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FanFirst Friday: Mind Games Edition

In order for a professional athlete to succeed, there is one aspect of his game that needs to be stronger than nearly all else. His mind.

Philadelphia Flyers v New Jersey Devils
Vitek gave me an excuse to write about something that is almost always the top of my mind. The Mind.
Photo by Rich Graessle/Getty Images

I’ve always been fascinated by how the brain, or more specifically, the mentality of the mind can fuel athletes to greatness. And I’m not talking about the strategic part of the game. You know like in a shootout where you have a book on a goaltender and you want to counter it by doing something unexpected or you go with exactly what the book is on him and the goalie expected it. Or in baseball the cat and mouse game with a hitter and batter where the batter expects heat and you throw a changeup. Or slider or curve.

No, I’m more specifically referring to the sometimes fragile psyche of someone endeavoring to excel at a sport. The reason this is on my brain is twofold. For one, Vitek Vanecek was open about his struggles in the playoffs right after they ended against Carolina. And you could see brutal disappointment at the end of the season in the exit interview.

He tends to look down during interviews any way, but this was stare at his shoes time when answering the questions. He was a man who was beating up on himself, which was hard to watch given all the fun, quirky and legendary moments he gave Devils fans throughout the year. I worried about him a lot this offseason. So much so that I wasn’t convinced he could get his head right in order to provide great goaltending consistently again. It’s why I endlessly discussed the Devils goaltending situation throughout the summer months. I just think that once people tend to descend a negative mental spiral of self flagellation, it’s a really tough hole to climb out of. And it takes someone self-aware that the issue is in the head and not in the body. During the playoffs last season, Henrik Lundqvist, the Rangers goaltending great, confirmed a belief I’ve long held about the goaltending position. I’m not sure if he was talking about Bobrovsky or maybe it was Adin Hill, but he said that goaltending is 90 percent mental.

That’s why I was freaking out all summer and asking for the Devils to get Connor Hellebuyck or someone else. I feared that Vitek had passed the point of no return. He’d already experienced a smaller mental smackdown the season prior with the Washington Capitals against the Florida Panthers in the playoffs. Only this time, he was the starter going into the playoffs only to be replaced and outplayed by a rookie goalie. And even when he got another shot, he fumbled his net badly. I’m a big believer in someone being able to develop the mental tools to be able to overcome the seemingly insurmountable obstacles their brain puts up for them. But they have to realize it’s there and be willing to attack the issue.

Well, imagine my relief when I saw this interview with the Vitek the first few days of camp. He basically says that he worked on his head this summer. And Amanda Stein kind of misses it the first time he says it. But then later on he reiterates it once again. He worked with a psychologist in Czechia who worked with the great Jaromir Jagr. Now I could get all contemplative about the nature of the goaltending position in hockey and how it’s different than almost any other position in sports. The goalie is truly on an island in an ocean of chaos. Not only is he on that island, but he might as well have a bunch of boats off shore with blazing spotlights staring at him, waiting to scrutinize his every move. Read this piece from Ben Scrivens and tell me these guys don’t have layers upon layers of pressure on them. They try and execute everything short of voodoo to make sure that they have luck when they suit up and take the crease.

Heck, I experienced it first hand. My son just really started playing hockey in June last year and he was intrigued by the goalie position. And was making noise about wanting to play that. So instead of running out and buying like $3000 plus worth of equipment (which is what he wanted), I found a goalie coach who had some extra pads. Thankfully my son is man-sized so he tried using adult goalie pads during a clinic. Well he made some saves but also had a lot of goals go in on him. He walked off the ice and said, “Thanks for making me try that, Papi. I don’t even want to do that again. There’s way too much pressure and blame that goes along with that position.”

I was proud of my boy for recognizing what it was to stand on that spotlighted island. And here’s the thing. Even the greatest of goalies often get too much blame when things go bad and not enough credit when things go well. For the older Devils fans in the audience, there were Devils fans who torched Martin Brodeur whenever he struggled. A guy who provided so much joy and more wins than any goalie in league history. And fans threw ire at him.

Regardless, hearing that Vitek not only found the issue but attacked it this offseason makes me feel better. Now it doesn’t mean that he won’t be in his own head again at some point. Possibly the playoffs if and when the Devils happen to get there.

And it’s not only him, but Jesper Bratt openly admitted to working with a therapist this summer to work on his mentality. If Vitek is on the island, all by himself, in that ocean of chaos, Bratt has to be able to swim in that ocean of chaos. And one has to develop not only the skills to navigate it but to feel confident enough to excel past all the elements in that ocean. Developing the mentality of a shark doesn’t always come naturally to everyone. And Bratt and Vitek realizing that so many of the guys who make the NHL often have the skills. It’s developing the mental side of the game...whether that’s confidence, belief in oneself or knowing that you’re the one who wants that puck more than anyone else, all of these things can be further developed.

And sometimes it’s just getting out of one’s own head and reading and reacting and doing what comes naturally. The head can also sometimes be the impediment to greatness if one worries that they’ll make a mistake. So they hesitate on a pass that one extra split second and a pass gets picked off. Or go down too early since they got beat five hole last time. As my favorite band Tool once said, “Over-thinking, over-analyzing separates the body from the mind.” The instincts are often what gets a player to the highest level. But then sometimes people stop following those instincts.

For me, Vitek seemed like a guy who just assumed the worst would happen when he started the playoffs and it just snowballed from there once the first goal went in. His normal good positioning throughout the year led to him drifting past shots and leaving bigger parts of the net open. It was like he suddenly felt like he was playing a different game. And that’s also what made Martin Brodeur so special. The guy was unbelievably mentally strong. You have to be to play as much hockey as that guy did.

Finally, let me just say that watching your own child attempt to pursue athletics, even at a amateur youth level, gives you a new respect for what athletes go through on a day-to-day basis. Kids often beat up on themselves and it’s your job as a parent to get them past the self-doubt as much as possible. A bad game or two and the kid often feels like the sky is falling and they carry it with them. The truth is I don’t think this changes as people get older. They need to develop strength and techniques to combat the doubt demons.

And as we’ve witnessed, it even happens at the highest level. I just hope that Vitek got whatever he needs because truthfully, this is awesome and he’s someone that anyone can root for:

Yes, Vitek, we’ve just become best friends.