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'Breathe and Enjoy': How Ullmark, Hutton use breathing as a mental edge

Buffalo's goalies explain how they prepare mentally

by Jourdon LaBarber @jourdonlabarber / Sabres.com

Linus Ullmark had just put the finishing touches on a 41-save shootout victory over the Florida Panthers earlier this month when he was asked how he stayed poised through a heavy workload. 

His answer was quick and concise. 

"I breathe," he said, "and I enjoy the moment."

The message has been sewn onto Ullmark's blockers this season, written in Swedish in capital letters. An exclamation point adds emphasis: ANDAS OCH NJUT! 

Translation: breathe and enjoy. 

"Whenever I start to feel like my mind is racing or I'm going to different places I'm not supposed to be, I just look down at my blocker and I see it," Ullmark explained. "OK, this is what's important."

In those moments, Ullmark leans on the breathing techniques he's learned over the past year to bring him back to the present. Both he and fellow goaltender Carter Hutton incorporate breathing as a mental tool in one of sport's most demanding positions. 

Ullmark's commitment to breathing elevated last season. It was his first full year in the NHL, bringing with it the internal and external pressure of stopping pucks in the best league in the world. His son, Harry, was born in March 2018, meaning it was also his first full season as a father. 

He credits Sabres head of human science Katy Tran Turner, as well as Hutton, with helping him hone the mental side of his game.

"All these things kind of build up, and it made it a lot more important to take a step back and breathe and kind of cool off whenever there's something going on in your life," Ullmark said. "It could be on the side; it could be in the actual game as well. But it just helps you to refocus."

The idea of using breathing as a form of meditation is not unique to athletes. In a nutshell, the idea of mindfulness training is to focus on one thing - in this case, breathing - to bring your mind to the present moment, eliminating outside thoughts.

Ullmark explained the techniques he uses. There's the 5-5-5 technique, which requires breathing in for five seconds, holding the breath for five seconds, then breathing out for five more.

Then there's the "hot and cold" technique, which is more visual. 

"You breathe in your nose and you feel like the cold air comes in, and it's blue," Ullmark explained. "Then when you breathe it out, it's red. So, you think about that. You get it in through your nose, it goes into your lungs, it builds up, it switches colors, and it's red."

It may sound easy, but Ullmark says the visualization of breathing requires a level of focus that allows external stresses to dissipate in the process. 

"The whole thing about breathing, whenever you do it and you think about it, stuff kind of disappears because you're just focusing on one thing," he said. "You're not focusing on everything that's going on. You're just focusing on breathing. It's the simplest things you don't need to focus on to be able to live."

Video: BUF@DET: Ullmark blanks Red Wings with 41 saves

Hutton began to work on his breathing on the advice of Hall of Fame goaltender Martin Brodeur, who was his goalie coach in St. Louis during the 2016-17 season. He's also practiced visualization, a technique in which athletes mentally imagine how they want to handle situations before they occur. 

Former Sabres goalie Chad Johnson explained visualization in a first-person story for Sabres.com in March 2018. He would lay in bed and visualize situations - stopping James van Riemsdyk from his usual spot on the power play, for example - picturing everything from his positioning to the confidence he wanted to feel in the moment.  

In fact, assistant coach Mike Bales - who has worked with NHL goalies for nine seasons with Pittsburgh and Carolina - believes most goaltenders use some sort of breathing technique. It was something Bales picked up himself early in his own pro career, though it was less common then to discuss it.

"I don't know that it's all that new necessarily," Bales said. "I just think maybe it was never something that was talked about before. That whole mental side of the game, guys didn't really talk about it all that much, I think, back in the day. It was sort of one of those things everybody kind of kept to themselves. 

"Everybody's a lot more open now about that kind of stuff. Working on the mental side of your game, there's no weaknesses there by saying you need help with some of this stuff. I think guys are more open to it. I think it's a tool that guys are more willing to use."

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