Dr. Colleen Hacker was in the rink when the U.S. national women‘s hockey team lost the gold medal match at the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi. As the team’s mental skills coach, she was with the rest of the national team staff watching the hearts of their athletes shatter on the ice. A 3-2 sudden death loss in a nail-biting overtime was agonizing for a team that had let the coveted gold medal slip away for the second Winter Games in a row—a prize the U.S. hasn’t won since 1998.
Yet even amidst the heartbreak, Dr. Hacker sensed that Team USA’s winning spirit hadn’t been broken.
“You don’t have to finish first to be a winner,” she told Excelle Sports. “I was really proud and awed by the display that these athletes put in Sochi.”
And while the sting of Sochi still remains, Hacker is doing everything she can to make sure the national team is as mentally prepared as possible for their next opportunity at Olympic gold this February in PyeongChang. If successful, it won’t be the first time she helped transform a defeated team into a gold medal winning dream squad.
Dr. Hacker first came to fame when U.S. national team soccer coach Tony DiCicco hired her as their first-ever mental skills coach in 1995. At the time, team was recovering from a crushing defeat in the World Cup and DiCicco knew that something needed to change ahead of the 1996 Olympics.
“Hiring a mental skills coach was fairly unknown and fairly unprecedented [in women’s sports] at the time,” she said. “But DiCicco knew they weren’t as focused as they needed to be. They let distractions get to them.”
With Dr. Hacker’s wisdom, the team learned new visualization techniques and stress coping strategies as well as participated in trust building activities for team bonding. Dr. Hacker worked closely with the coaches, captains, players and supporting staff making sure that every piece of the program was optimally focused and prepared for the mission. After about a year of training, even American superstar Mia Hamm acknowledged that they achieved a whole “new level” of mental toughness. The new-and-improved U.S. would go on to beat China 2-1 to win their first Olympic gold medal in American history.
Hacker’s unique skillset is something she’s been building since her undergrad days. She has a Bachelor of Science degree in Health and Physical Education from Lock Haven University (PA), a master’s degree in Exercise and Sports Science at the University of Arizona and a Ph.D. in Exercise and Movement Science from the University of Oregon. She’s individually worked many athletes in the MLB, NHL and the NFL. Dr. Hacker is also one of the few mental skills specialists with experience being the head coach of a high-level team. She became the first woman to lead a collegiate soccer team to win a national title by leading Pacific Lutheran University to a NAIA championship in 1988.
Besides this incredible resume, Dr. Hacker’s own experience as an athlete helps her understand the mindset of her clients. In 1976, she qualified for the Olympic Trials in field hockey and handball and she’s been running marathons for the past ten years.
“Part of why I race is because I think that staying competitive helps inform my professional consulting,” said Dr. Hacker. “I go through the same year-round training, issues with confidence, goal setting, injuries. To teach the mental skills that I work with, I live them and I apply them.”
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Dr. Hacker has been using similar theory-driven and evidence based strategies with the U.S. women’s national hockey team ever since she has started working with USA Hockey in 2011. And today, she’s excited to take on the challenge of coaching another gold medal favorite.
“I’d rather have the pressure of being a gold medal favorite than being ranked No. 20 in the world,” she said. “I welcome that and I think our players welcome that. Winning silver in Sochi is a daily motivator for this team.”
But how does Dr. Hacker transfer her mental coaching strategies from a soccer program to a hockey program?
“Soccer and hockey are infinitely more alike than dissimilar in terms of handling team dynamics,” she explained. “What’s really different is working with the demands of each sport.”
For example in soccer, players typically know if they are going to start and play 45-90 minute shifts before they enter the stadium, she explained. That means they have more time to get their minds right, find their rhythm on the pitch and they only get one chance to regroup and reassess during halftime.
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“In ice hockey, players get multiple shifts,” she said. “They’re going to be out there for 30 to 45 seconds at a time. Can you imagine that for a soccer player? That would disrupt their rhythm. In ice hockey, you have to be ready at a 100% speed, 100% processing immediately and you stay at that 100% for 30-45 seconds. It can be absolute pain.
“Also what’s it like to have a bad shift and 30 seconds later go back in? How do you deal with that? How do you bounce back? A soccer player essentially doesn’t have to deal with that.”
Dr. Hacker also mentioned that working with USA Hockey has been different than working with U.S. Soccer because no two teams are the same any given year, let alone between different sports. Individual athletes each have their own strengths and weaknesses, which can change over time. No one team is the same and no one player is the same every year.
“For one individual, getting emotional or angry hurts her performance. For another individual getting angry or emotional really fits her,” said Dr. Hacker. “Some people are more mentally tough than others, some people use imagery better than others, some people can concentrate more than others. Everybody can be taught how to strengthen more of what their mental skill is. But there is no one-size-fits all.”
Even though there is no cookie-cutter program for every squad at any given time, Dr. Hacker has noticed that the U.S. national hockey team has worked hard on developing strong leadership and focus over the years.
In April, the team won their third consecutive World Championships since their disappointing loss in Sochi. But perhaps their recent victories off the ice are more telling of the team’s sense of unity. Just 16 days prior to the World Championships, the players banded together and decided to boycott the tournament unless USA Hockey agreed to provide equitable financial support for their women’s program.
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Their courage and solidarity will be a force to reckon with when these women go to South Korea, said Dr. Hacker. It’s what makes this team special.
“Chemistry is a verb,” said Dr. Hacker. “You don’t have chemistry, you do chemistry. [Those women] have worked to make it happen and they are fierce guardians of that. I am honestly in awe of the leadership on this team. It isn’t about them. It’s about their sport and future generations. This team is rock solid and they are on the right side of history. They are taking a stand for the right things.”
Come 2018, it’s gold or bust for USA Hockey. But whatever the results, Dr. Hacker said she is just grateful every day to work with these inspiring athletes.
“I am the luckiest person in the world to work with these guys,” she said. “I’m incredibly blessed.”