Coaching and training have long focused on helping players prepare themselves physically.
The United States Hockey League, through support from USA Hockey and the National Hockey League, expanded that reach greatly during the 2019-20 season.
Player safety initiatives were extended to include more mental health and wellness awareness, including the implementation of headversity, a resilience training app.
“For as hard as athletes and hockey players work on their bodies, this is a way to make sure you’re working on your mind as well,” said Kevin Westgarth, NHL Vice President of Hockey Development & Strategic Collaboration.
Westgarth was a proponent of adding headversity to the USHL’s offerings this season.
“Obviously, if your head is in the right spot, you’re much more able to perform at the top of your game,” said Westgarth, who holds a psychology degree from Princeton University and has the experience of having played 169 NHL games over five seasons with three teams. “That’s certainly worked not only for these junior hockey players, but for anybody out there.”
Changing attitudes have made it more acceptable for modern players to address mental health needs. John Vanbiesbrouck has seen the change personally throughout his hockey career.
“Mental health wasn’t something we really talked about as players growing up,” said Vanbiesbrouck, USA Hockey assistant executive director of hockey operations. “When the USHL and NHL began to have discussions of how to better develop athletes, we all saw this an opportunity to have a positive impact on the hockey community. This is hopefully something many young players become aware of, and even if they don’t play in the USHL, they understand that it’s important for everyone to focus on their mental health and to understand ways to sustain healthy habits.”
Westgarth praises the program’s ability to help build resiliency and help prevent problems from developing. He said the ways that strong mental health can help boost performance have helped promote the idea to any players who might have trouble getting over stigmas related to discussing issues.
“This is our step in, building resilience to be able to manage any of the day-to-day stresses, be it small or large,” Westgarth said.
Dr. Ryan Todd, CEO of headversity, said the program helps challenge the true meaning of mental toughness.
“We know that athletes who are having difficulties with depression or anxiety do not perform well,” Dr. Todd said. “So, if you want to perform well, you have to take care of your mental health, first and foremost. Well, how do you do it? The first step is to talk about it.”
The USHL introduced the app to its players when they were all gathered in the Pittsburgh area for the season-opening Fall Classic.
Team management had already, in many cases, acknowledged the need.
“A lot of managers and coaches were coming to the league saying, ‘There are more mental-health conversations happening than ever before and, FYI, we don’t have the training in place to facilitate those conversations,’” Dr. Todd said. “This has been what has happened, let’s call it in the last five years, where mental health stigmas are being removed and young players are feeling more and more comfortable talking openly about their mental health, which is awesome.”
Westgarth says to “give credit to the USHL leadership and to club management because we kind of heard from them that was a desire to provide more in this area.”
Headversity, which also has experience working with the Canadian Olympic Committee and the Pacific Sports Institute, was demonstrated for the players at the Fall Classic as Tom Garrity’s second season as commissioner was getting started.
“Being able to get in front of all the players at the Fall Classic to open the season, getting them involved with a quick walk-through, being able to get them on the app was a huge benefit,” Westgarth said. “That was one important piece of the puzzle, getting them to know about it and not through e-mails that oftentimes get ignored.”
Once the players could see the ease of the app’s use, the program got a boost, according to Westgarth.
Photo from Hickling Images
“I think headversity is perfect because it is digital,” Westgarth said of the app, which is also offered to coaches and referees. “Everybody can get it on their phone through an app. It’s also short, kind of bite-sized pieces of information on ways that you can deal with stress and build resilience.
“So, not only are you attacking it from a mental-health crisis prevention, you’re also offering it from performance enhancement, which I’m in full belief of.”
Using the app allows players to receive tips and monitor issues privately and helps them determine if they need to seek assistance.
“The concern over confidentiality and perception and stigma, these are real concerns and certainly ones we have to deal with, but hopefully ones we will overcome,” Westgarth said. “And, that was the reason behind applying the program that we did.”
The results have pleased Westgarth and Todd.
While privacy of individual data is protected, team and league-wide information is able to be tracked.
“It was cool to see the reaction,” Westgarth said. “At the end of the day, there’s certainly a few minor hiccups, but I’ve been blown away by the usage by the players. It’s been absolutely fantastic, over three-quarters of the players who originally signed on use it an average of six, six-and-a-half minutes a day, and that’s kind of exactly what the program is designed to do, be short, bite-sized amounts.
“It was a very reassuring and kind of exciting first year and we look forward to the opportunity to continue to deliver the performance and health benefits through resilience.”
Westgarth sees hope in being able to address the mental-health issues that can sidetrack a career from a preventative standpoint instead of in crisis-management situations.
“Our goal is to prevent people from hitting the cliché rock bottom,” he said. “This, I think, offers the opportunity to talk about that regardless of whether you go down a dark path. Every single person has ups and downs through his day and really what this is designed to do is help you so that you don’t get to that crisis.
“It does provide some benefits on the ice and certainly off the ice. One of its goals is just having happy, well-adjusted people who are able to perform throughout the rest of their lives. It’s really human development as well.”
And, that concept fits well in programs that pride themselves on player development.
Resources for young players and parents
Young players and their parents don’t necessarily have access to the same resources as junior and pro hockey players, but face many of the same issues, especially with many people facing isolation and social activity restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic.
Dr. Todd also has some tips for how hockey players and their families can deal with those trying circumstances.
“Athletes are not going to want to hear this, but more discipline is needed, now more than ever,” Dr. Todd said. “Why? Because our routines that kept us mentally well have been totally thrown into a loop.
“So, what kept us mentally well previously? Exercise, typically in gyms or on the ice. Eating schedules had been ingrained in us because we were on a schedule. And, socializing, going to the dressing room, having fun with your buddies. Seeing people physically, that physical contact does not exist anymore.”
Through a disciplined approach, Dr. Todd said athletes can work to maintain or replace those situations.
Dr. Todd suggests: keeping a good eating schedule, preferably the one you already had; maintaining good sleep habits; once awake, getting up and dressed like you would to leave the house; start each morning by doing something meaningful to you; exercise, even if it has to be in smaller workouts and maintain social contact, even if it means reconnecting with those with whom contact has been lost.
While athletes are doing their best to manage such issues, parents should regularly monitor how they are handling the changes to their life.
“It’s very pertinent now given that we are in these unprecedented times,” Dr. Todd said. “It’s easier now more than ever for young athletes to isolate. They’re also totally removed from the thing they love the most, which is their sport. It’s more important now to reach out to our kids and young athletes and family members and be really disciplined in checking in.”
Dr. Todd recommends formalizing that process.
“What I’m encouraging parents to do is kind of set a check-in schedule, like say, ‘We’re going to have a conversation every day at 5 o’clock about how your day went, about how you’re doing and how you’re coping with all this change,’” he said. “We’re going to have this conversation. If you do that where you’re scheduling things, everyone is on the same page, they know it’s happening, they’re not surprised and it’s also a really effective way to show you’re there for them and care for them.”
At the same time, parents should be assessing their own emotional state. Generational differences also make it possible that parents may be less comfortable discussing mental health than their children, so Dr. Todd suggests parents work “to become personally more comfortable having these conversations.”
Along with that, Dr. Todd also has resource suggestions for players and parents. Those seeking information beyond what headversity already offers can go to HelpGuide.org for mental health support.
“It has really good evidence-based content about how to have conversations about what mental health is,” Dr. Todd said. “It was done in collaboration with Harvard Health. HealthGuide.org is a really good resource for parents and athletes when talking about mental health.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.