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How's Your Brain Game?

By Hans Skulstad, 04/26/22, 1:30PM CDT


The Game has changed. I actually don’t need to tell you that if you are a player, parent, coach, or scout. So has the world, I certainly don’t need to tell you that either. That’s why we are partnering with Minnesota Hockey and their High Performance programs. We want to make an impact on the hockey community at all levels. We are a hockey family too. We believe that our resources and experience can help you to change your Brain Game. 

In some ways there are more resources available to athletes to help them to perfect their game. Too often, however, we neglect one aspect of the game. Our brain games. Yep – the mental side of sports. You know – it’s the part of the game that we rarely give or receive detailed information about. Why – the myths around the brain game keep us from talking about it.

I often tell people that there is nothing the parents of the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s could have done to prepare us to coach, parent, or play now.  Except teach basic skills and values. The same is true now. This means learning how to build and maintain mental fitness. Learning skills to help you manage stress and emotions, build relationships, and live and play through adversity.

In my over 20 years working in athletics, I have seen things change in some drastic and dramatic ways. The pressure and lack of ability to control reactions concerns me. I am encouraged though too. 

Encouraged about one specific change. It is more acceptable to talk about our brain game. All the major professional sports have collectively bargained to require organizations to have a mental performance professional or mental health providers on staff. Many colleges utilize these professionals and make them available to their athletes.  

Robin Lehner, Tyler Motte, Riley Sheahan, Michael Phelps, Kevin Love, Simon Biles, and Naomi Osaka have publicly shared their stories, along with many others. The stigma is slowly dying. It goes without saying that the pandemic impacted mental health and because it impacted so many people it has become something that has become more normalized and less stigmatized. In our own practice we saw demand for services grow to levels we had never seen before. Both for mental performance and mental health.

As a community we are talking about it more. Last summer I participated and spoke at an event to honor the memory of Mark Pavelich and raise mental health awareness. It was a who’s who of hockey people and many of the state’s college hockey coaches. Mark Wick, an assistant coach at Augsburg, who takes time to talk to teams spoke as well. I know that many have felt empowered to seek help because of what he has done.

We need to do more. We need to challenge the myths that create and maintain the stigmas. The relationship between the myths of mental toughness and the myths of mental health is strong. Let’s name and address them.

  • You have it or you don’t. It can’t be trained.  
  • It’s a character flaw – or a bad attitude.
  • Pain and punishment is the only way to change it.
  • Soft or psycho – If you struggle or need help, you’re soft at best and at worst, you’re psycho.
  • Fear of exposure – A flaw you can’t change means there is something wrong with you.
  • Emotional Perfection – A healthy person never shows or expresses their emotions in public.

Here’s the reality with mental skills training and mental health. Everyone is different. You can’t use a cookie cutter approach. It’s hard to measure progress and change. It requires consistent effort and attention. Doing it yourself has limitations and may mean you encounter avoidable pitfalls that make you feel hopeless and helpless. Most of the time we (players, coaches, scouts, and parents) see it as something that you do when you have time, not as necessary for consistent success.

Want to do more? Challenge the myths. Be a beast. Here are some ways.

  • Be Aware – 1 in every 4 people struggles with a mental health disorder.  When interacting with others remember we all are dealing with some kind of pain or struggle. Do you toss around terms like psycho, crazy, cuckoo when they don’t really apply?  Do you see mental mistakes as a sign someone is dumb or weak? Do you say die of suicide instead of commit? The word committed goes with crimes as well.  Is it one?
  • Educate - Learn about mental fitness. I intentionally use this term because it’s less subjective and more definable and measurable. It means accepting emotions, playing through them, and being self-aware. You can watch Mental Fitness Fridays or subscribe. Here’s a link to this week’s episode. You can subscribe here for free.
  • Ask yourself – which one hooks you most? It’s okay to ask for help. There are thousands of people involved in feeding us every day but we rarely believe that help makes us soft, psycho, or weak. Ask yourself the hard questions. Why does it hook me? What do I need to change?
  • Share – If you have experienced struggles with mental performance or mental health, be open with others if you feel safe to share. Your openness may make it more likely that someone may seek help. Share names of professionals who have helped you with your brain game or your mental health.  They are interrelated.
  • Try it – You don’t have to be sick to get better. Everyone can benefit from examining the way they think, feel, and react to situations. Some providers act like Stuart Smalley – This is a classic with Michael Jordan. 

It’s way more than this approach. An outside perspective can help and sometimes just talking out loud helps us to realize changes we need to make.

Last and most importantly, quietly offer resources. There are QR codes with links to videos that you can use immediately. Techniques to help you reboot your brain.

Many teams I have worked with have put these resources up in their locker room or team spaces. The ability to ask for help anonymously may save a life. Wouldn’t you rather deal with the discomfort of the reminder in your locker room or home that we are all human athletes? 

For more information on how to get started, contact Hans Skulstad via email or by calling 952-393-6828. 

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