Monday, February 6, 2017

The Power of the Mental Aspects of Sports, A Look at Allen's Shooting Percentage & Attendance Declines

 As I was watching the Super Bowl last night and witnessing the amazing comeback by the New England Patriots I was reminded of a recent conversation I had with Steve Martinson concerning the mental aspects of playing sports. If you are the quarterback of a football team or goalie on a hockey team, confidence and body language can be the difference between success and failure. Tom Brady is 39 years old so what sets him apart his not his physical gifts. What sets Brady apart is when you look him in the eyes in the huddle you know he believes no matter what the odds the team will get the job done. It is not a facade, it is a true belief that if you follow me we can overcome a 28-3 deficit with 8:31 remaining in the third quarter. 

- It is the same mentality that makes Riley Gill successful. His body language and confidence in the playoffs is seen by all of his teammates on the ice and in the locker room so when he says he will strap the team on his back nobody doubts that is exactly what will happen. That is why he has won three of the last four Kelly Cups.

- It is hard for young players to display this confidence and it is a learned ability as much as a natural one. If you watch Jamie Murray you can sometimes see him lose confidence on the ice by watching his body language. It is important to look and act confident. Body language sends a message to your opponents, your teammates and yourself. It is a skill to learn to rebound quickly from mistakes and not let mistakes turn into doubt. Letting go of the last play and focusing on the next is a key to success. Successful hockey players have learned how to perform with superior confidence on the ice. Working hard to sharpen skills in practice also includes being responsible for your level of confidence and working on the mental aspects of the game.

- Here is an article written by Fluto Shinzawa with the that speaks to the mental part of the game. It is just one example of the thinking that goes into the mental aspects of the game.

The game is called Fuzzy Duck. On its surface, it is a simple numbers game that hockey players can play before they take the ice.
It goes like this: Players go around the room counting by one. “Fuzzy” stands for a multiple of three. “Duck” is a multiple of seven. “Fuzzy duck” contains both numbers.
The first player would say, “one.” The next player would say, “two.” The third player would say, “fuzzy.” The sequence would continue: “four, five, fuzzy, duck, eight, fuzzy, 10.”
It’s not so easy. A player might mess up and say “six” instead of “fuzzy.” When that happens, the game resets and goes back to zero.
The consequences within a room of players are endless: chop-busting for the guy who goofs up the sequence, frustration among the players who always get it right, or maybe even group-wide dismissal of a game that has seemingly nothing to do with putting pucks in nets.
This is not just a game. For players, it is a team-building exercise that teaches patience, perseverance, forgiveness, and teamwork. For coaches, it is an evaluation tool that can go so far as to determine who should be the captain, who should take a penalty shot, and who should be on the bench instead of on the ice in the third period of a 1-1 game.
The game is the proprietary exercise of the Center for Cognitive Sports Performance (CogSports). The company, based in Portland, Maine, works primarily with high school teams to identify and improve the intangibles regularly cited in hockey, such as leadership, grit, and character.
“It really brings your leaders to the forefront,” CogSports co-founder Jordan Denning said of the outcome of Fuzzy Duck. “It is a way for a coach to observe. You can pick out roles on the spot. ‘That guy controls the room. That guy, who I thought was too small, is by far my best leader.’ ”
Hockey is no longer a sport where teams can rely only on talent to succeed. The salary cap has produced parity around the NHL. The cliché has become truth: Any team can beat anybody on a given night.
The successful teams are targeting inefficiencies on the periphery and turning them into areas of strength. They’re emphasizing nutrition and sleep. They’re supplementing traditional in-person viewings with video scouting in the pro and amateur departments. The growth of analytics gives coaches more information on in-game adjustments while supplying general managers with richer data to build their rosters.
The sport’s mental component, however, remains cloudy. Coaches may cite attributes such as humility, integrity, perseverance, and selflessness when they evaluate a player. General managers look for intangibles when rounding out their rosters with fourth-liners and depth defensemen. But neither coaches nor GMs really understand what they mean and how they influence a player’s performance.
Denning believes that not only can these qualities be identified and quantified, but that they can also be improved.
“We think the emotional and mental drive the physical, ultimately,” Denning said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re 6-4, 230, and fast if you’re a basket case, you’re not thinking clearly, or you don’t know what’s going on around you.”
CogSports’s critical piece of intelligence is what it calls ATHLETT, an assessment developed with assistance from the US Naval War College in Newport, R.I., and the Princeton University psychology department. The test, which users take online, usually consists of 140 statements. It takes 20 to 30 minutes to complete.
For example, one statement is, “I raise my voice to win an argument.” Users have five choices: strongly agree, agree, strongly disagree, disagree, and not sure. The results are applied through an algorithm that produces a report with a player’s scores in characteristics such as anger management, creativity, and selflessness.
The next step is a debrief. Players or coaches will speak with CogSports to explain the report’s results and devise a plan of improvement.
Denning cited a talented goalie of a prep school team. After allowing goals, he would smash his stick or bow his head. He’d fail to regain his composure. Opponents read his body language and jacked up the pressure.
The assessment concluded that the goalie was stressed out, had low emotional control, couldn’t focus properly, and wasn’t aware of his surroundings. Upon consultation, CogSports prescribed visualization.
After every goal allowed, the goalie was told to skate out of the crease and think of a happy time. In theory, the exercise lets athletes relax and regain confidence to the point where their physical assets reset.
“Christmas morning when he was 8 years old,” said Denning. “This is a kid who, in his mind, was completely frazzled when he was getting scored on. Coach is yelling at him. Dad is yelling at him. Crowd is yelling at him. He’s supposed to be great. He’s got a lot of pressure on him. So with something as simple as Christmas morning when he was 8, he started doing that, locked in, cut his goals in half the rest of the season.”
Just about all of the intangibles CogSports monitors are elastic. They can improve with exercises. They can decline without attention.
Denning looks at a sample report. The scores are coded by color, ranging from blue (high) to red (low), with green and orange in between. On this report, integrity and humility are high. Self-confidence and decisiveness are low.
“This is a very nice kid,” Denning said. “This is everybody’s friend. He’s very much a team guy. But he’s not the guy that is going to go out and seize the moment. He’s not the guy who wants the puck in the clutch. He’s probably on the bench, cheering on his teammates because he’s a real nice guy. He lacks assertiveness. He lacks decisiveness. He’s vulnerable. He lacks self-confidence. Other than that, real nice guy. But he will stay at it. He will persevere. He will persevere because he loves being part of a team.”
For this player, CogSports would prescribe exercises to build self-confidence: positive affirmations, repetitions of successful actions, visualizing good plays, watching video of his favorite player doing good things.
A successful NHLer, after all, trains his body like few others can to become stronger, faster, and quicker. The body can improve.
So can the mind. Exercises such as visualization and affirmation improve the brain to the point where physical achievement follows. By then, the game becomes easy for players with mental strength and emotional control. It’s why Bobby Orr, Wayne Gretzky, and Ray Bourque were who they were, according to Denning. It wasn’t just because they had physical gifts. Their minds worked in synch with their bodies.


