HIGH ACHIEVERS: Stay-Safe Edition
Keeping Local Sport Spirit High During the Pandemic
By Martin Cleary
OTTAWA’S OLYMPIC INSIDERS (Part 3 of 5): Behind every great team, there’s another equally large squad of accomplished professionals, who have allowed the athletes to excel, improve, strengthen, heal and work away from the arena.
The talented and determined players on the Canadian Olympic women’s hockey team know that. While sitting on the bench, they can turn and talk to their coaching staff: head coach Troy Ryan of Spryfield, N.S., and his assistants Alison Domenico of Barrhaven, Doug Derraugh of Arnprior, ON., and Kori Cheverie of New Glasgow, N.S.
In the dressing room and throughout the corridors of the arenas, they can connect with the director of hockey operations, the management consultant, goaltending consultant, video coach, athletic therapist, physiotherapist, massage therapist, team physician, strength and conditioning coach, equipment managers, hockey operations managers and the media relations manager.
And if you look up in the spectator area, you’ll find the team’s mental performance consultant. On game days, she’s an observer, taking notes from her high, seated perch or standing in an inconspicuous corner of the dressing room listening to what’s on the players’ minds between periods.
Ottawa’s Kim Thompson, who has been associated with Hockey Canada in that mental performance role since 2009 and is a professor in the University of Ottawa’s school of human kinetics, meets with the hockey players on an individual and team basis to develop and refine their mental training skills, which complement the hockey skills they’re forging on the ice.
“We talk about everything and anything,” Thompson said shortly after the Canadian women’s hockey team was announced for the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing. “We have our eye on the prize (gold medal). But there’s COVID and we do what we can to control that. We talk about confidence, motivation, fears and apprehensions, and try to make sense of that.”
For the past three years, Thompson, who is attending her second Winter Olympics, has travelled to training camps and games to work on bonding strategies to give the players and staff “a deep connection” to each other.
“It worked out in our favour, when the pandemic hit (two years ago),” Thompson said, adding the players are working through it together and supporting each other. “It really created a connection. At the 2021 worlds (which were postponed once and eventually staged last summer), we were closer than ever before.”
The pandemic, which postponed or cancelled national team games and disrupted training schedules for players across the country, presented a number of challenges for the team. But Thompson said the team has been able to work through them and will continue to do that in Beijing, where athletes are relegated to staying in their rooms or being at the arena.
During the national women’s team centralization period, the players lived in a bubble, limited to one player a room. But they found ways to connect, players wore masks and stayed six feet apart and Thompson had meetings using Zoom. In the summer and fall, she said the players took the positive approach of “what can we do today to be our best?”
“We were quick to adapt, shift gears and make the most of every situation,” Thompson added. “The athletes have a really good relationship with each other and check on each other frequently. We have open communication and transparency.”
While COVID has been a big part of their pre-Olympic Games’ conversations, the players have been upbeat and positive about other topics, including playing games and the start of the Winter Olympics, which began for Canada Thursday at noon in Beijing (late Wednesday night in Ottawa).
“There’s excitement,” said Thompson, who earned her BSc degree in human kinetics, master’s degree in mental training and doctor of philosophy degree at the University of Ottawa. “COVID has been a big part of the talk, but the players are excited to compete. They’re fully prepared … and excited to show it off and compete.”
Between games, Thompson checks with the leadership group and the players about any possible concerns inside and outside of the game.
“It’s not just a mental performance reset, but we also want to celebrate the good stuff,” continued Thompson, who enjoys seeing a player work on a specific area of her game, overcome that challenge and move ahead.
“At the (2021) world championships, we were down 2-0 early in the first game (against Finland). I looked to see their response. In the (post-game) debriefing, it didn’t faze them. They plugged on. That’s my girls, a really good group to work with.”
On game days, Thompson steps back to let the athletes be themselves.
“We’ve put in the work (before) to get a pulse of the team,” said Thompson, who played for the inaugural uOttawa Gee-Gees women’s hockey team in 1999 and was assistant captain until 2001. “The athletes know what to do. They go through their plans. I sit back, watch and take notes. There’s stuff to build on. I’m big on celebrating small things.”
By the end of the tournament, she could be big on celebrating big things as in a gold medal.
“We have unfinished business. We lost in a shootout (at the 2018 Olympics to the United States) and we’re going back for the gold medal,” Thompson asserted.
Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 49 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.
When the pandemic struck, Martin created the “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.
Martin can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com and on Twitter @martincleary.
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