Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Science of Expectation

Rookie camp is just about to wrap up in Montreal, with most of the Habs prospects and invitees likely knowing they won't get a real NHL spot to start this season. Most of them are jockeying for position on the call-up list and hoping to get noticed for something...anything...that will stamp their passports to Montreal if a place should open during the season. First-timers like Jarred Tinordi are busy just checking things out and making a good impression. A guy like Ben Maxwell who, at 22, is four years removed from his draft year, is getting a bit more desperate. He's had no points in his 20 NHL games to date and the chances to show he can play in the big league are running out as players behind him push hard for their own opportunities. He fought PK Subban in camp, not just because of the frustration of losing a lopsided scrimmage, but because of the frustration of his career situation.

In a newspaper article published in the summer, Josh Gorges was referred to as a "veteran defenceman" for the Canadiens. While it's true Gorges cracked the San Jose Sharks lineup when he was just 21, it's funny to think of a man who's 26 years old as a "veteran" anything. In the real world, a person who's 26 would be breaking into his or her chosen career field, or perhaps still in graduate school. Lots of 26-year-olds are just trying to figure out what they want to do with their lives. In the rest of the world, 26 is very much a rookie.

In the compressed career of a hockey player, in which an entire professional life is crammed into less than 20 years, age is a very relative thing. Gorges may be a veteran after five NHL seasons because in ten years he may be finished altogether. Maxwell may be running out of time because he's set to spend a third precious year under contract in the minors. So, because of the small window of opportunity to play pro hockey, young players work out like maniacs to build their bodies bigger, faster and stronger as quickly as possible. As a result, hockey players' bodies are fitter and more impressive than those of most of their peers.

Their minds aren't any better, though. While a player can control, to an extent, the amount of weight he gains and the shape of his body, he can't control the development of his brain. It grows and matures in exactly the same way as those of other young people of the same age. Now science is proving that parts of the human brain don't fully develop until the early-to-mid 20s. Those final areas to mature tend to be important to playing professional hockey at top speed.

The Society for Neuroscience said in January, 2007:
"Scientists once thought the brain's key development ended within the first few years of life. Now, thanks to advanced brain imaging technology and adolescent research, scientists are learning more about the teenage brain both in health and in disease. They know now that the brain continues to develop at least into a person's twenties. Other parts of the brain also undergo refinement during the teen years. Areas associated with more basic functions, including the motor and sensory areas, mature early. Areas involved in planning and decision-making, including the prefrontal cortex -- the cognitive or reasoning area of the brain important for controlling impulses and emotions -- appear not to have yet reached adult dimension during the early twenties. The brain's reward center, the ventral striatum, also is more active during adolescence than in adulthood, and the adolescent brain still is strengthening connections between its reasoning- and emotion-related regions."

In other words, a young hockey player's brain may be perfectly able to control agility, speed and vision, but it's entirely to be expected that it can't control emotion or have the ability to make quick, rational decisions in the same way an older adult does. The U.S. National Institute of Mental Health puts it this way:

"Studies have suggested that the frontal lobes do not fully mature until young adulthood. To confirm this in living humans, the UCLA researchers compared MRI scans of young adults, 23-30, with those of teens, 12-16. They looked for signs of myelin, which would imply more mature, efficient connections, within gray matter. As expected, areas of the frontal lobe showed the largest differences between young adults and teens. This increased myelination in the adult frontal cortex likely relates to the maturation of cognitive processing and other "executive" functions."

The journal Nature Neuroscience says:
"Neuropsychological studies show that the frontal lobes are essential for such functions as response inhibition, emotional regulation, planning and organization."

It's generally recognized that most hockey players really come into their own, or "enter their primes" at around 24-25 years of age. It's very reasonable to assume this maturation period has less to do with his physical abilities than it does with the development of his brain to the point at which his decision-making, emotional control and strategic thinking are on the same level as the skills of his legs and hands. The military knows and uses this fact, deliberately recruiting younger soldiers who are more malleable mentally than older ones.

Of course, there are some players who make it at a very early age. Their physical skills are so great, they're able to dominate even before they're fully mentally mature. Carey Price, for example, made the NHL at age 20. Nobody denies he's got elite-level skills, but he's often been criticized for the apparent emotional and mental immaturity that's led to on-ice inconsistency. The thing is, he's perfectly normal. This year, at 23, his brain development is just catching up to his physical skill level. If he suddenly seems able to control his emotions and make smart, quick decisions, critics will rave about how he's finally living up to his hype. Really, though, he's just finishing his normal brain growth.

The guys like Maxwell, who are good, but not great, are the ones who really have it tough. In a competition for jobs in which every advantage is vital, the kid whose brain development is slightly ahead will probably look better on the ice. Scouts will comment on his "hockey sense." The average, or slightly-below-average kid in terms of rate of brain development, will lag behind in that area. Unfortunately for those players, they can't control how quickly their mental faculties achieve maturity. They just have to wait for it to happen on schedule. The problem is, the tiny window of opportunity a player has in which to prove he can be an NHL player often closes before he really grows up.


Ian said...

Wow! That's amazing information, J.T.

Sadly, I'm 63 and still waiting for my brain to develop to it's potential. :))

Kyle Roussel said...

This is precisely why having mentors to influence youngsters so important. Young kids need someone to "copy" while they wait for the brain to tie up the loose ends. In a way, they need to "fake it till they make it". It partly explains why we often see so much generic, canned speech from young kids about their career. "make a good impression" "earn a spot" "show I belong"...all things that we hear over and over, likely through coaching while they wait for the brain to catch up with the body.

As the Canadiens failed to provide Price, the Kostitsyns, and going as far back as Theodore and Ribeiro with strong veteran mentorship, they reaped the results of rolling the dice. Natural, often immature tendencies took over and drew those players under Montreal's intense microscope.

Anonymous said...

Ok, that's the players explained...how about the fans:-)

Anonymous said...

Its just a shame that SOME children will fall into a juvee category while they should be there and have their lives ruined because their incapabilities to make rational decisions and not having a solid capable adult in their life to guide them.--when their actions have to do with maturity, brain developement and guidance...:-(