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Staying the course key in the Stanley Cup Final

by Dr. Larry Lauer

Players taking part in their first-ever Stanley Cup Final, such as Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby, could find it hard to focus on the ice at times due to the wide range of emotions involved, says Dr. Larry Lauer.
Sidney Crosby video highlights 
The Detroit Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins now stand four wins away from achieving their mission -- winning the Stanley Cup. But just making it to the Stanley Cup Final is an accomplishment. The long journey begins with the preseason, carried through the grind of 82 regular-season games, and then six weeks of physical, intense playoff hockey.

This has to be truly one of most exciting times in a player's career -- the anticipation of a championship, the anxiety of the "what will it be like" and "everyone is watching," the confidence of having disposed of three tough opponents, and the desire to make an impact in the biggest series of your life.

The Final can become larger than life. The hype is unbelievable and the wait probably unbearable as both teams prepare for their fourth opponent, with a whole new set of matchups, opportunities and challenges.

Detroit and Pittsburgh enter the Final on a roll. Both teams should be feeling confident and prepared. But they should be aware of some of the land mines that can knock them off-course.

Riding the emotional rollercoaster --
The Stanley Cup Final creates a lot of excitement and nervousness. Players want to get psyched, but not too psyched. Too much emotion and energy can be hard to contain and make it hard to focus.

"The interesting thing for us here is we've emotionally been a disaster," current Wings coach Mike Babcock said prior to Game 7 of the 2003 Stanley Cup Final, when he coached Anaheim. "Not that we don't have emotion. Keeping it under control has been the biggest challenge for us."

Players who are overly psyched or energized have trouble thinking clearly. They chase the puck and get out of position, take bad or retaliatory penalties and miss offensive opportunities. Think of when you were pumped to the point that you could not sit still or think rationally. That is what players have to manage.

The team that best manages its energy will have the upper hand. This includes handling the enormity of the Final without getting too nervous and tight. Tight teams play hesitant hockey, which leads to fumbling the puck, whiffing on shots and being a step slow.

Then there is the letdown. When a team gets down early, it must fight the disappointment that comes with being behind in the Final and remain optimistic. That will be especially important in this year's the Final, as neither team has been behind in a series. It will be interesting to see how the loser rebounds for Game 2.

Straying from normal preparation and focus -- There is a great deal of media coverage during the Stanley Cup Final. There are many more requests for interviews, calls from family and friends wishing players good luck or asking for tickets, and a lot more attention. The air around the Final is different. It's the ultimate showdown. This is it. No other rounds left. One team will be raising the Cup in two weeks or less. Wow -- how does that feel?

Teams can get into trouble when they stray too far away from their normal routines. The desire to do too much is a land mine players must avoid. Allowing the outside distractions to affect preparation definitely will hurt performance on the ice.

A plan of attack -- With these land mines ready to blow, what should the Penguins and Red Wings do? Stay the course and follow the game plan! Do what they've been doing because it is working. Also, have a plan of attack for dealing with the nerves and distractions surrounding the Final.

First of all, prepare for the Final as if it's another game, another series. Don't make too much of it in your mind. Hockey is hockey, whether you're playing on the pond or in front of millions. Keep it simple -- work your way into the game, maybe with a hit on the first shift. Focus on doing your job, especially early in the series. When the nerves come, know that it is your body gearing up and it's natural.

Next, follow your preparation routine. Keep the focus on the preparation -- the prize is not the extra attention, it's the Cup. Get your rest. Follow the same diet. Get your light workout in on off-days. Do what you normally would do because it will create a feeling of normalcy and comfort. This can ward off anxiety and fear of failure.

Don't expect perfection in the Final -- there will be adversity. Stay on an even keel emotionally. Don't get too down when you get behind. Rely on your history of success and know that you can come back; you have done it all season. Make an effort to not get too up when you get ahead by refocusing on the next shift. The objective the shift after a goal is to outwork the other team and possess the puck. Be aware of extreme thinking ("we are out of this") and extreme emotions and immediately refocus.

Being mentally tough in the Final just might be more difficult than at any other time in the season. The team that trusts in its training, follows its plan and shows resilience will have the honor of raising the Cup.

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