Intangibles

There has been a lot of discussion here of 'intangibles' over the last few days.  For the record, I do not dispute the role intangibles play in world-class athletics.  Becoming a professional athlete requires a level of discipline and commitment to your craft that the vast majority of us lack.  By the time a player is playing a regular shift in the NHL, he has played against a huge number of players who were older, bigger, stronger and better than him.  He has played in pressure-packed playoff games and has often competed at the international level.  Of the thousands of players who enter junior hockey every year, he's one of the 20 or so best.

And yet, after that level of perseverance, people say things like:

“Absolutely a professional athlete can have issues with mental preparedness for a playoff situation among other aspects within his game…The Sharks have suffered from ghosts of playoffs past, and being outplayed by another eight-seeded team affected their psyches.”

Anybody who believes this...I want you to think about what you're saying.

You are telling me that a group of professional athletes who spend 1000 hours per year on the ice and probably another 1000 in the gym and get paid millions of dollars a year…are so fragile that having a low shooting percentage for a few games destroys them psychologically?

You are telling me that an organization with four cup-winning defensemen (Boyle, Blake, Huskins, Wallin), a guy who played in the finals (Heatley), four guys who won Olympic gold (Thornton, Marleau, Heatley, Boyle) and one who won Olympic silver (Pavelski), and that averaged 109 points over the last four years, is incapable of dealing with a low shooting percentage when the game is tied?  (Though not when they're down one goal.)

You are telling me that Todd McLellan, who came from an organization that won the cup, and Doug Wilson, who has assembled a team that could have won its division in each of the last five seasons, are incapable of taking a group of professional athletes and making them mentally ready for a playoff game? And that Wilson, faced with a team that was supposedly psychologically fragile in 07-08 and 08-09, did nothing in 2009-10 to improve the team in this regard?

In other words, you think that Wilson, McLellan, Thornton, Marleau, Heatley, Boyle, Nabokov, Pavelski and all of the not-quite-star Sharks are such amateurs that they have repeatedly failed to address the need to achieve peak performance in their games?  And that even though they have previously had the mental toughness to win Stanley Cups, Olympic Gold, World Junior Tournaments and who knows how many other important games, some of which they probably even came from behind to win, they lack it today?

I know people love myth-making and curses.  And I know that our experience as 13-year-old athletes gripped with fear leads us to believe that self-doubt can play a huge role in performance.  But the idea that not just one individual athlete, but that a specific group of 20 people in the 99.999th percentile of athletic talent consistently fail to achieve their peak performance due to psychological issues, and that their coaching staff can't come up with a solution for this over a period of years, is, frankly, ridiculous.

I think the disconnect in the intangibles argument is that many of the people who make it aren't clear on who they're arguing with.  It's pretty easy to tell me, who has never played professional hockey and spends his days designing audio amplifiers, that I'm an idiot and my approach to the game is wrong.  But when you go through the mental gymnastics required to convince yourself that the Sharks are a bunch of babies, you're indicting coaches and athletes who have succeeded at the top levels of the game under unimaginable amounts of pressure.  And I think that if you're going to do that, you'd better have a more compelling story than "the Sharks start sobbing when they can't score in tie games."

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