what you could have done better. There's so much involved in the preparation, the schedule and the system and the execution, and a lot of it's details. Following through with the game plan, following through with the preparation, and doing it consistently. Players showing up and displaying all of that on a regular basis.
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