- The Americans resume practice today as they prepare for the last long road trip of the regular season. They will head to Rapid City later today for games on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. The team will return to Allen after the game on Saturday.

- I get asked all of the time if there are any roster changes in the works and my answer is always the same that conversations take place constantly between coach Martinson and San Jose, with other teams and with player agents. Injuries also make for numerous roster changes. If you had a pat answer that said yes there will be roster changes this week you would be right 90% of the time.

- One statistic you don't hear talked about a lot is team shooting percentage. Allen is ranked #4 in the ECHL having scored on 11.6% of their 1581 shots. The top three are Manchester (12.4%), Toledo (12.2%) and Reading (11.7%). The Americans 11.6% is higher than last season when they finished at 10.6% but lower than 2014-15 when the shooting percentage was 12.2%.

- I plan on doing an update at the end of the month to the story I published in December on the decline in attendance in the ECHL. The ECHL season is almost two-thirds complete and attendance is 3.8% below last season. That equals an average of 161 fewer fans per game for the 612 games played thus far. Allen is even further in the hole as they are 10.2% behind last season based on the first 24 home games. That equates to 477 fans per game less than last season.

DID YOU KNOW: When you look at individual shooting percentages it is often surprising because some players don't take a lot of shots so it doesn't equate to a lot of goals. Maybe the message is if you are at the top of this list you need to shoot more. Here are the top 10 Allen Americans in shooting percentage this season with the number of shots in parentheses:

26.1% - Zach Hall (23 shots)
20.0% - Dyson Stevenson (35 shots)
17.2% - Jake Marchment (64 shots)
16.8% - Bryan Moore - (107 shots)
16.7% - Chad Costello - (144 shots)
16.0% - Gary Steffes - (81 shots)
15.0% - Spencer Asuchak (127 shots)
14.7% - Eric Roy (75 shots)
13.3% - Kale Kerbashian (15 shots)
12.6% - Greger Hanson (190 shots)  


  1. Great post, Barry. I enjoyed the information and article about mental training.