Head games

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McGill Reporter
February 7, 2002 - Volume 34 Number 10
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Head games

As a junior-level hockey player, kinesiology and physical education professor Gordon Bloom was a natural leader in the dressing room, valued by coaches and teammates alike. But like many gifted young hockey players, Bloom eventually had to come to grips with a harsh truth. He wasn't quite gifted enough to make it as a pro.

Photo The Canadiens' Doug Gilmour in action (left)
PHOTO: Toronto Star

So he decided to do the next best thing -- go to university and study sports. "What I wasn't certain about was what to focus on. Sports law? Teaching physical education?"

Bloom ended up studying sports psychology. It was an easy fit. Even as a player, Bloom was almost as interested in what was going on in his teammates' heads as he was in what they were accomplishing on the ice.

One of Bloom's areas of expertise is what makes coaches good at their jobs. He has interviewed top Olympic and college coaches and observed them in action.

"What separates the best coaches from the rest is that they have a clear vision of where they want to take their team and how they're going to do it. They are extremely well organized." In contrast, less successful coaches "often fly by the seat of their pants."

A mistake that aspiring coaches often make is to model themselves too closely after a successful coach they admire. You can take away valuable lessons from the way other people do the job, Bloom says, but it's a mistake to try to reinvent yourself.

"In a job like that, you have to have a personality or a style that is you. Don't try to emulate somebody else if that isn't your personality. The worse thing you can do is say, 'I want to be like so-and-so.'"

Another mistake some coaches make is "not respecting their athletes." Which isn't to say you have to be a sweetheart. Scotty Bowman, arguably the greatest coach in NHL history, isn't known for his cuddly demeanour. "Respect is a different thing from being nice," says Bloom.

He also started collaborating with McGill neurologist Karen Johnston, one of the world's top experts on sports-related concussions and the woman who gave Eric Lindros the green light to resume his career.

"I was giving a talk about the psychology of sports injuries, the effects they have on players and she came up to me after," recounts Bloom. "She told me to multiply what I said by 10 times when it came to athletes with concussions." Her comment caught his attention.

In general, injured athletes can feel distanced from their teammates and frustrated about their inability to contribute. But concussed athletes feel even more alienated.

"Concussions are hidden injuries. No one sees bandages or braces or crutches. People assume you're okay. Also, the recovery time is uncertain. Sometimes you don't know if you'll ever be able to come back."

Bloom is looking at the impact support groups have on concussed athletes and their recovery. As is often the case with serious injuries or illnesses, it helps to talk to people who know what you're going through.

"People who haven't had concussions don't always understand how serious it can be. These athletes often can't sleep. They can't focus. They can't study if they're still in school. It helps when they realize that these are normal symptoms and it's happening to other people too."

Bloom recently began working as a sports psychologist with the Montreal Canadiens. In that role, he takes on a variety of chores.

During the summer, when the organization is determining which young amateur players it will select in the NHL's annual entry draft, Bloom interviews many of the players the Canadiens have in mind and assesses their personalities. He also does mental training exercises with the team's young prospects in the summer.

When the seasoned pros turn up in the fall for training camp, Bloom organizes team-building exercises. He visits the Canadiens' farm team in Quebec City about five times a year to work on their mental approach to the game. And his door is open throughout the season to Canadiens players who want to talk about things they are going through.

The first time Bloom met the Canadiens' players was at training camp only a few days after the team learned that its popular and talented captain, Saku Koivu, had been diagnosed with cancer.

The news was devastating, but the Canadiens have still managed to put together a surprisingly good season. They are currently in contention for a playoff spot after a string of disappointing seasons. The club is playing well even though the team's two best scorers, Koivu and Donald Audette, have been long absent from the lineup due to illness and injury.

"In a strange way, the events of September 11 helped," Bloom says. "It took the focus off Koivu. Suddenly, the players on the other teams were also feeling emotionally drained."

But Bloom says there are other factors at work. Players are feeling better about the organization than they have in the past.

Part of that has to do with the team's new general manager André Savard, a respected appraiser of hockey talent who helped build the successful Ottawa Senators. He is seen as a steadier hand at the wheel than his predecessor, the inexperienced Réjean Houle.

It helps that Savard brought in several veteran players with leadership skills, including Doug Gilmour. "Gilmour is just an amazing leader. He has been a very positive influence on the team," says Bloom.

The team's new owner, George Gillet, has also proven himself to be popular with the players. When defenceman Patrick Traverse hurt himself in a collision with the glass along the boards of the Molson Centre, players complained that the glass was too hard, contributing to injuries. Gillet took the concerns seriously, looking into it and pledging to spend big bucks to rectify the problem.

"From what I've been hearing, there is a much more positive atmosphere around the team right now."

Bloom recounts how he was recently interviewed by CTV News about the issue of choking -- many of our Olympic athletes seem to buckle under pressure in the crunch.

Bloom says the powers-that-be who run the national Olympic program just don't take sports psychology seriously enough.

"I was talking with the owner of the Quebec Ramparts (a junior hockey league team that Bloom also advises) about this. He was saying, 'We tell athletes to be mentally tough, to control their emotions, but we don't tell them how to do it.'"

Bloom agrees completely. "In the '40s through the '60s, when the Soviet and East German teams were dominant at the Olympics, mental training was an accepted part of the training programs for their athletes. Today, in the U.S. and Australia, mental training gets a lot of attention." Pointing to Australia, a country with a population that is comparable to Canada's, Bloom notes, "They killed us in the Sydney Summer Olympics.

"You can't just tell someone to be mentally tough. You can't just tell them to deal with the pressure. You have to teach them how to do it. It's a skill and it takes practice."

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