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Practitioner Corner: Sometimes it’s About Playing Devil’s Advocate for the ‘Devils’

Aimee Kimball, PhD, CMPC, New Jersey Devils
Interviewed by Andrew Friesen, Barry University, on behalf of the Newsletter Committee

In 2017, Aimee Kimball was hired by the National Hockey League’s (NHL) New Jersey Devils after having been a part of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Stanley Cup Champion seasons in 2009 and 2016. In an interview with AASP Newsletter associate editor Andrew Friesen, Dr. Kimball shares some of her lessons learned when working with professional hockey players. Dr. Kimball is also CEO of KPEX Consulting.

Aimee, you’re the Director of Player and Team Development with the NHL’s New Jersey Devils. Is that a different role than a sport psycher?

Well, they just like the title better. We spent almost two months trying to come up with a title since I couldn’t use “sport psychology” because I’m not a licensed psychologist. Actually, this is probably interesting for your article. We didn’t feel like “mental training” truly encompassed everything that I was doing, and we didn’t like “peak performance,” because that sounds more like what the strength and conditioning coaches use. In hockey the term “development” gets used a lot. I’m helping develop the players. I’m helping develop the team so they liked that title.

What are some of the essential elements of how you practice sport psych?

Aimee: My general philosophy is I don’t want these athletes to need me for the rest of my life. I want to teach them the skills so that they can go and do this on their own. And my goal isn’t to work with them over an extended period of time. It’s to teach them the skills and then be a resource for them if they need to come back in and talk to me.

What does sport psych look like at the major league level?

A lot depends on who the coach is and how supportive they are of sport psychology in their organization. It depends what’s going on with the team. It’s about logistics. A lot of it now is more development based; so, really working with the minor league teams to teach the younger players some of these skills so that when they make it to the NHL level, it’s an easier transition for them. One of the reasons they do that is because a lot of the players in the AHL, they are young, they are either coming from juniors or coming from college; many may not have been exposed to any sport psychology before. So, they typically have been the better players on their teams, may not have ever struggled, always top line guys, and then they get to the professional level and they’re third and fourth line guys. They’re no longer expected to be the scorers on the team so there’s a major role shift and for a lot of players that can affect their confidence. That affects what they’re focusing on, and so, really, taking a developmental approach and working with these guys to figure out what their identity is going to be to help them get to the professional level.

Are there certain sport psych topics that players are most receptive to these days?

A lot is just dealing with anxiety, dealing with stress. That’s something that they all deal with so being able to talk to them about how to manage anxiety, how to manage negative thoughts, or being able to let go of a bad play or a bad game. Those seem to be topics that are pretty common.

Are there any essential skills that practitioners need to possess at the big leagues?

One is just honesty. They can see right through you if you’re not being honest so I think you really have to be aware of yourself and just being honest with the players. Telling them everything is like rainbows and sunshine is not the best thing. They need to know where they stand and it helps them to deal with that; particularly at a minor league level. I think practitioners need to be flexible—the schedule changes every day and you never quite know what you’re going to get. I think creativity is essential as well. You can’t just do what’s been taught out of a textbook or in classes. You need to be more creative and be able to think on your own and really understand the situation and what needs to be discussed in a unique way in that situation.

Are there any skills that you use for yourself to help you excel in that high-performance environment?

I can remember the first time when I worked with the Penguins, and I remember seeing all the elite athletes that were in there, and just for a second, it hit me. I was like, “Okay, now I need to get back to what I need to focus on.” After a while you get used to it. So, for me, especially when I’m going into team meetings, knowing what I need to focus on, knowing what I’m trying to accomplish in that situation is key. And the biggest thing is preparation. So, if I’m doing a team presentation or working with leaders or even with individuals, I’ve read everything about that individual’s last five games. I’ve probably watched them play a couple of times. If I’m going into a team situation I always have a plan A, plan B, plan C, because you never know where the discussion is going to go. And then another thing is just life balance. I have three kids. So being able to balance family, running my own business, travel, having a social life, just making sure I’m doing the best I can in each of those areas. I think for a lot of practitioners you’ll see that that is one of the biggest struggles, but I’ve been fortunate that I’ve had a lot of people that have helped me throughout the process as well.

Are there any unexpected roles that you’ve found yourself playing at the big leagues?

The first was with the NHL Combine. They asked me a month in advance to come, and so that was just kind of thrown on me and I hadn’t put much thought into it and then all of a sudden it became something I was doing. I actually really enjoyed it. I learned a lot about high-performance athletes by listening to answers at combines. Also, being there for coaches and for management. Whether it’s helping them through situations and being able to listen to them and being a confidant for them as well.

Are there any lessons or concepts that keep getting reinforced over and over?

One thing that I see makes a huge difference at any level is the culture of the team. And it has to be set by the players, not the coach. If the coach is driving the culture, it’s there but it’s not as strong. If you have good leaders on the team and the team has a good culture, where they’re all respectful of everybody, they have a similar identity, similar goals in mind, that team functions a lot better; or at least winning is a lot easier. It’s not that you can’t win without the right culture, it’s just a heck of a lot easier and you go a lot farther when everything is in place the way it needs to be. My role is to facilitate the discussion. As a sports psychology consultant, you’re not on the inside; you’re not on the outside. You’re sort of on the sidelines. You’re a part of it but you don’t ever want to be the core of it. You don’t want them to rely on you. My job is to help them figure it out, to facilitate discussions amongst players as to how they see themselves, what do they think about this season, and sometimes if they go off track you bring them back into it. And also, playing devil’s advocate sometimes and really challenging them.

Was there any new specific lesson that you learned this past year?

How important relationships are. I chose to leave a Stanley Cup championship team to join a team that’s fighting to even make the playoffs. One of the reasons I left is because the people that are in New Jersey were all Pittsburgh people at one point; not all of them but a lot of them. The head coach in New Jersey was the head coach with the Penguins’ minor league team for a while. The GM and the assistant GM were both Pittsburghers with me. Actually, the New Jersey GM was the GM that originally hired me in Pittsburgh. So, the relationship I had established with them and continued to hold on to was what lead me to work with them. I still have great relationships with the Penguins’ staff and players, but it was time for a new challenge.