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Week of 3 April 1998

Vol. I, No. 26

Feature Article

How the U.S. maintained the mental edge

The BU Svengali behind the Olympic women's hockey team

by Brian Fitzgerald

Women's Hockey

Angela Ruggiero of the U.S. women's hockey team takes Old Glory on a trip around the rink after the American gold medal victory against Canada at the XVIII Winter Olympics February 19. Their success in Nagano, Japan, was the result of two years of hard work -- along with mental preparation assistance from BU School of Education doctoral student Peter Haberl. Photo by Denis Paquin, AP

In the closing minute of the U.S. women's hockey team's gold medal-round game February 16, archrival Canada pulled its goaltender. The Canadians, down 2-1, quickly sent an extra attacker in her place. But little did the Canadians know that the Americans had additional help of their own: BU Ph.D. student Peter Haberl (SED'99), the squad's sports psychology consultant.

As the clock ticked down, Canada was unable to mount an attack. Then U.S. forward Sandra Whyte scored an empty net goal with eight seconds left, triggering a wild celebration. The U.S. team finished the first-ever Olympic women's hockey tournament with a 6-0 record, a gold medal, and the admiration of viewers across the world.

Haberl is reluctant to take any credit for the Americans' success. "This team was unbelievably motivated," he says. "They worked so hard. They certainly made my job easier." Haberl points out that the players are used to facing adversity. As kids they followed their big brothers to indoor and outdoor rinks and frozen ponds -- even when their presence wasn't exactly welcome -- so that they could step onto the ice and play the game they loved.

Still, how much of a role does a sports psychologist play in a team's achievements? It's an emerging field, but success stories abound. Golfers use relaxation techniques to slow their heart rates and breathing for better accuracy in their shots. Nancy Kerrigan employed sports psychology principles after she was maliciously attacked just before the 1994 Olympics. Is winning, as they say, 90 percent mental and 10 percent physical?

"Concentration and confidence are not something you're born with," says Haberl. "Both have to be developed." Haberl played professional hockey in his native Austria for 10 years, including a stint on the Austrian national team. "When I was playing, it was clear to me how important the mental aspect of the game is and how little we know about it," he says. "I've learned a lot at BU." He gives much credit to his adviser, SED Professor and Terrier Hockey Sports Psychologist Len Zaichkowsky, as well as SSW Associate Dean and Professor Gail Steketee, who prior to coming to BU spent 10 years at the department of psychiatry at Temple University Medical School.

Haberl has also served as sports psychology consultant to MIT's track and field and cross country teams, along with the Northeastern University men's hockey team. That's where he got to know Huskies Coach Ben Smith, who coached the U.S. women's hockey team.

Haberl says that working with women's teams is a bit different from working with their male counterparts. "Research has shown that women define their sense of self through relationships," he says. "So it's important that the players not only have the same goal, but appreciate each other's company, especially going into a pressure-filled event like the Olympics and being together for such a long period of time."

At the risk of treading into the "women are from Venus" philosophy, Haberl points out that men's teams are also more likely to win if the players get along. There are exceptions: the Oakland Athletics of the early 1970s, the New York Yankees of the late 1970s. But by and large, "if teammates see each other's faces every day, but they can't stand each other, their performance is going to be affected."

Talent is important, but it can take you only so far. "When teams have equal skills, cohesiveness makes the difference," says Haberl.

A unique challenge for Haberl was helping to keep the U.S. women's Olympic hockey team focused on winning shortly after the players were chosen. "Once the final selections were made, the players were really happy about making the team," he says. "A 'letdown' isn't the right word, but they were really content with what they had achieved, and it took some time to refocus on the original goal: to win a gold medal. It was important to remind the team what the goal was, and the way we facilitated that was to have them talk about why it was important for them to win that medal and not to stay in the past."

It didn't take long. They knew they had worked hard and made plenty of sacrifices all their lives. Forward Karyn Bye used to play in boys youth leagues to face decent competition, and hid that fact by listing her initials in the program instead of her first name. Lisa Brown-Miller put off her honeymoon for three years to join the Olympic team. Just three days after the 1997 world championships, Shelley Looney underwent knee surgery in the morning and facial surgery that afternoon to limit her downtime.

Much was made of the bitterness of the U.S. team's rivalry with Canada. Body checking is not allowed, and nine body-checking penalties were called in an earlier U.S.-Canada matchup, which the Americans won, 7-4. Both teams had already clinched berths in the gold medal game, but their disdain for each other was apparent. Canada's Coach Shannon Miller later accused Whyte of making a derogatory remark about Canadian player Danielle Goyette's recently deceased father. Whyte denied making the comment.

"The way we defined competition was to bring out the best in one another," says Haberl. "Our goal was to use the other team to help us excel. We wanted to get away from the destructive 'us against them' attitude. But when two teams play each other often, as they did during the course of the season, that philosophy sometimes gets lost. But our goal was much more to excel at hockey than just to beat the Canadians. We wanted to play our best hockey. And once a team achieves that, winning takes care of itself."

Haberl says that society's fascination with sports centers on the fact that one can't predetermine the outcome of a game. "The players got the message that winning isn't under their control, but that they can control how well they play," he says. "If the other team can match or surpass that effort -- so be it. They must be awfully good to beat us."

Haberl uses the term we because he was a cog in the squad's success. He was part of the team. "It was important for us to focus on ourselves and excel," he says. "And we did. Canada brought out the best in us."