By Matt Blittner, The New York Extra/TheNYExtra.com
“Something I always say is, the mind leads the body.” – Brenley Shapiro, Mental Performance Coach.
Brenley Shapiro is a Mental Performance Coach who works with NHL players. For the past four seasons she exclusively worked for the Arizona Coyotes. As you will read in this feature, there is a lot of room for hockey to improve in regards to mental health and performance.
(With how important a topic mental health and performance is, we’re doing this Q&A style so that Shapiro can best share her knowledge and insights with you – the readers.)
HOW TO END THE STIGMA: “I think the more we have these conversations, the more it becomes acceptable. Now, I still think we have a long way to go. But, I think it’s an important initiative to normalize these conversations and that they’re okay. They’re just part of the process of doing what you do. I do think it’s an important step, although I think we need to continue having them.”
HOW TO MOVE THE PROCESS ALONG: “Personally, I would like to see it just be a regular part of a training program or regular part of a coaching staff. I would like to see it incorporated on a greater scale into teams, where it’s just part of what you do every single day. The same way that you are coaching/training, skating on the ice, there should be a mental performance coach or a mental health person who is there and has a presence.
“Having a presence is very important because, primarily, especially at the NHL level, it’s so important to be able to build trust, connection and a relationship. So, by having somebody and moving more towards in-house, like a hire who is there and who’s involved in doing things on an ongoing daily basis is really (the goal). I hope one day that we’re really gonna be moving in that direction. That will make significant changes to just normalizing all of it.”
IS THERE A GENERATIONAL DIVIDE: “I think there is a difference. That’s not to say that every single person is gonna be the same. I think it’s going to be based on the individual person. I do think everybody embraces the mental side of the game, whether that’s a veteran or a younger, rookie guy. However, I think there will be some more on the veteran side of things who are still kind of like, ‘Hey, I’ve been doing this a really long time.’ They’re kind of a little more set in their ways, not that they don’t embrace it or understand that it’s an important part of the game. Just, they haven’t really trained it on a regular ongoing basis. So, it might be a little harder to get them to budge.
“But again, I think it’s gonna be based on individuals. There are definitely some veterans out there who do work with a sports psychologist; whether it’s their own or through their team. And some of them are very into it. But, I do think the younger generation who’s coming up, we’re seeing a big difference right now. A lot of them have had some exposure, either with a team or through a workshop or somebody brought in. So they’ve kind of experienced it already. They’re growing up a little bit more with it, certainly more than the veteran guys. So there is a difference.”
DIFFERENCE BETWEEN MENTAL HEALTH & MENTAL PERFORMANCE: “I wanna distinguish the difference between mental health specifically and mental performance, because there might be some confusion around that. So, from a mental health perspective we have to just acknowledge that these players are people, they’re humans like everybody else. From a mental health perspective, they experience everything regular people go through. Whether they’re dealing with more serious mental health issues, anxiety, depression, addiction, issues in their relationships, family stuff, anything like that.
“Then on the mental performance side of things, it’s much more related to their game, their performance, how they’re doing, how they’re feeling around it or other areas of their life which are impacting their performance. So the mental performance side is very specific to performance enhancement and yes, while it does touch on other things that are going on and how to help them manage, it is a lot more about helping them manage everything in terms of helping them maximize performance.
“From a performance perspective, obviously at the NHL level, it’s all a little bit intensified, because there tends to be a lot more pressure. But they struggle with a lot of the same things where if they’re in a performance slump, confidence becomes an issue. The ability to just play free and not tight, managing the pressure. Contracts are a big thing that come up that drive a lot of worry and concern and then the need to perform in order to get the contract they want. That’s something that can tend to drive a lot of pressure and then gets in their head a bit.
“So, just helping them manage all of those things so that, ultimately, they can go out there and be the best they can be and access all of the physical skill, training and talent they have; without letting these things interfere with their performance.”
IMPROVING A PLAYER’S MENTAL PERFORMANCE: “A coach can tell you ‘don’t grip your stick too tight, or you shouldn’t be nervous, play your game.’ Players hear those messages a lot. The difference from somebody like myself is it’s actually taking them through a process. I am very big in my work on changing underlying thinking patterns. It’s one thing to say those things, but if you don’t actually believe them (then what’s the point)? If somebody is in a scoring slump and you say, ‘don’t worry about it, it will come,’ that’s probably the message they usually get. They might even be telling themselves that ‘it’s okay, it’ll come.’ The problem is, they don’t believe it.
“There’s almost a disconnect between their head and their heart. So their head might intellectualize that and know that it will come or it’s gonna be okay. But on the emotional side of things, when they’re struggling, they’re not buying it, it doesn’t feel okay. So it’s often counterproductive to just give those encouraging words when they’re not feeling it. They’re not buying into it, because it almost makes them feel not understood. So, for me, I always tend to go a little bit deeper. I will really dig into what’s the underlying thinking, what are they saying to themselves? What are the beliefs underneath this? What are the fears around it?
“Once I can get those and I can access that, then I will take them through a process of challenging that thinking, looking for proof, looking for facts about, maybe, when they’ve had a performance slump before. What worked, what didn’t work and how they got through it.
“Starting to highlight that it actually is a reality of the game. These things happen. When they have experienced it before, what did they learn from those situations? What worked, what didn’t work? We develop different strategies around it. Probably, one of the biggest things is, I actually try to pull them away from the outcome.
“The NHL is very outcome focused, very result focused. My work will try to do the opposite. Yes, we know we wanna put up points. Yes, the stats are there. But that being said, when we’re focused on the outcomes, it’s very future focused and nobody can predict the future. Certainly nobody can predict how a hockey game is gonna play out.
“There are no two hockey games that will ever look the same. So I need to move them away from that outcome focus and really shift them into a very present and process oriented focus. Just be where your feet are. What’s happening right here, right now when they play the game? It’s one shift at a time. Focus on the process of what you wanna execute on the ice in order to create the success you’re looking for.
“When they’re outcome focused, maybe they get an opportunity and the initial mindset, or the automatic thought is, ‘okay, I need to bury this one now. I need to capitalize on this opportunity.’ Well, when you think that, that drives pressure, worry, anxiety and therefore it’s gonna result in tightening up on the stick.
“Thoughts drive emotions and emotion results in their on-ice behaviors and actions. So we gotta break that down. When their thought process is focused on the process of the game, ‘if I need to put up more points, what are the skills, tasks and things I wanna execute on the ice in order to help me put the puck in the net.’ So, for example, it might be, drive hard to the net, crash the net for a rebound, aim for a target spot.
“Take a look instead of just thinking, ‘I need to score right now.’ Look for an opening, aim for that target spot and shoot for the target spot. If you consistently do the right things on the ice, then the results have an amazing way of taking care of themselves.”