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Coming home gives San Jose Sharks an important mental health boost
San Jose Mercury News - 1/30/2021
Jan. 30—The Sharks' team plane landed back in San Jose on Saturday morning — likely flying over SAP Center on their descent — before they touched down at Mineta International Airport.
After five weeks away, or more for some individuals, it was no doubt a welcome sight for everyone aboard the aircraft.
Finally, they were back home.
"It's exciting," Sharks captain Logan Couture said through a team spokesman. "I think for everyone with family in San Jose today will be a great day. (Thirty) days away isn't easy, so very excited to get back home and reset."
The NHL announced Friday that San Jose's two-game series with Vegas in Glendale, Ariz. next week was being postponed because of COVID protocol concerns with some members of the Golden Knights organization. Those games have yet to be rescheduled.
With their next game not until Feb. 5 in Anaheim, the Sharks have an unexpected opportunity to come back to their own practice facility for a few days, work on the details of their game and hit the refresh button after a 3-5-0 start.
Just as important will be the mental lift the Sharks desperately need. After his team's 3-0 loss to the Colorado Avalanche on Thursday, coach Bob Boughner said the Sharks looked every bit like a group that had been away from home for five weeks.
The Sharks, including a handful of new fathers, had to leave loved ones behind last month as Santa Clara County's ban on contact sports meant the team had to relocate training camp. They stayed in Scottsdale, Arizona for two weeks before they started a stretch of eight games in 15 days, capped by their shutout loss to the Avs.
"After being on the road for 35, some of the guys 40 days, I think it's a good break for us physically, but more importantly mentally," Boughner said before the Sharks left Arizona for San Jose. "I think everybody needs to get home and reset."
There's little question that forced isolation from loved ones can be stressful.
Kim Foster Yardley, a clinical psychologist based in Toronto who works with high-performance athletes, said that type of mental stress can impact performance.
"It can lead to being too much in ones own head or a loss of perspective/tunnel vision," Yardley wrote in an email to this news organization. "Most of us have default ways that we deal with stress — some people withdraw, others become frustrated and irritable even others could channel this into overwork.
"Athletes are no different. And just like our reactions to stress could impact our mental health, it can also impact our productivity, focus and motivation. In the same way stress can impact athlete performance."
Sharks players, coaches and staff members did their best to cope while they were away from their families, like holding Zoom or FaceTime calls, perhaps multiple times a day.
That also meant looking out for each other's well-being.
"When you walk by somebody in the morning and you say, 'Hey, how are you doing?' or 'How's it going?' you've got to really mean it," Sharks forward Patrick Marleau said recently. "A lot of onus is on each individual to make sure they get what they need, but sometimes that's hard for some people."
"It's good to be with the guys whenever you miss your families and kids," Sharks winger Kevin Labanc said after Thursday's loss. "It's hard, and people don't really see that ... but we can't create an excuses for ourselves. We got to get the job done."
Similar, but not identical, to what the Sharks went through the last month was the situation players were in last summer during the NHL's Return to Play.
To guard against the potential spread of COVID-19, rhe league set up playoff bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton, as players, coaches and other team staff members were cut off from family members, and most of the outside world.
Some stays were short, like in the case of Marleau, Ryan Donato and Devan Dubnyk, whose teams were eliminated in the play-in round.
Others, though, lasted over a month. Matt Nieto's stay in Edmonton went from late July to early September as the Avalanche advanced to the Western Conference final before losing in seven games to the Dallas Stars.
"The teams that had the most success are the teams that wanted to be there and made the best of it," Nieto said during training camp. "You can't be in a negative mindset because you can't do any activities or stuff like that. You have to keep it fun."
One difference between the Sharks and the teams in the bubbles was that the players in Toronto and Edmonton knew there would come a point when they would be able to go home. Up until earlier this week, when the state of California's stay-at-home orders were lifted and the county said collegiate and professional sports could operate if they followed certain directives, the Sharks had no clear idea when they could return.
"It is pretty important to develop healthy coping mechanisms for stress," Yardley wrote. "One advantage that athletes have is that they are dealing with high stress all the time as they put themselves in competitive situations on a regular basis.
"They perhaps already have coping strategies in place for stressful performance situations that they could apply to life stress like the pandemic."
As for now, when the Sharks start to practice again, they'll likely spending ample time on a power play that has converted on just one of their last 22 opportunities. They've also managed just nine even strength goals in their last five games and have a team save percentage of .879, 29th out of 31 teams.
At least they'll have started to work on all of these issues after sleeping in their own beds.
"We've been living out of a suitcase for a month and a half," Boughner said. "Players get a couple days off of not even having to come to the rink. Once we get back to work, we're going to have a good chance to work on our game and improve in the areas we need to improve on and just sort of recharge the batteries.
"People are going to be able to see the families, which is nice."
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