In all likelihood, regardless of how Saturday night’s Game 5 between with the Washington Capitals ends, the Penguins’ psyche will emerge as a topic of discussion in the aftermath.
Win, and talking heads will commend the Penguins for their ability to put away the NHL’s top regular-season team on the road.
Lose, and questions will likely arise about whether the Penguins are still somehow haunted by their recent postseason disappointments.
Earlier this week, a story in the Trib attempted to explore how the Penguins moved past their “fragile” phase and became “resilient,” to steal two terms often used by coach Mike Sullivan.
For Sullivan and the Penguins to say their mentality changed is fine. Results certainly suggest the team better at dealing with all kinds of circumstances, both good and bad. But I wanted a third-party perspective from someone with psychology expertise.
Enter Aimee Kimball, a prominent Pittsburgh-based mental training consultant with a Ph.D in sports psychology.
Below are her remarks on the topics of molding a team’s mindset and restoring its confidence. What intrigued me most about her input was how much it aligned with what Sullivan has said and done since taking over on Dec. 12. At this point, there’s a pretty strong consensus that Sullivan is a smart man whose intelligence extends beyond player deployment and scheme adjustments. Kimball’s explanations affirmed for me that Sullivan speaks as a coach who has studied the best ways to communicate and connect with those he leads, and not as a former player or jock type who fixates on grit and heart, though he values those intangibles.
Kimball on moving a team from fragility to resiliency: “Generally speaking, a coach, when they want to build up the resiliency and mental toughness of a team, it’s about creating the culture to do so. A lot of that is how they communicate with players. They make the players feel like they are a part of this team, and they contribute to it. And really getting the players to be competitive. To me, when I’m working with teams or individuals, it’s really talking about what competitiveness is, and that’s playing to win or playing to do your best rather than playing not to lose or trying to avoid mistakes. I think a lot of times athletes of any age get caught up in, ‘I just don’t want to make a mistake. I don’t want to lose.’ So they play very tentatively. But when you’re looking at building the confidence of a team and building a culture of success, it has more to do with focusing on going out there and doing everything you can to win. A lot of players, when they start to lose confidence, it’s because they’re almost playing out of fear instead of playing out of passion.”
On pushing players to think about “playing the right way” without causing paralysis through analysis: “You want athletes to be able to strategize and be able to think about the game before their game. But when they play, you don’t want them overthinking. You want them to be able to shut that off and play more with just their intelligence, their knowledge of the sport. Because if they’ve trained the right way and prepared the right way, they shouldn’t need to think about it (actively). They should be able to just go out there and do it. You want them to prepare and work and study the film and have done the training and know the strategy so that it’s all there in their filing cabinet. But when they get out on the court or the field or the ice, they just put that to use. … You never want to be so emotional or so thought out. You want to pay attention to details at the right time and the right place, but you don’t want to overthink it so much that you’re a robot. Very few sports are so slow-paced where you have that.”
On how the Penguins might’ve become “fragile” in the first place: “What tends to happen is athletes are focusing on the wrong things. They’ll focus on the crowds, the situations or the playing time. So it’s not necessarily that they don’t believe they’re good enough. Their focus has just shifted away from how good to they are to, ‘What if?’ They’re thinking about things that aren’t task-specific. Their playing time, the crowd, the playoffs — these things don’t matter unless they make it matter.”