PATEL PREACHING MIND OVER MATTER TO COMETSDec 23, 2019
An athlete’s body is the tool that allows them to perform their job on a daily basis. While most people pay attention to the physical development of the athlete, one member of the Comets’ staff is focused primarily on their mental development.
Ashwin Patel was hired this summer as the team’s mental performance/skills coach, in an effort by the organization to invest in making sure its top prospects are evolving their mental skills to adjust to the increasing pressures and exposures that are sure to come their way.
Patel, who is a professor of sport management at Humber College in Toronto, was added to the staff this summer after meeting with Comets’ GM Ryan Johnson while Johnson was in Toronto working with some of the team’s prospects.
“Ryan and I communicated, and I spoke with Trent Cull to hear his thoughts on the mental side of hockey,” Patel said. “He very much enjoyed his experience with Ryan Hamilton who was working with Syracuse while Trent was there. After it was approved, I began in the first week of October.”
Residing in Ontario, Patel makes frequent visits to Utica and is often part of the team when on the road in cities like Toronto and Belleville. When he’s with the organization, his main focus is to be someone who can be talked with in complete confidence. But that starts with step one: making people feel comfortable with an “outsider.”
“Sometimes it’s challenging trying to get people to buy-in to someone they don’t know,” he said. “But I pride myself in creating an environment where hockey players feel comfortable and develop a level of trust in me. In order to build trust and rapport with someone, you have to show them you care about them as people and not just for what they can do.”
In the current state of the game, the importance of mental health among players and staff is extremely important. And the organization’s willingness to advocate for it shows everyone involved that they have whatever’s necessary to be the best they can be… both on and off the ice.
“So much of our game and our sport and our lifestyle is a mental grind as much as it is physical,” Johnson, the third-year GM of the Comets, said. “I’ve spent a lot of time on making sure that our players have every resource to be the best player and person they can be. Having a mental skills coach here to help them in all aspects in their life was utterly important to me coming out of last season.”
The culture of athletics is often one built upon toughness, ruggedness, and machismo, so sometimes getting a player to unveil his vulnerabilities can be difficult. For Patel, part of getting a player to open up is a bit of a balancing act.
“These are elite athletes. They are some of the best in the world at what they do,” he said. “So I have to be careful in terms of how I word anything, because I don’t want to come off saying that they need help.
“Historically, you’re not supposed to talk about vulnerabilities and areas where you might need help, so my role is to help normalize the process of self-reflection and awareness. Fortunately for me, a lot of the guys seem to want to improve and find ways of becoming better every day.”
For Comets players, one-on-one meetings with Patel are voluntary, with some guys requesting and requiring more time than others. On some occasions, it’s even done outside of the rink in an environment that might make the athlete more inclined to open up.
It took until the 1970s for strength and conditioning coaches became the norm in the world of hockey and the early 2000s for analytics to be a mainstay around teams. Patel’s thought is that mental skills is the next standard that organizations will be rolling out to help their athletes.
And as far as convincing a player—even one who might be at the top of his game both on and off the ice—to open up?
“I’ve borrowed a quote from one of my mentors, the late Dr. Ken Ravizza,” Patel said. “You don’t have to be sick to get better.”