All Habs Hockey Magazine is proud to provide a platform for guest writers to express their views on current issues. Today, we present a fan piece on considering coaching decisions from a sports psychology perspective. If you would like to share your fan experiences or have an opinion to share, contact us. Your comments are welcome below on this piece.

by Carly Prawdzik, Guest Contributor, All Habs Hockey Magazine

(Photo by Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports)

It can be easy to get caught up in a discussion of standings, player statistics and possible trades when thinking about factors that can contribute to the success of a sports team. The truth is, those items can only advance a team so far. We must take a look beyond the numbers and negotiations if we want to see the true potential of the Montreal Canadiens club this year.

Sport psychology is the discipline that examines how psychological factors affect the performance of athletes. It is important to understanding athlete orientation in regards to sport. There are two orientations, task and ego.

As a coach, it is essential to create an appropriate motivational state for all athletes if you want to have a successful team. Coaches create this motivation through what is called motivational climate. There are two coaching climates which are similar to the athlete attributions, task-involved and ego-involved. Team cohesion and motivation are therefore a direct influence of the relationship that exists between both players and coaches.

For a time, the topic of Carey Price and his perceived “slump” have become the talk of what seems to be every hockey outlet. What others perceive as a slump, I would argue that it is everything but a Carey Price problem. I believe that it is a problem with a lack of appropriate coaching. I will have to date back to the blockbuster trade involving P.K. Subban and Shea Weber to give a full explanation to the real problem.

Since the trade of Subban this summer, the idea that there may be a problem in the locker room has been confirmed. However, I would argue that the problem was not necessarily because of Subban, but rather a situation that became a problem because of ineffective coaching.

Many people began speculating that Price would be upset about this trade as they had perceived friendship and a history of playing together. I personally did not think that the trade of Subban would upset a professional like Price, especially when the return was long-time friend and national team mate, Shea Weber.

Elliotte Friedman wrote an article called “The 23 Minutes that Shook the Hockey World” that highlighted an interesting comment made by Price about the trade. In my opinion, the quote alluded to a problem in the locker room that was not actually Subban.

“P.K. is an offensive defenceman and a risk-taker. That’s made him successful, that’s the way he plays the game. He doesn’t want to change that and I respect that. I respect the way that he plays the game…his type of enthusiasm and his ability to raise fans out of their seats. That’s a special gift and something that not very many players are able to do. But the way we’re coached on our team, the way our team is structured, that’s not what were looking for. We’re looking for a steady type of defenceman that makes quick plays and is able to move the puck right away. Shea fits that bill perfectly.” – Carey Price

Price emphasized the structure and the coaching of the team a lot in his discussion about the trade. In my opinion, it almost seemed that Price was acknowledging that it is the coach’s way or else. It’s not motivational as an athlete to think that your opinions and your style of play don’t fit the system. I don’t believe that Price is unhappy with the team or the system, but it does shed light on to the coach/player dynamics that exist in Montreal.

However, fast forward through the season so far, and I think there are some clear signs of discontent from Price. Let’s look at the 10-0 loss to Columbus where Al Montoya was left in the net and hung out to dry, coaching staff refusing to put Price in as it was his “rest day.”

Taking a step away from the moment, one can understand that on some level, it does make sense to leave Montoya in the net. It was early in the season and Price hadn’t skated in the morning, we obviously don’t want to see another injury like last year.

Then, one can look at the psychology of the effect on two important athletes. First, one goalie, has been sent the message that he is the back-up and his statistics don’t matter. Second, the team told their primary goaltender that he could not bail out his teammate that it was too risky to send him in.

With those insinuations, coaches made alienating attributions to two very key athletes and we witnessed some of the psychological ramifications of that as the season continued. After the loss to Columbus, we watched Montoya lose his next four games starts. During that time period, Price was pulled from a game versus San Jose and we watched him skate off the ice in obvious disgust at  the coaching call.

More recently, we watched Price fall to the Minnesota Wild 7-1 in a game he chose not to leave. This seems to be a clear statement that he did not agree with the decision to leave Montoya in a terrible game, only to pull him a few games later. Now, you can argue that there are very obvious reasons for these things happening, but my concern is the psychological impact.

