Mental Toughness, by Ryan Walter, News (Huron Perth Lakers)


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Apr 09, 2007 | tgoetz | 1908 views
Mental Toughness, by Ryan Walter
"Success Begins By First Building
and Developing our Mental Toughness!"

What differentiates people who WIN in life from people who WHINE in life?

Developing Our Mental Toughness Muscle

One day after practice I asked Peter Twist, the well-respected former strength and conditioning coach of the NHL’s Vancouver Canucks, “Just how does a muscle grow bigger and stronger?” He explained that you must bring the muscle to a position of exhaustion and then, when you believe in your heart that you have nothing left to give, take it just a little farther. As a result, microfibers tear in the muscle, and with rest, grow back bigger and stronger. Year after year, we see the same people in the same condition because they exercise just enough to maintain their present shape. They do not take their training to the edge.

Developing mental toughness is similar. We must make a conscious decision to spend focused energy exhausting the mental muscles that we want to see grow, strengthen and improve.

Some claim that they lack the personality to be mentally tough. Unfortunately, most people have the mistaken idea that mental toughness must be present from birth. While it may be true that some of us grow larger muscles more easily than others, each of us can substantially improve our muscle mass through recognition, desire, and effort. Developing mental toughness has the same growth curve. We must recognize our need, want to improve, and focus our efforts towards the desired result.

Once we recognize the need to begin the battle for our minds, we can then welcome the positive, and consciously discard any destructive thoughts. We have taken the first step towards developing the mental toughness that we need to help us compete.
Developing correct habits of thought is probably the precursor to most success. Og Mandino said, “In truth, the only difference between those who have failed and those who have succeeded, lies in the difference of their habits. Good habits are the key to success. Bad habits are the unlocked door to failure.” Substantial CHANGE in our attitudes and actions will happen as we choose to develop good habits of thought. According to James Allen, “You are today, where your thoughts have brought you. You will be tomorrow, where your thoughts take you.”

Golf legend Bobby Jones put it this way: “Every game of golf is played on a six-and-a-half inch course… the distance between your ears.”

Dr. Seymore Epstein, Chair of the Psychology Department of the University of Massachusetts, confirmed these statements in his study of 50 super achievers. Over ten years, he found nine basic similarities in the way these “super achievers” chose to think.

1. Successful people are less sensitive to disapproval and rejection.

This doesn’t mean they don’t care, it just means they don’t carry the baggage of what others think around with them.
—Dr. Seymore Epstein

Successful people learn early not to worry very much about what others say about them. They embrace change, even though it is sometimes awkward for the rest of the world. Success often comes from setting a different course or doing what most people have never thought of. History is full of examples:

• The first steamboat took 32 hours to go from New York City to Albany, New York.
People laughed.
• A horse and buggy passed an early model car. People laughed.
• The first electric light bulb was so dim they had to use a gas lamp to supplement it.
People laughed.
• The first flight lasted 59 seconds.
People laughed.

Pavel Bure was one of the most exciting players in the NHL. It was my pleasure to play with him for his first two seasons in the league. We both played for the Vancouver Canucks at the time, and everyone knew instantly that Bure was going to be a star. Pavel told me the story of his first 60-goal season in Vancouver. That season, hockey fans in Vancouver and around the league “worshipped him.” However, ten days into the post-season playoffs, after playing six games in the first round, Pavel had yet to score a goal. Because of his 60-goal season, the expectations for Bure’s performance were very high. During games five and six, people actually booed him! The fans’ opinion of Bure went from adoration, to disgust, to adoration again, as Pavel went on to score the winning goal in overtime in game seven, moving the Canucks into the second round of the playoffs. Suddenly, everyone was back on the Bure bandwagon.

A professional athlete must learn not to embark on the emotional roller coaster ride that the fans tend to be on, by refusing to worry about disapproval or rejection. I learned this lesson the hard way in 1982. I was traded from Washington to Montreal, and the corresponding headlines in the Montreal Gazette boldly proclaimed, “Worst Trade in NHL History.” I clearly remember the pressure I felt to be superhuman in order to prove that headline wrong. I was being publicly scorned, but was determined to make everyone say, “See, Walter proved them wrong; his play is incredible.”

I internalized this disapproval until it made me ineffective. In one exhibition game during training camp, I remember being on a breakaway in the old Montreal Forum. I pretty much stick handled into the corner, and never did get a shot on goal. I wore that headline on my shoulders until we won the Cup in ’86. I eventually learned in Montreal—the Mecca of Hockey—to be far less sensitive to disapproval. We had a saying that I repeated often during my nine seasons with the Canadiens: “You’re never as bad as they say you are, and you’re never as good as they build you up to be.”

