Is there a deeper, psychological reason why a talented team like the Toronto Maple Leafs have not made it past the first round of the NHL playoffs for a generation, and why a team like the Tampa Bay Lightning makes winning clutch games seem almost blasé?
And what is separating the Oilers of the 2022 playoffs from the Oilers of previous seasons? Is it all about the trades that have been made, the free agents who have been signed, or is there something deeper at play, like the psychological make up of the athletes on the ice?
Dr. Amber Mosewich is an expert in psychology and how it affects sports performance. She’s an associate prof in the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Kinesiology, Sport and Recreation. And she says how an athlete perceives pressure that come from fans and media means a lot.
“How an athlete focuses can shape how that athlete physically responds,” she says.
So, when can the roar of the crowd go from boosting an athlete to actually hindering performance? The thing is, no two athletes are the same, but Mosewich says fans need to recognize that “there can be a line where it starts to cross over” for basically everyone.
She says that the human mind can interpret high-pressure situations in two ways — as a challenge to be embraced, or as a threat. Fight vs. flight. If you perceive a high-pressure situation as a threat, you are in flight mode. Your body reacts — no matter how much you want to perform at a high level, your instincts are telling you to get out of the situation rather than fight to the finish. So, a team that has a history of not coming through in the clutch — think of the Leafs and their recent history of Game 7 losses — can become victim of a cycle where the history can only repeat itself. If the athletes go into the game thinking “this can’t happen again” rather than embracing the challenge ahead, their performances will be impaired, no matter how much they’ve trained and prepared.