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Gaining an edge: how mental training and support could help the Canadiens

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Can pouring money into mental training and mental health help the Montreal Canadiens gain an edge on the opposition?

Most NHL teams have a sports psychologist on staff to help players when they are struggling with confidence issues, or anything they may need to talk to a trained professional about, including trade rumours or any potential off-ice distraction. What if the Montreal Canadiens took that one step further and started training players brains to remain calm no matter what was happening around them? Sound far-fetched? It is not out of the realm of possibility. The Canadian Women's soccer team has done something like this in the lead-up to the Women's World Cup going on now to ensure that the players were ready for any potential scenario that happens.

During the playoffs there are always games that teams have to weather the storm for the first ten minutes or the first period. What if the Canadiens took a proactive approach to the potential of games like these and trained their players' brains to react calmly like it was any other game? It may not work for all the players, but if enough players become less bothered by outside distractions and influences and truly do trust the process, would there be an advantage for the Canadiens against any team in the league?

As sports evolve, more emphasis is put on mental training, but it is still fairly neglected. The Canadiens did not hire a full-time psychologist until 2012. This means that until then there was no trained professional to help the players deal with the pressure that comes with playing in Montreal. When it comes to on-ice spending there is a level playing field for all teams, but off-ice there is the potential to pioneer new techniques that are out of line with traditional hockey thinking, but could lead to better performance in big games.

Aside from the obvious issue of mental training like this being too weird for old-school hockey people, there is another potential reason as to why teams do not try to train players' minds to handle pressure better: time. It takes time to train anything and to change how someone reacts in a situation would probably take more time than teams think they have.

There is possibly a work-around on the issue of time. Professional athletes spend a lot of time working out and practicing. This means that at some point they hit exhaustion, sometimes at the most inopportune times. Lebron James in the NBA had this in the NBA Finals as the Cleveland Cavaliers were decimated by injury. What if NHL teams decided to rest their players physically and work them mentally more often and therefore create not only the potential for improved play when the stakes are higher, but also the potential for players to be better rested.

It is not all that simple though. The idea that to train the brain you take away from time spent practicing or physical training would probably make coaches everywhere wince. It should not though because the mental side of the game has long been neglected and it is quite possible that the first team to put an emphasis on mental training will gain a substantial edge. The other part goes back to the fatigue factor: if players are already tired from the season, more days rest while still working could also help lift their performance.

The other side of mental care

While the benefits of mental training and conditioning are probably agreed upon to some degree, what about more supports for off-ice issues? A lot of companies offer counselling and other services for free to their employees, but the NHL and NHLPA do not yet offer these services to all their players. In fact, the NHL and NHLPA are just now unrolling a pilot project that includes counselling for post-playing days. If part of the idea in helping players perform better is training them mentally, the other part should be supporting them mentally. If there is free, accessible counselling for players they can choose to get help for something that may be weighing them or their family down.

If a team is investing significant time and money into a player, they should be supporting the whole player in order to get the maximum return on investment. This means supporting players both mentally and physically. It means bringing in a counselor that they can go to if they need help with off-ice issues, a sports psychologist, and a mental trainer in order to properly help players in all facets of off-ice needs. This would align a team with other work places who already offer these services.

There are many ways that teams support players; with nutritionists, strength and conditioning coaches, physiotherapy, and medical care. Until they support the players mentally, they are not doing enough to maximize player performance. If a team like the Canadiens want to get an edge on the competition, they can simply pour money into the mental side of the game and work with their players to help them deal with pressure and adverse situations on the ice. If they want to take it one step further, they can add in a counselling component that would help players needing someone to talk to about any off-ice issue they are having.

It has been discussed that to keep up in today's NHL teams need to have a working knowledge of analytics. If all the teams use analytics to some degree, there has to be a new way to get ahead. Mental training and counselling could very well be that next step to stay ahead of the game. Training players to stay focused when all goes awry would be a good first step.

Imagine if the 2013 Montreal Canadiens were trained to stay focused while everything went wrong. If you are ready for things to go wrong, you are ready to deal with the most disastrous outcome of a situation. Mental training means remaining focused when the world is falling apart; making counselling available simply means that players will be able to deal with any off-ice issue or simply have a safe place to talk about their feelings and hopefully aid them in being better players on the ice.