Florida Panthers: Aaron Ekblad teaches us a lot about sports psychology

Jan 18, 2017; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Florida Panthers defensemen Aaron Ekblad (5) skates during warmup against the Edmonton Oilers at Rogers Place. Mandatory Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 18, 2017; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Florida Panthers defensemen Aaron Ekblad (5) skates during warmup against the Edmonton Oilers at Rogers Place. Mandatory Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports /

Defenseman Aaron Ekblad is only 21 years old, yet he has already endured four serious head injuries. Ekblad’s experiences can teach us a lot about sports psychology.

We worship them like gods when they make great plays. We criticize them like mosquitoes when they mess up. These are athletes. One very important thing fans normally forget when watching athletes is that they are human like us.

Athletes are what we call the strongest of the humans. They are the ones who represent us in competition. Ever since man first walked on this planet, we have had competitiveness in our brains. The feeling was called “Survival of the Fittest”. Today we live in a modern world, where we don’t need to hunt for dinner or break our nails to make basic tools. Mankind decided to send the most skilled in certain games and use sports as a way to fuel mankind’s need for competitiveness.

This brings us back to Aaron Ekblad. Ekblad is 21 years old barely out of his teenage years. The human male doesn’t stop fully maturing until they turn 25 years old. Yet Aaron has already suffered three concussions and a lot of neck issues.

On January 10th, 2016 the Florida Panthers were on a 11 game winning streak while flying into Edmonton to play the Oilers. The Oilers tried to beat the Panthers with a physical game. During the second period, now former Panther defenseman Erik Gudbranson put a big hit on Oilers star Taylor Hall. Hall was fine but his teammate Matt Hendricks was furious. In the third, Ekblad went behind his net to retrieve the puck and Hendricks pursued him. Aaron cleared the puck while facing the boards when Hendricks hit him from behind. In result, he was out of the lineup for the next 4 games.

After he returned, it was clear he wasn’t the same player he was before Hendricks took him out. While Ekblad’s stats didn’t change, you could tell he was playing on edge. He made a lot of risky plays.

During the World Cup of Hockey, Aaron suffered whiplash on a big hit by Leo Komarov. He struggled throughout the first half of the year. He made a lot of mistakes, wasn’t playing with the same speed and in a nutshell wasn’t as aggressive as he once was. Many could tell he was struggling both physically and mentally.

His struggle was an internal struggle. He was afraid of getting hurt again. His mentor Willie Mitchell had retired after 7 concussions and Ekblad, who was half his age had endured 3 serious upper body injuries.

During the end of season injuries, Ekblad revealed he was afraid when he was on the ice.

"“The first part of the season I wasn’t skating back quickly to get the puck, [I was] worried about getting hit, making too quick of a play, not holding onto the puck and analyzing my outs and making the good, right option, the simple pass,”"

Ekblad continued by saying

"“That’s what I mean by not being 100 percent mentally [ready] and that’s what ultimately led to me not playing great halfway through.”"

After struggling with these issues, he reached out to the sports psychologist Derek Anderson. Ekblad found Anderson to be very helpful and he started to feel like his old self again. During the second half of the year, Ekblad re-emerged as the team’s #1 defenseman.

Now, before you go around calling players who need help with sports psychology a word I can’t say here, sports psychology has been around for a long time.

According to Wikipedia:

"Sport psychology is an interdisciplinary science that draws on knowledge from many related fields including biomechanics, physiology, kinesiology and psychology. It involves the study of how psychological factors affect performance and how participation in sport and exercise affect psychological and physical factors. In addition to instruction and training of psychological skills for performance improvement, applied sport psychology may include work with athletes, coaches, and parents regarding injury, rehabilitation, communication, team building, and career transitions."

There are many fields of sports psychology.

One major studied field is that of Personality. The main type of personality sports psychology is the relationship between an athlete’s personality and their performance. Most athletes succeed in this field when they have a lot of Mental Toughness.

Mental toughness helps athletes perform at a high level consistently. In order to have mental toughness, an athlete must have strong but not over the top self-confidence in their playing ability; an internal motivation (i.e. enjoyment) to succeed; the ability to concentrate and keep calm under pressure.

Now in the sentence above when I mentioned internal motivation, you may have noticed I didn’t mention fame or fortune which you might’ve thought I would’ve mentioned. Fame and fortune are intrinsically motivated while those who play for self enjoyment are intrinsically motivated.

Now Ekblad’s problem was that of anxiety and fear. The anxiety and fear part are more of normal psychology. Aaron was worried about getting hurt. Before you go off and say something like “well if we had Gudbranson, Ekblad wouldn’t have had these problems”. That’s just not true.

It doesn’t matter whomever is in the lineup, there is still the same amount of risk. Some guys throw caution to the wind. Others step on eggshells. Even if we had Guddy punish a player for hurting Ekblad, he’d still would have gotten hurt. Remember the old adage “Two wrongs don’t make a right”? That’s true in sports.

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In a nutshell, his struggles teach us a lot about psychology. Athletes are humans too and even they need help. While many think of psychology as a “fake science”, it is very helpful to hundreds of millions of people every year. A sports psychologist is very important. These guys are playing a very fast paced game and going to new places a lot.

When a player is struggling, don’t be quick to say “he sucks”. He might have had a bad day. For instance, there is always the possibility he’s under the weather or fighting an injury. Players have private lives of their own. So we do need to understand that athletes are just human. If it looks like a player simply sucks, remember he is the top of 0.000001% of kids with this dream of making it to the NHL.

With all of this in mind, we must hope that Aaron is careful out there, while also playing to his maximum potential. There are several lines including: way too safe, perfect, and way too risky. Ekblad was at way too safe last year. He needs to balance out to the perfect line and this is where psychologists come to help.

There have been many controversies with sports psychology of late and its been threatened to disappear. Players like Aaron only prove that athletes still need sports psychologists to this day.