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1% Stronger: An Interview With Utica Comets Mental Skills Coach Ashwin Patel (Part 2)

Ashwin Patel Interview


As some of you know, I was recently able to speak with Utica Comets Mental Skills Coach Ashwin Patel and I was able to get a great deal of information from him over a 40-plus minute chat. I released part-one of that piece last week and if you missed it, you can find it below.

Today, I will wrap up with the remainder of our conversation about how the Canucks/Comets are trying to evolve as an organization and step up how they develop their prospects. Part of that evolution was the addition of Patel to the team’s staff as a mental skills coach.

After what we discussed in the first half of this interview, I wondered what type of challenges Ash faces with his job in terms of earning the trust of the players and coaching staff. As we all know, in the world of sports, players are often told to “suck it up” or “get over it” if they have concerns or issues with the mental aspect of the game. Some see those kinds of concerns as a sign of weakness, so I asked if that was an area where Patel has obstacles to overcome.

You know, it’s gotten better over the years. I think the question that will always be in the back of my mind is, how much are they willing to buy in? One of the things that I try to clearly get across is that they’re the expert in hockey.

I have no agenda, there’s nothing that I can do in terms of influencing playing time or things along those lines. I don’t go back to Trent and say, hey, I was watching video on this player and this is what I saw… because I don’t know. Like, I played rec hockey, I’m a horrible hockey player… I love it, but I’m not very good, so part of it is just, listen, you’re the expert in terms of hockey. I’m not going to call myself an expert, but I’m pretty well versed in the mental health side of it. How can we work together to get to where you want to be?

I think that has helped with some of the guys. Some of the guys just love it. The guys who have played for either Team Canada or Team USA where there is a mental skills coach… that is kind of ingrained in the National programs. They seem to be on board, but for those who haven’t had that experience, that’s kind of how I frame it. That my job is to work with them to figure out what it is that they want to be able to do. 

To be honest, this year has been kind of trying to take it slow, do some talks… I’ll do 1-2 talks a month when I’m in town and they are usually only for about 10-minutes. I’ve learned to keep it relatively brief. I try to keep it interactive, I really like to do fun activities that help kind of bring some of the concepts that I talk about to life, in an applied manner.

The other thing that I will do is join the players at ice-level after the talk. I’ll be on the bench, obviously, but then some of the guys can kind of come back and the great thing is the coaching staff will say, hey, remember, we are focusing on this today at practice. It’s nice because the coaches are also discussing the same concept that I discussed with the players, so it just normalizes things. Hey, if you want to get better, this is one thing that we can do.

For some of the other guys, it may take some time, and again, I’m excited about the opportunity to serve in whatever capacity that I can. For some guys, they’re like, you know Ash, I’m good, but if you could send me an article on this… then I’m happy to do that as well. 

Some guys, I will talk to 2-3 times a week based on their schedule. It really just depends. My hope is that at the end of the day, that the players, the staff, and even the other coaches feel that I can be there as a resource.

They’re all experts and my job is to kind of help them as they see fit. I hope that I am able to do this without an ego… some players are like, nah, I’m good, or I have my own guy, and that’s awesome as well. But my job is just to serve the players/serve the coaches and to serve the organization. Be there as a sounding board when necessary or as a resource as necessary. 

The more that Ash talked, the more it seemed to me that he wasn’t just there for the players, but that the coaching staff and management might also be able to benefit from his work with the team, so I asked if he is available to everyone within the organization, or if his work was focused solely on the players. Do the coaches or management make use of his services as well as the players?

Yeah, they do… and it could just be a passing comment like, hey Ash, I wouldn’t mind something on breathing… sometimes it’s that type of comment, or sometimes it’s like, I have three other things going on right now, how do I balance this? Or just like everyone else, learning how to deal with time away from family or loved ones. How do we deal with that?

Sometimes it’s just being a supportive ear for someone to be able to discuss some of the things along those lines. But yeah… at the beginning of the season when there was more time… before the schedule ramped up, I would happily kind of send out some articles and videos and the coaches would provide some feedback like, hey, I like this one, or could you provide a little more information on this? I’ve kind of tapered that off because, as you can imagine, they’re kind of inundated right now.

But yeah, anybody in the organization… this has not happened yet, but even if it’s the scouts down the road, or management… from a time-management/stress management… a holistic approach is what we are trying to do… both Alex, (Hodgkins) and myself with the Canucks and Comets.