Hockey players in Montreal have learned to deal with demanding fans! As a hockey dynasty the Canadiens organization has won 24 Championships. When we were fortunate enough to work our way to the Stanley Cup finals in 1989 and then lost to the Calgary Flames in 6 games, the city of Montreal was in shock, and went into a period of mourning. Other cities would have thrown a parade just for arriving in the finals. Not Montreal! The expectations were high.
I learned a lot about fans, and people in general, in Montreal. Another of our favorite sayings was, “The fans, they love you win or tie.” Experience tends to desensitize us to disapproval and rejection, and this is a good thing. We need to worry less about what other people think or say, and concern ourselves more with developing the internal character and mental toughness that will, in the long run, enhance our performance.

2. Successful people think bottom line—first they want to know who won, then they will have time to view the highlights.
—Dr. Seymore Epstein

Bob Gainey was one of the best leaders that I played with. Gainey had a way to get to the issue, to think bottom line. I remember Bob during a particularly important game gathering the bottom-line sense that our team was in a funk. The bench was quiet, our play was lethargic and Gainey sensed that something dramatic had to happen to shock us out of this mode of complacency. The players on the bench couldn’t believe their eyes! During his next shift Gainey had gone right after the toughest player on the other team and challenged him to fight. Bob very seldom fought and only in defense of a teammate! Bo was sending a “wake-up” message to “wake-us-up!” Bob Gainey had an innate sense of the bottom line and what had to be done to improve it.

Over the years I came to understand the wisdom of the Montreal Canadiens play-off philosophy of keeping us in the Hotel, even when we were playing home games. After winning or losing a critical game every player scanned the game scores around the league and then as we gathered around a post game dinner there was time to watch highlights. In fact, the process created the bottom line.

3. Successful people focus on the task at hand—you cannot sidetrack super achievers—they are consumed with what they are thinking about.
—Dr. Seymore Epstein

Two important principles collide here. “People get what they expect,” and “People get what they focus on.” Jacques Lemaire was one of my favorite NHL coaches. I experienced a difficult scoring drought as a player under Lemaire, and after awhile Jacques spent some time helping me out. He placed our backup goalie in net, me at the blue-line, and took a bunch of pucks into the corner. Lemaire ask me to skate hard down the boards and then passed me the puck. As I approached the net for a shot, Lemaire shouted “stop.” “Ryan, what do you see?” asked Lemaire. I looked hard at the net from my position and said, “That’s the problem Jacques. I only see goalie.” Jacques took me through this motion a number of times always asking, “what do you see?” with my reply always the same. Then Lemaire suggested a slight change. He told me that earlier video of my play indicated that when I only saw “goalie” I would move in a lateral direction until I “found net.” Wow, so simple yet so profound. With that small adjustment to my game and my confidence, I regained my scoring touch and went on to have a banner offensive year. In the end we get what we constantly focus on. Had I continued to only focus on shooting at the goalie instead of finding ways to focus on net, my success would have been limited. Focusing on the task at hand and the correct tasks over the long haul creates our desired success.

4. Successful people are not superstitious.
—Dr. Seymore Epstein

If something happens, it is not necessarily an omen. It is a waste of mental energy to believe that superstition has a connection to your performance. I played with many hockey players who believed that if they tied their left skate before their right skate and had a successful game, they had to use the same routine the next game in order to be successful again. Developing a mental routine can be helpful, but attributing your performance to superstitious habits is totally detrimental. The main reason that relying on superstition is unproductive is that it takes our focus off making the changes needed to succeed and sometimes keeps our focus on certain actions that have little or no connection to creating the outcomes that we desire.

5. Successful people refuse to equate failure with self-worth—when they do make mistakes, they will easily rebound and put the mistakes behind them.
—Dr. Seymore Epstein

Pat Quinn was our coach during my two seasons with the Vancouver Canucks. Pat has a great way of mixing the wonderful world of sports with real life. He made an impact on my hockey career and on my life. On the wall of his office he had a plaque with these words: “A failed project is not a failed person.” Successful people have learned not to personalize failure.

6. Successful people don’t restrict their thinking to established rigid patterns—they don’t think traditionally, but are highly optional.
—Dr. Seymore Epstein

Jacques Lemaire was the coach of the Montreal Canadiens in the early ‘80s. These were learning years for me, and I loved every minute of the process. In Habs’ lingo, I was “learning how to WIN.” Jacques Lemaire was a thinking player’s coach. I loved playing the game of hockey; I loved being a professional athlete; but what I really loved was learning how to WIN. The Montreal Canadiens have, over the years, been able to pass down through their players and coaches a winning heritage. I was all ears.

As with so much of life, winning comes down to the little things. In the early ‘80s, our team was locked in a first round battle of the Stanley Cup Playoffs with the Boston Bruins. Boston had a terrific power play and we clearly understood that for the Canadiens to be successful against the Bruins, we would have to neutralize it.

