It starts with the rapid pounding of my heart, triggering my breath to race and my palms to sweat with anticipation. With one foot in front of the other, I reach the locker room door. Reporters and journalists surround me, notebook and recorder in hand. This is it. I tell myself to breathe, clench my fists, and step through the door.
Writing an editorial piece on the very thing I’m afraid of is certainly an oxymoron. Luckily for me, I was able to talk to some Bruins and face my fears.
“I was very nervous before [my first NHL game] especially in the locker room, very excited as well. I definitely had the jitters then,” said Bruins defenseman Mark Stuart.
“I think it’s good to be a little bit scared, but then again once you get out there, you just think about your game,” said rookie left wing Milan Lucic.
Over 40 million Americans suffer from everyday panic, which results from stressful situations such as interviews and public speaking.
“Some people have a tendency to imagine negative outcomes. When they think about an [event], they begin to anticipate mistakes or failure. This imagined future causes anxiety,” said Dr. Karen Edwards, psychology professor at Endicott College in Beverly Massachusetts.
However unlike the common man, athletes are fortunate enough to be able to turn their panic into something positive. It is a common theme amongst most athletes to get overwhelmed on game day that is what we like to call the butterflies.
“[The jitters] keep you motivated, you know that you’re alive. Jitters are great,” said Billy Jaffe, New York Islanders color commentator. “I always found that if you didn’t have a little bit of something going on then you’re too comfortable, there’s nothing like being ready. Everybody is different, but you ask most [players], 95% of them say that they always get a little something going on before a game.”
Pre-game jitters can make or break an athlete. With the inability to channel the pressure into something positive they may collapse under the weight of expectations and fear of failure.
“There are always those players that are bouncing around a bit, re-taping their sticks. You can always tell which guys are nervous, they jabber,” said Bob Beers, voice of Bruins radio and former NHL defenseman. “Some guys get really nervous and worked up before a game. The butterflies are there. As the game goes on, those things change.”
In order to feel a sense of control over the infamous jitters, athletes perform routines before games to gain concentration, whether it’s tying their left skate before their right or blaring Black Sabbath’s metal hit single “Iron Man” through their earphones. Routines are created because they have many functions. One of which is to make an athlete feel comfortable and be able to perform under pressures.
“People feel safer in familiar environments therefore they have less anxiety in those environments. Routines and rituals create familiarity even in distant places and thus lower anxiety or “pre-game jitters”,” Dr. Edwards said.
One must not forget the player who throws himself in front of 90-mile pucks. Winning or losing a game breaks down into the number of goals that were scored against each goalie. With that pressure goalies experience the most unbelievable stress.
“Goaltenders, those are the guys who have the craziest routines. Goalies are the ones. In the old days there were goalies who would go throw up because they were so nervous. But then again, they weren’t wearing any masks out on the ice,” Jaffe said as he smiled.
Not all routines are performed in an isolated state. Completing routines together as a team allows an athlete to realize that he/she is not alone in feeling the pressures of a big game.
“I usually get to the rink about three hours early to start thinking about stuff. I do the same thing as far as getting my sticks ready. We play soccer to warm up it sort of takes the edge off a little bit to have some fun but warm up at the same time,” said Stuart.
“Group rituals increase feelings of belonging and community. We tend to feel less
anxiety when we experience belongingness,” said Edwards. “Rituals bring the individual into the “here and now”. Therefore, they can shift from the negative future perspective that results in anticipatory anxiety.”
These routines may stem from the hoop-la of superstition but from a more realistic point of view, these routines are mandatory for the athlete to obtain there up most focus.
“I try to stay away from that superstitious stuff. I don’t like to do the same things, I switch it up a bit,” said Lucic. “I guess you could say the only superstition that I have is I put my equipment on the exact same way every time.”
Not being an athlete myself, I have no way to release my dreaded butterflies aside from biting my lip and occasionally stuttering over a few two-syllable words. By putting the puck through the pipes or blocking a threatening shot from the blue line, a hockey player is able to release his butterflies and mentally focus on the rest of his game. Once they prove to themselves that they have the ability to play up to their potential, they reach a comfort level.
“When you get out there, your first few shifts it kind of goes away. You just got to concentrate on playing,” said Stuart. “There’s that excited feeling. I don’t know if it’s really jitters as much as nervous excitement a little bit. I just get excited to play.”
Not surprisingly, college players experience the same pre-game jitters. At Endicott College, the athletic department put together a club hockey team that plays from mid-September through February. The Endicott Gulls hockey team plays in a competitive Division Three league. Some players are unaffected by the pressure of the game, while others need a net to catch the “butterflies” they are feeling.
Josh Provost, senior Endicott goaltender, has been facing the pressure of playing for the Gulls for the past four years. “I try to stay relaxed in the locker room and when I’m getting stretched out before I go on the ice,” he said. “There’s a certain amount of time beforehand where I start to think about the game and picture myself playing,” said Provost. “I do still get nervous after 16 years, but it’s good cause that means [hockey] still means something to me.”
To get into the swing of things, senior Bryan Caccamo stickhandles with a white golf ball against the boards. Routines like this help the athlete feel control, which they can then transfer to their performance on the ice. The trick is to not let the pressure take over while in the midst of the game.
It seems to me that everyone feels a little anxiety, a few butterflies floating within. It’s how we get rid of them. That’s what allows us to succeed to our greatest potential. Some, like Lucic, put their equipment on the same way each time, while others (such as Stuart) like to relax and get their blood pumping creatively.
For those of us who don’t have the means to let the butterflies free, we have to expose ourselves to what truly makes us anxious in order to gain confidence. My experience gathering quotes for this story certainly helped me overcome some serious trepidations, and now I’m looking forward to facing and defeat my fears in the future.