Success Goes to Your Head

What sets the Oilers of 2022 apart? It's about fight vs. flight
Fans toss hats to the ice after Evander Kane's third goal in a Game 3 win over Calgary in the Battle of Alberta.

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.

And that’s why so many teams and sports associations are using psychologists.

“The athlete can be trained to reinterpret the situation before them as a challenge rather than a threat,” she says. “They need to see the situation as a challenge, which is an opportunity for growth, an opportunity to show what we are made of. And that’s very different from someone having a fear of losing out on something.”

The Canadian national women’s soccer team won the gold medal at the 2020 Olympics (held in 2021, because of COVID), and won bronze medals in 2012 and ‘16. But, before that, the team finished dead last out of all the qualified teams at the 2011 World Cup. One of the first orders of business for incoming coach John Herdman was to bring in Dr. Ceri Evans to rebuild a psychologically damaged team. Before the players could improve on the pitch, they had to get past the mental blocks that hurt them at the Women’s World Cup, and threatened to stick with them as they progressed in their careers. Herdman said it was a team that had embraced a “victim/blame culture” — and it needed to be addressed.

“When I picked the Canadian team up, the discipline wasn’t there, because the passion wasn’t there. They’d forgotten what it meant to play for Canada,” Herdman said soon after the Canadian program had turned around its fortunes.

So, is the fact that the Oilers are playing their best post-season hockey since the team made a run to the 2006 Stanley Cup final all about the personnel and coaching changes that have been made this season, or is the mental game a part of it?

Maybe it’s because they’ve been able to throw out all the memories of the previous couple of seasons away, where they were shocked in early playoff exits to the Chicago Blackhawks in the COVID bubble, and then to the Winnipeg Jets in ‘21.

Mosewich says the brain has only so much capacity when it comes to focusing on a task at hand. A disciplined brain will lead to better performance.

“Excessive negative thoughts and self-criticism can detract focus on where it should be.”