Ray Bourque was the main cog in the Bruins’ power play wheel. During the series, we came to realize that Boston was very good at gaining possession of the puck in our end. We knew that Ray Bourque typically carried the puck to the red line and then took a full slap shot around the boards behind our net where four other Bruin players would then head. Out-numbering us along the boards, the Bruins would gain possession and often get a good scoring chance.

We decided to be highly optional, and not restrict our thinking to the way we had traditionally killed off penalties. We realized that if we forced Ray Bourque to skate out from behind his own net a certain way, then he would be forced to dump the puck into our zone on his backhand or with a weak wrist shot instead of his powerful slap shot. We also sent one of our defensemen back into our zone more quickly. When Ray was forced onto his backhand, we had less trouble with the Bruins’ power play.

Jacques Lemaire taught us to question how and why we did things on the ice. He taught us not to just play the way we had always been taught to play, but to play the way that created WINS!

7. Successful people see the big picture.
—Dr. Seymore Epstein

Some rookies in the NHL play for today, and do not prepare for a long career. Many young players arrive at the NHL level, and believe that they have fulfilled their dream: to PLAY in the NHL. The bigger picture is for the young player to ready himself mentally and physically to STAY in the NHL.

8. Successful people welcome challenges with optimism.
—Dr. Seymore Epstein

Willie Nelson bought his own golf course. Someone once asked him what par was on a particular hole. “Well, as a matter of fact, that hole over there is a par 47, and yesterday I birdied it.”
During every turn in my 15-season NHL career, I found challenges hiding where I could never have imagined. These challenges were probably most apparent to me when injury struck. In December, 1985, while playing against our arch rival the Quebec Nordiques at the Montreal Forum, I was accidentally struck in the eye with the blade of my opponent’s hockey stick while he was following through on a shot. When I could not even detect the light shining in my eye from the doctor’s flashlight, he knew that this injury could have long-term permanent consequences.

During those long days of hospital rest (ie: don’t move!) leading up to Christmas, I hit a turning point in my career and life. Maybe it was the cards that poured in from fans all over the country assuring me that they were praying for me daily; maybe it was the visits from my pregnant wife and our eighteen month old son Ben who couldn’t fail to lift anyone’s spirits; maybe it was my slow hockey player’s brain finally recognizing that spending inordinate amounts of energy being upset about the inappropriate timing of injuries was only going to slow the healing process. This experience taught me to accept that stuff happens in life that is out of my control. Having an optimistic attitude, however, is totally in my control, and I recognized that I needed to spend less energy worrying and focus (no pun intended) instead on a positive recovery. When the doctors removed my patch, I could see again and continued playing through the early ‘90s.

9. Successful people don’t waste their time with unproductive thinking.
—Dr. Seymore Epstein

Unproductive thoughts will cause us to lose sight of our goals.
My wife Jennifer and I developed a friendship with a young lady during our years in Montreal. Jennifer befriended her a little bit like a counselor would a drug addict, because that was exactly what she was. She was hooked on heroin. She would often say to us, “I want to be in love like you guys. I want to have the marriage and family that you both have.”

My response, at least in my mind was, “Okay, you can have all of this if you first make the choice to get off the drug that is taking away your chance for life.”
I can remember my wife and me responding to one of her cries for help. It was quite a sad situation really, but it had its humorous side. There we were, wandering around the seediest part of Montreal, trying to find her place so that we could help her evict another addict who refused to leave her apartment. We finally found her, and decided to call the police to assist us. I’ll never forget the look of utter surprise on the face of that policeman, when one of the Montreal Canadiens answered the door. At least I had been wise enough to bring my wife along, so it wouldn’t look too bad!

We tried our best to help. We encouraged her to attend a highly successful recovery home in the mountains of New Hampshire called His Mansion, where she could learn the skills to get off heroin and get on with her life. At first she accepted this offer and was excited about the new direction her life might take, but then she changed her mind. She succumbed to her unproductive and destructive thoughts. “This is going to be too hard. I can’t go off heroin, cold turkey. New Hampshire is too far away.” These destructive thoughts caused her to lose sight of her dream for a productive life.

We are thankful that she overcame her addiction later in life, but we were very discouraged with her choice at the time. Mental toughness is all about deciding what we are going to think about! We must seize control of our unproductive thinking, STOP, and CHANGE DIRECTION by first CHANGING our MINDS!

PLAY and STAY HUNGRY; see you next week!


Ryan Walter played 15 seasons in the NHL, has a Masters Degree in Leadership/Business. Ryan now works with teams, organizations and companies developing leaders and synergizing teams through his unique Key Notes, Leadership Development and Team Development Sessions. Find more information at, or book Ryan directly at [email protected] or 1 866 728-3603.

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