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Wild prospects seek mental advantage

Sports psychology session among the highlights of last month's development camp

by Jessi Pierce / Special to Wild.com

ST. PAUL -- For the 43 players who attended the Wild development camp last month, they could already be considered the cream of the crop for their age group. While some may not make it to realize their dream of playing in the National Hockey League, to make it as far as to be a prospect or camp invitee says a lot about the on-ice talent.

But as Wild defenseman Louie Belpedio acknowledged, sometimes skills are not enough to make that leap.

"Everyone's good, everyone can skate, everyone can shoot," said Belpeido, selected by the Wild 80th overall in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, "so it's those little things that can separate you from the rest of the pack."

Little things like mental training.

For the third year in a row, the Wild included a sports psychology course for campers, aimed to help players refine their mental game. In between the scrimmages, skills practices and off-ice mentorship were two sports psychology courses to educate players on the importance of gaining that mental edge as they look to make the next step into their hockey careers.

"We often see that it's the mental side that separates the elite players from the really good players," said Dr. Alexandra Wagener of Premier Sports Psychology, an Edina-based company. "You're already really good, you're at this level, now how do we be better? How do we get to that next level? It's strengthening strengths.

"What does it take to be at this top level? How do you move up to be that nine percent that makes the NHL, or that one percent that makes an All-Star team? Our goal is to help them mentally get there."


A secret weapon

Wagener says that for many years, professional and amateur teams alike kept utilizing a sports psychologist as a secret weapon. Not only were teams hesitant to reveal the key behind their success, the stigma associated with sports psychology had a lot of teams shying away from the idea.

"I think sometimes we think psychologist and we think something has to be wrong," Wagener said. "But really, it's just helping people. We want to help these players enjoy what they do, especially at this level now. We don't want them to just go through the motions, we really want to help them be fulfilled, fulfill their potential and enjoy what they do - especially when they're working so hard and putting so much time and energy into their craft. We kind of want to get out some of that other piece."

Wild Director of Player Development Brad Bombardir admits he wishes he had more access to it when he played. Bombardir, who played 396 NHL games including four seasons with the Wild, echoed Belpedio and Wagener; gaining a mental edge is the key to unlocking the next level of a player's game.

"I call these guys the 90 percent; you're 90 percent of the way there, so where's your other 10 percent?" Bombardir said. "If sports psychology can utilize and gain even 2 percent, it's a success. I'm a big fan of it."


More than just confidence

Oftentimes, people assume sports psychology's main focus is on building confidence. While that's a large part of its goal, it's all of the elements that create confidence that are actually a large priority.

Take for instance Mason Shaw, who suffered a season-ending ACL tear at the beginning of last season, and returned to camp this year. The injury presents a slew of challenges: Missing time away from the team, the game and all while rehabilitating a devastating injury can take its toll physically and mentally.

Wagener notes that a large part of a sports psychologist's job is to ready players in those situations like any medical trainer would.

"When a player gets injured, about 27 percent of those players will experience some type of mental health problem," she said. "It can be devastating, even if you don't get to that clinical level of sadness.

"Your identity as a hockey player can be questioned, your spot on the roster, the pain, it changes routine, I think we see a lot of elements that can shake someone's world when that happens. Our aim is to help them recover by giving them the tools to combat that and get better and feel more prepared to return to the sport."

Wagener said while injury recovery was a point of discussion during the camp's two courses, other topics including sleep importance, awareness, self-perception and emotional strategies.

And, yes, confidence -- something most players left camp with.

"The visualization and that mental preparation, I think seeing how much that helped increase people's skills and mindset before the game, is definitely something I'll take in to next year for sure," said Brainerd native Mitch McLain, who finished last season with the Iowa Wild. "Anytime you can increase you mental confidence, you're gaining an edge. I hope that it gives me the right edge to take that next step."


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