It’s the middle of the third period for Devon Levi’s first-ever NHL game in net. As the ice crew emerges from the tunnel to begin cleaning the ice during a commercial break, Levi kneels, facing the cage he works tirelessly to defend. He is meditating, as the 21-year-old does during every TV timeout.
Levi, the young rookie goalie for the Buffalo Sabres, has credited this mindful approach in part for his impressive debut in the NHL.
Craig Anderson, the Sabres’ 41-year-old goalie, shares a similar focus on the mental parts of the game. Anderson has been known to suggest teammates take a day each week to learn about sports psychology instead of hitting the weight room. NHL players of all ages are beginning to look more carefully at the connection between mental wellness, sensory processing, and long-term success.
While topics like mindfulness and emotion processing may be receiving more attention in hockey, there are many pressures that make mental health difficult to attend to as a professional athlete.
Coaches and staff push players to play despite serious injuries or risk losing their spot in future lineups. Those that do prioritize mental health regularly face outsized criticism from fans and the media, like Canucks’ defenseman Ethan Bear or former Bruins’ goalie Tuukka Rask who have elected to miss games for health reasons. Ironically, Rask was also condemned by fans for continuing to play through an injury during the Bruins’ second-round exit in 2021.
Coaches in hockey and other sports too frequently focus on teaching players to ignore the body’s needs, ‘toughening up’, in order to become a more fierce and successful competitor. This mindset can be helpful in moderation. Taken to extremes, sports’ obsession with ‘pushing past the pain’ inevitably renders players incapable of playing to their best abilities.
While many professional hockey players continue to compete with injuries and other health issues, the benefits are unclear.
Linus Ullmark may be one of the most notable recent examples of players attempting to disregard their health so they may remain in the lineup. After another early postseason exit for the Boston Bruins and their current goaltender, Ullmark, many reported on the possibility that injury hampered the 29-year-old netminder’s play.
NHL Network’s Kevin Weekes tweeted: “Like all teams ; players grit it out to play through major injuries in the Playoffs. My sources tell me soon to be Vezina goaltender Ullmark was playing through a debilitating & painful injury that limited his mobility and technique.”
Ullmark offered an explanation for his poor play:
“This is also something that people that played the game understand and go through: Are you hurt or are you injured? So, you can be hurt and still playing,” Ullmark compared his situation to a former Bruin during his May 2nd exit-interview saying “People have broken bones, you have (Zdeno) Chara, who had a broken jaw. Was he hurting? Yeah, he was hurting. But some things you can play through without it making you play worse.”
While there may be some truth to Ullmark’s words, playing one good game while hurt is much easier than maintaining the highest level of play for a full series or playoff campaign.
It is possible for players to have good games despite wellness issues, but the success is unlikely to be sustainable. Each NHL season is full of similar situations where players are put into games despite their limited capacity and despite the high potential for long-term negative impacts.
Even in youth hockey, players are regularly told to ‘get tough’, ‘stop whining’, and ‘push past the pain’ when experiencing something difficult. As a youth coach trained as a therapist, it is difficult for me to watch adult coaches criticize seven-year-olds for their apparent lack of toughness. While coaches may choose to minimize players’ pain, researchers have consistently found that athletes benefit from acknowledging these sensations through emotion processing and mindfulness-based training.
Sports psychology researchers have also identified that, “among athletes who returned to sports after injury, those with mindfulness interventions reported lower levels of competitive state anxiety and burnout.” Coaches can help their players be more mindful by treating pain as essential bodily feedback, not just a distraction. Pain, both mental and physical, is inevitable, but ignoring pain often makes situations worse.
While providing therapeutic services at practices like Electronic Gaming Therapy Inc. in Buffalo, NY, we utilized the Signal Cycle Model and video games to help clients more effectively process their surroundings and their emotions.
The Signal Cycle Model breaks down the steps of processing an emotion so it can be communicated clearly to others. Steps include Catch, Understand, Goal, Plan, Send, and Repeat. In therapy, this might be used after the client loses a close game of Mario Kart to a sibling. The client could be encouraged to catch and name the emotions losing the race created. Clients can then work to understand where the emotion came from. Was the feeling caused by an event or dynamic outside of the game? Then clients can formulate a plan to communicate what they are experiencing before responding. The cycle begins again once the plan is sent or explained to another person.
This may all seem like common sense, but it is easier said than done. Everyone has moments where they struggle to articulate difficulties at hand, regardless of what game is being played. Detroit Red Wings head coach Derek Lalonde, is no exception, having unleashed a torrent of expletives against officials following a disagreeable call during a March game where he was ejected. Coaches can become more effective leaders when they are able to process their own emotions.
Overall, hockey players and coaches can gain better control over their abilities when able to process emotions in a healthy manner. This philosophy helped me be a better coach when working with a 12-year-old goalie who let in three shots in a row during a recent team scrimmage.
The goaltender had made each save for the first 10 minutes of a scrimmage before a rising slap shot caught the netminder just below the helmet and just above the top of the chest pad, making direct contact with their collarbone. The goalie was immediately in pain, but returned to their feet attempting to shake it off. Their head coach called over to the goalie yelling, “You’re fine! Just keep playing.”
Over the next minute, three more goals sailed past the goalie before they slashed their stick over the crossbar, trudging off to the bench without saying a word. I asked the player, “What are you thinking about right now? What feelings can you catch a hold of?”
They say, “I’m pissed I got scored on. Three times!”
“Okay, what happened that made those goals tough to save?”
“I was still dealing with my collarbone. It hurts real bad. But I didn’t want to look weak in front of coach.” This lets me know that they understand what the pain is associated with: their collarbone and their coach.
“Those shots hurt, plain and simple. How do you want to handle situations like this going forward? This isn’t the last time you’ll get hit there.”
The goalie responded quickly. “I want to keep playing.”
“That’s a good goal, but right now we’re on the bench while the other team is shooting at posts instead of shooting on you. What’s your plan to keep playing next time?”
“I just needed some time to shake it off. I don’t think coach understood that I was hurt.”
“I’ll talk to the head coach about giving you some space to reset after shots like those and you can tell coach you need more time before getting additional shots. Better to take a break after getting hurt than letting in three quick goals. Does that sound like a good message to send to coach?
“Yeah, I can live with that.”
If this young goalie can communicate their needs next time they get hurt, they have a better chance of maintaining their resilience and fostering a strong relationship with their head coach. Long-term burnout is more likely when players aren’t given support in these challenging situations.
Sports culture as a whole begins to change when coaches allow and encourage athletes to fully process emotions. Athletics can start to become a tool to help people understand, recognize, and communicate feelings when this mindset is embraced.
Today, sports commonly serve as a means of learning to deaden and mask emotions, but this is an underutilization of sports. At its best, hockey enables players to heighten their awareness mentally and physically to a chaotic, constantly changing world.
The ice crew make their final passes across the ice as Devon Levi remains poised, flat on his pads, and out of position, facing the empty net. You might wonder, ‘What is he thinking?’ or ‘Isn’t that uncomfortable in goalie pads?’
Only Levi really knows what’s going on under his freshly painted blue and gold helmet. One thing is clear: Levi has put in the work to understand his own mind and body. Time will tell how many others follow suit.