Again, not trying to overstep our boundaries, but we want to be there for everybody as much as we can because they all have to perform as well. That’s the other part of it… Roman, (Kaszczij) is our brilliant athletic therapist and he has to be able to perform… especially with the scary thing that just happened with Jay Bouwmeester… knowing that you’re going to be the first person assisting somebody if something traumatic happens on the ice. 

We don’t want those things to happen but that’s also on the back of the mind of those service providers. So yeah, my goal is just to help out as much or as little as I am needed, or just to be a sounding board if needed. One of the things I’ve loved about being a professor for 15 years is that I have a lot of resources, you know, colleagues of mine who are brilliant at what they do… I’m like, oh, I like this article, or this podcast or this book is fantastic and I share that with RJ, (Comets’ GM, Ryan Johnson) or share that with Trent. Whether they are able to look at it now or hold onto it until the offseason, it’s fine with me, I just love to be able to provide resources for anybody in the organization.

My final question for Ash was about how he would like to see his job evolve as time goes on. If there were areas where he thought he could make improvements or add more value/resources for the organization.

This first year, I’m really just trying to soak things in. I think it’s problematic for individuals in roles like the one that I am in to be like, yeah, I have all the answers. I think those are the cases where you want to run the opposite way. If someone ever says that, it’s not usually a good sign. 

So for me, I’m just trying to learn and really trying to figure out, what does it mean to be a Canuck? From a player’s perspective, a scout’s perspective, a management perspective… what does that mean. Aligning the values of the organization… moving forward, I’d love to learn about what they do from a draft perspective. I’d love to learn about what they are looking for when they’re drafting players.

I’d love to talk with players and say, listen, what kind of teammates would you like to have? Because that is an important question. We’ve got this great resource of players and we could be asking them… what do they feel like it takes to be a professional player?

I know that RJ and Mr. Benning and the rest of the organization does this, but I’m just trying to learn a little bit more from that. That’s a great resource because the players are the ones who will have to share a locker room with them.

So, who do you want as a teammate… what do you look for in terms of how they communicate or how they take feedback? I think those are interesting questions.

I love this organization… full disclosure, I grew up in Southern Ontario, but I grew up a diehard Flyers fan and within five months… that’s it… that’s 40-plus years of my life being a Flyers fan… but that’s it. I’m all in Canucks… I’m all in Comets.

The organization has been unbelievably welcoming. I love the way that RJ thinks… I think that he’s got a brilliant brain and you can tell that he truly cares about his players as people first. And so for me… I’d like to learn a little more about how I can help support the players, help support the coaches and management… potentially help support the scouts down the road… or how they evaluate players. I’m open to as much as they’d like to have an interest in having me as a part of this organization. 

I’m very inquisitive, so for me, sometimes I find myself apologizing because I’m like, RJ, what about this, or what are your thoughts on this? Because I’m just fascinated by how professional organizations run. So kind of understanding that side of things a little bit more would be exciting. 

Just being involved from how we develop players… what is the model that the organization wants to take forward and how can I help from a mental standpoint? Those are all areas I’d love to be able to assist with, in more detail in the years to follow. 

I like to think of it like this… if you think of the spokes on the wheel of a bike, the players are the hub at the centre of it and the rest of us are the spokes leading to them. They have great people in Utica… the leadership team, you know, Wacey, (Hamilton) and Carter, (Bancks)… they’re unbelievable… and Richard, (Bachman) who I just think the world of… the organization takes the time to think about who should be in the locker room and leading their prospects. 

It sure does sound to me as though the Canucks and Comets are doing everything they can in order to provide their players, prospects and coaches with every advantage that is available to them. Ash sounds like a person who wants to be a big part of that… or at least as big a part of it as the team is looking for. I got the distinct impression from our chat that Ashwin Patel wants nothing more than to help the Utica Comets develop excellent humans who happen to be pretty good at playing the sport of hockey.

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It was also clear to me that the organization is in lockstep with this practice with everyone being on board with the program. To know that the coaching staff is open and welcoming to have a Mental Skills Coach around is a positive, in my mind. I think that there are some in the fanbase who feel that this organization has too many old school types around who would put the brakes on such a thing. That does not appear to be the case as Patel feels that the organization is on board and extremely supportive of his work.

So, what are your thoughts on the matter? How do you feel about the Utica Comets employing their own Mental Skills Coach, over and above Alex Hodgkins in Vancouver? I, for one, love that the team is taking this approach and providing their prospect pool, coaching staff, and management with resources like Ash.