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Giving Athletes a Mental Performance Boost

Giving Athletes a Mental Performance Boost

The Calgary Herald’s Chris Nelson profiles Dr. Kimberley Amirault-Ryan:

When she set out from her New York hotel that morning Kimberley Amirault was intent on making history.

She’s just been hired as sports psychologist with the Rangers – the first woman ever to hold such a role in the National Hockey League, and personal vindication for all those times she’d been told her career choice was pointless for a female.

With an equal mix of nervousness and excitement she’d flown from Calgary the night before – her first visit to the Big Apple.

Indeed history would be made that day, though not in the way she had long dreamed. As she looked at her map to figure out a route to Madison Square Garden the first plane crashed into the first tower.

It was Sept. 11, 2001. “I had not a clue what was going on. Everyone had told me the city was nuts but there were millions of people running. It was wild.

“The cellphone towers had died and I knew no one in the city other than the people who’d interviewed me and I knew roughly from my map where Madison Square Garden was.”

When Amirault got to the arena it had been evacuated but a security guard spotted her and had a message that general manager Glen Sather was waiting inside.

“He came over and asked if I was OK. I’d got knocked down and I was all rattled and dirty. But I said I was OK. He asked if I could work and I said ‘Yes, I can.’

“The things that I had worried about, such as being the only woman who works in the NHL and all that noise, none of it mattered. I thought ‘I’m here and I’m here to do a job.’ That really set my career.”

Soon she was working with players such as Mark Messier, Eric Lindros and Pavel Bure, trying to help them harness the mental toughness needed to succeed at the top.

Over the next decade she’d work with the New York Knicks of the NBA, the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Edmonton Oilers, her current NHL client.

She also became a mainstay of the Canadian Olympic movement, attending four Games as the team psychologist responsible for mental performance.

Sport had always been her saviour. Even back in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, when she was a 12-year-old trying to deal with her parents’ divorce.

“I could have gone down a dark path. I was trying a lot of things at a very young age that I shouldn’t have been doing – drugs and alcohol.

“Sport was the one thing for myself. I knew even by Grade 8 that I wanted to help other people in high performance.”

As a youngster she read Terry Or-lick’s book on mental sports preparation, In Pursuit Of Excellence. It had a huge impact on her.

“I remember it so well – about keeping focused no matter the distractions. I was going through so much in my life. One of my friends committed suicide, another had cancer. Sport kept me on track and I just loved it,” she said.

After studying psychology at university she went to Ottawa to check out opportunities, to do further research and work in the mental performance side of sport.

“I remember being told I would never work in elite sports because I was a woman. I was 20 years old and I was crushed. I remember crying on the way back to the airport because these people I looked up to had told me I would never work in the field,” she said.

The tears soon dried and Amirault did earn her master’s degree – studying with Orlick, the very professor whose book had inspired her a decade earlier.

In 1998 Amirault came to Calgary to work on her doctorate at the U of C, was hired by the Canadian Sports Centre and began helping the men and women’s national hockey program.

“Because I worked with the men’s program two of those coaches later went on to the NHL and that’s how Glen Sather heard about me in New York.”

She believes the issues she faced as a young woman helped her understand how adversity can bring out the best in some people.

“I look for people with an edge – people who have gone through adversity and I look at how they dealt with it.”

She believes people who go through adversity at a young age and learn how to cope and thrive through it are going to be able to handle challenges as they get older.

“I meet them where they are and help take them to where they want to be. I help leaders lead.”

In her work with Olympians and professional hockey players she tries to help them perform better under pressure. That pressure is increasing with the proliferation of social media. And it hits young players the most.

“All of a sudden it’s like having the lights shine down on you and everyone wants a piece of you. I look at some of our young draft players with the Oilers – as soon as they got drafted and on Twitter they got hundreds of thousands of followers.

“People now have so much more access to them compared to 10 years ago. It is almost harder for some of the Olympic athletes who aren’t used to it compared to ones on the professional side.”

Being a woman in a male-dominated industry has never bothered her. After all, she was told it could never happen.

“I think you teach people how to treat you. Take the basketball side as an example. A lot of the players had been brought up by a single parent, their mother, so they knew I was young and had to have worked (hard) to get where I was.

“The same thing in the hockey side. They didn’t care who the person is representing the side of mental performance, they just wanted to get better.”

Two years ago, she married Richard Ryan, a local oilman now running MATRRIX Energy Technologies. After being married to a career, it wasn’t something she expected.

“You have to be pretty strong to be with me because I’m around some pretty interesting people. I always wanted to marry someone that made my world bigger and not smaller and my husband does that. He understands my world and isn’t threatened by it. He is just the neatest guy.”

She’s ready to party with 20 friends in Vegas next month – a planned celebration of her 40th birthday. True friends are important to her.

“It’s easy when things are going well. It’s when things are difficult that you really see who is there for you through thick and thin.”

From The Calgary Herald, November 12, 2012