Even as elite athletes, coaching decisions can have a huge impact on how an athlete is performing from night to night. Not pulling Montoya from that first collapse in Columbus and putting the emphasis on “Carey Price being our star” demonstrates what is called an ego-involved coaching climate.

An ego-involved coaching climate emphasizes internal competition within the team and involves social comparison with public evaluations. Studies show that elite teams can function within an ego-involved coaching climate, but it is important to remember that if all of the teams in the NHL are elite, what advantage do they have if they are playing and practicing within an environment that is not strongly correlated with success?

If the Canadiens are looking to be a Stanley Cup contender, I would argue that they do have a team that is capable of winning, but they would benefit from a more appropriate coaching style. From a sport psychology standpoint, a task-involved coaching climate leads to the most success.

Many times, I have heard Michel Therrien utter the phrase “we had bad puck luck tonight,” a comment that even the players have begun to use in defence after a loss. Once again, this is not reflective of a successful coaching environment.

If you want athletes to compete, you need to emphasize the importance of mastering skills as well as stress the importance of competing to the maximum level of effort exertion. Providing the team with an excuse such as “puck luck” does not foster a task-involved coaching climate, and therefore lowers the motivational state of our athletes.

An athletes’ job is to perform at his top level at all times, in all situations. Then why do we not expect the same from our head coach? After all, he is paid to be on the bench to provide the players with winning strategies, and whether we like it or not, that also involves taking a look at the mental side of the game in regards to getting the compete out of all athletes.

If you don’t believe that Therrien is a coach who does not take consideration to the mental side of the game with what I have already outlined with the goalies, then consider other contexts that have an implication to athletes psychologically.

Early in the season when the Canadiens’ defense was being changed on a nightly basis, Greg Pateryn admitted that it was difficult to play one’s own game consistently for fear of making a mistake that would take himself out of the lineup. Again, that speaks to the ego-involved coaching climate, as Therrien is using ice-time to punish players for what are sometimes perceived as small mistakes amongst the players.

Then, you must consider Alex Galchenyuk upon his initial return from the knee injury. Following his return, Therrien called out his number one center for not being on top of his game. This was quickly followed up with a demotion from the first line to the third line.

Now, you can argue that Phillip Danualt had performed well during his time as the number one center while Galchenyuk was out. He also fostered some good chemistry with Max Pacioretty and Alex Radulov, but was that enough to send Galchenyuk down to the third line? I would say no.

If you wanted to argue that Danault deserves to stay on the first line, I would say sure, let him stay there and continue to compete with Galchenyuk for that spot. However, I would have to say that if you choose to do that, Galchenyuk should have been placed on the second line.

Why not move Tomas Plekanec to the third line? In my estimation, his offense isn’t consistent with a second-line center. Plekanec is known to be a defensive player, so put him on the line that typically plays the defensive role. I would argue that doing this would have been more beneficial to all of the athletes involved because there was no real cause for punishment over Galchenyuk’s play.

Therrien has repeatedly said that the team did not bring Galchenyuk back more quickly than they should have. Plus, it is always a benefit to players if they are given roles that suit their style of play rather than forcing them to play a role they aren’t suited for, and then punishing them when they don’t meet the expectations.

Lastly, it is also important to consider whether or not Therrien is capable of coaching a well-balanced game. Over this season, we have seen the Habs struggle defensively. In his press conferences, Therrien states that the defensive game will be focused on in practice.

Following this, we have seen the team then go on to struggle offensively. Then, we see offensive being addressed as a primary concern and all of a sudden or defensive begins to collapse again.

I would argue that the players fear making mistakes on what the practice focus is because if they make those specific mistakes, they may be seeing the press box rather than the bench the following game. If players become hesitant to make mistakes, we will often see their particular style of game struggle.

Hopefully Therrien can recognize his shortcomings or it may be time that the Canadiens begin looking for someone else to fill that role. 

I will leave it to you, readers. Do you think Michel Therrien is an adequate coach? Do you think there are any other causes of concern from a sport psychology perspective? If you don’t believe Therrien is doing a good job, who would you consider to take his place? I would argue for Kirk Muller, who, as it has been said consistently this season, is the sounding board for the Canadiens players.

  • Don777

    The complete piece is about articulating exactly what Hab fans are saying and thinking. Good work!