To be a top-end athlete, one must have the mental toughness to be successful. Hockey players are no exception. In fact, the great majority of professional athletes that have either acknowledged having a mental illness or have been diagnosed with it later are athletes of sports where contact to the head is at a higher probability. Common sense says this might be a contributing factor.
In hockey, hits to the head - especially at lower levels of play - seem to happen at an alarming rate. However, once hockey players reach the age of playing Juniors or at the University level, mental illness or strain in a player can have other contributing factors. For instance, when players leave home to play Juniors or University, they may be leaving home for the first time. Players leaving home to play Juniors encounter stress of being away from their family and friends, long hours inside the rink, fighting to keep their spot on the roster, living with a new family, and sometimes enduring being traded away from a place where they had just established some comfort. I have no doubt that those kinds of stressors could really affect a player mentally, which in turn could show in their ability to play the game. Players that are in the University stage of their career endure the factors of being away from home as well: living in a new environment, meeting new people, juggling class work with practice, team functions and their social life, while maintaining eligibility. Once again, all very prominent reasons for a player to encounter times of mental instability.
As a coach who has coached in both the Junior ranks and at the University level, I have had players tell me first hand of their experiences while playing for various teams. I have seen players struggle with having been traded, home sick, or stresses of their class load. Because of the tolls these stressors were taking on the players mentally, I have seen them resort to drugs and alcohol to solve their problems. I’ve also seen players become very depressed and distant from their family and teammates. It’s never an easy task for coaches to walk that line of being a coach/leader and enough of a confidant so that their players understand that they can talk to them if there is a problem going on in their lives.
The most important concept for me has always been to let my players know that, from day one, I have an open-door policy. They always come talk to me about anything that’s on their mind. Even if what’s on their mind is that they are mad at me. This opens the lines of communication. Some may find it useful right away, while others it may take them time to warm up to the idea of talking to their coach. But the fact is that, as a coach, you spend so much time with these players that you become an adopted family. As in any kind of family, those who have good communication will have a better time understanding each other. I’ve also always found it very important to find small opportunities to talk one on one with my players. Even if it’s as simple as asking, “How are classes going?”, “Are you ready for finals?”, “How is your family doing?”, or finding out what their interests are. For example, I just spent 20 minutes of a bus ride after a weekend sweep listening to one of my players who is an upper classman with a business major, talk to me about diversifying my portfolio. Personally, I understood about 10% of what he said. But it was good to hear him talk about something he is so passionate about. During times like that, not only does it build a rapport with players, it helps coaches to understand what their players are like on “normal basis”. I use the term “normal basis” because when a player gets a concussion you may not realize that the athlete is acting differently if you do not already know how they normally act. That is something that not only helps to prevent further injury but could even save the athletes life by making sure they are seen medically sooner rather than later.
Recognizing that your player is acting unusual does not always mean he/she has a concussion. It very well could mean that any of those stressors that were mentioned earlier are wearing on your athlete. In this case, it’s never a bad idea to just ask if there is something wrong. Many times, you’ll get the answer of “No!”. If that’s the case, it’s alright to follow up with, “I just ask because… (and state what you are seeing) and I wanted to make sure you are alright.” If the answer is still that there is nothing wrong, then let it go. However, if the mood/attitude/personality change continues over a period, a coach may want to talk with teammates that are close to that player. Doing so is not the interest of prying or making a statement that you don’t trust that player to tell you the truth, rather it’s in the manner of being cautionary because you don’t want to see that player spiral downhill. If you at least know that an athlete is talking to their teammates about any issues they may have, then you, as a coach, can rest a little easier knowing that teammate/friend therapy is often some of the best therapy.
Which brings me to my next point that I discussed in length with Clint Malarchuk, the infamous goalie of the Buffalo Sabres in 1989 who had his throat cut by a skate blade. Mr. Malarchuk later suffered from depression, which led to alcohol and drug abuse. Clint now talks to teams about what to do if they are having these feelings or are not feeling mentally okay. His biggest point of his talks is that players have 20 or more other guys that are their “brothers.” They are there for you, so talk to them. As a coach, encourage your players to confide in their teammates and take solace in the fact that they always have someone that they can talk to when times get tough. If their best friend was traded, there are other guys on that team that may be feeling similarly. If school work is piling up or grades are not what they expect them to be or there is a problem at home, their teammates, and more often than not, their coaches, have gone through similar situations. Who else can understand the unique situations that hockey players encounter throughout their careers than other hockey players?
As coaches, it is always our job to help the team become a family. It is also our job to know and understand our players. Not just for the sake of getting the best performance out of them, but for the sake of team chemistry as well. Coming to the rink every day can be a mental grind when paired with other factors that are weighing on a player’s mind. As coaches, we must help create an environment at the rink that helps players forget about their other troubles, even if just for a few hours while they are playing the game that they love. If we find that delicate balance as coaches, we’ll be able to get the best out of our players on the ice, which very easily can translate to their lives off the ice.