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'Unshakable belief and confidence:' How a sports psychologist helped make the Oilers Cup finalists

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Published in Hockey
Thursday, 13 June 2024 06:41

When Jeff Jackson took the job as Oilers CEO of Hockey Operations in August, the team was at a pressure point. After yet another disappointing playoff exit the previous spring, star players Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl each declared 2024 was "Stanley Cup or bust."

"With where everyone is at in their career," McDavid said. "It's time."

Jackson was McDavid's longtime agent before taking the job in the front office, so he knows hockey's biggest star as well as anyone. As Jackson searched for information, he began reading Phil Jackson's book, Eleven Rings.

The name George Mumford, a renowned sports psychologist and meditation teacher, kept coming up.

Phil Jackson had invited Mumford to work with his Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers teams that went on to win championships.

"Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant didn't win until they got a flow of their teams," Jackson said. "And so a light bulb went off. MJ and [Scottie] Pippen and Kobe and Shaq[uille] O'Neal are kind of like Connor and Leon. Maybe his approach would be helpful. We need this guy."

Jeff Jackson messaged Mumford on LinkedIn. Ever since his association with Phil Jackson, Mumford was in demand. He worked with the Knicks from 2014-2016. He spent a year in 2018 with the Miami Dolphins. He's spoken to Chelsea FC and Fulham FC.

He said he's done most of his work with college female athletes in the U.S. "I work with executives, doctors and lawyers," Mumford told ESPN.com. "From jail to Yale, locker rooms to boardrooms, I've done it all."

Even with the 72-year-old's time being precious, he responded to Jackson immediately. Mumford never worked in hockey before, and this project -- helping the greatest star of this generation unlock his goals -- intrigued him.

In McDavid, Mumford saw similarities to Jordan.

"They both want to be the best, and they're the most skilled. They've mastered everything, all of the basic fundamentals, but they're on the pursuit of excellence with others," Mumford said. "It's challenging when you play a team sport, because other folks might not be able to keep up with you, or they're trying to, and you get frustrated ... [McDavid] is evolving, but he has that humility and hunger to be better. And that's the thing. You're not competing with anything outside. You're competing with your best self."


MUMFORD GREW UP in Boston. His mother was an elevator operator at a fancy hotel. His father was a railroad laborer by day, barber by night, and according to Mumford's book "Unlocked", dealt with alcoholism.

Mumford went to UMass on academic scholarship, where his roommate was Julius Erving. As Erving's basketball career took off, Mumford's screeched to a halt. He aspired to walk on the D1 team, but during a pickup game, he was undercut by a player who chipped bones in his ankle. Mumford said he got addicted to pain medication, then became an IV user of heroin.

"I didn't really know who I was because I didn't play basketball," he said. "So I was trying to learn who I was as a person, as a whole person."

Mumford is now coming up on 40 years of sobriety. As he searched for identity, he got into meditation, tai chi and yoga. He got a job as a financial analyst then went to graduate school for a degree in counseling psychology.

"I got curious: why did I get clean when so many people don't?" Mumford said. "I wanted to know, what motivates people?"

Phil Jackson met Mumford while Mumford was working at UMass with Jon Kabat-Zinn, who was the founder of the Stress Reduction Center at the UMass Medical School. It was 1993 and the Bulls had come off three straight championships. Jackson wanted Mumford to teach the team about dealing with the stresses of success. In the interim, Jordan's father was murdered, and he left basketball.

"When I went to Chicago, that was a full-blown crisis," Mumford said.

According to Jackson's book, Mumford told players there were two aspects to every crisis: danger and opportunity. "If you have the right mindset, he said, you can make the crisis work for you," Jackson wrote. "You have a chance to create a new identity for the team that will be even stronger than before. Suddenly the players perked up."

When Jordan re-joined the team in 1995, Jackson encouraged him to work with Mumford.

"In George's view, Michael needed to shift his perspective on leadership," Jackson wrote. "It's all about being present and taking responsibility for how you relate to yourself and others." According to Jackson, under Mumford's guidance Jordan became a better leader because he met the team where they were and led them to where they wanted to go. The Bulls won three more titles from 1996-98.


MUMFORD's APPROACH IS fairly simple. He believes the best way to unlock success is first by "living authentically" and "embracing your greatness," he said. Then, he wants athletes to not just set a goal, but a process. He wants them to reach a flow state, where they're just being.

"And moment to moment or day to day we can assess whether we're on track," Mumford said.

He began laying the groundwork for the Oilers when he first met the team in training camp. The plan was for Mumford, who lives in Boston, to meet the team sporadically in Edmonton or on the road throughout the season. Mumford was just establishing processes as the team hit a crisis point in November. After losing 10 of the first 13 games, the Oilers were fragile. Nothing seemed to be going right.

Mumford reminded players they couldn't fixate on moments of failure, even though he knew it was keeping them up at night. Dwelling on mistakes, he said, wouldn't get them out of this.

Mumford described the concept further in his book: "One of the primary lessons of mental training is that we always -- 100 percent of the time -- need to be moving toward our goal," he wrote. "And in order to do that, we need to be able to let go, and I mean really let go of our mistakes."

As the Oilers fell to second-to-last place, the front office made a series of drastic moves. Goalie Jack Campbell was put on waivers, just 16 months after signing a five-year, $25 million deal. Coach Jay Woodcroft was fired, despite winning three playoff rounds over his first two seasons.

Mumford saw a team that struggled with confidence.

"The message was always the same," Mumford said. "You're a bad mo-fo. You just don't know it. And my job is to help you get access to it."

Mumford made himself available anytime if players wanted to talk. He also holds sessions with the coaching staff, including Kris Knoblauch, who was hired from the AHL. Knoblauch's calm demeanor matches Mumford's.

Hall of Famer Paul Coffey, who joined the team full-time to run the defense, also echoes a lot of Mumford's messaging. Coffey is constantly telling the defensemen to make plays, to own the moment. He doesn't want them rimming the puck. He'll say, "Don't make the safe play, make the right play." And if they make a mistake, Coffey will tell them to move past it and try again.

As the team rediscovered success, Mumford was in the background for all of it. He reminded the players that they were, in fact, great. They just needed an unshakeable belief in themselves.

"It's something we needed early on, we needed that unshakable belief and confidence," forward Zach Hyman said. "And as you go through a playoff series, there are moments that test you and push you on the edge. In the Vancouver series we were down 3-2. That kind of message, he delivered it to us early but it stuck with us throughout the year, and helped us when times were tough."


MUMFORD IS ON the road full-time with the Oilers in the playoffs. When we sat down to talk, Mumford asked if he could record the conversation. "I like to remember what I say," he said. "Sometimes I say some really good stuff and I say, 'Where did that come from?'"

What Mumford is describing is getting into his own flow state. The flow state, to Mumford, is when someone reaches peak performance. It's when the person learns how to be, and just live authentically, and therefore has unlocked the greatness in themselves. It's innate.

In Mumford's book, he wrote about the time Kobe Bryant dislocated a finger in his shooting hand. Instead of spending weeks on injured reserve, Bryant re-invented his jump shot. "It was something that came out of him, and expressed itself. He didn't force it one way or another," Mumford wrote. "He was listening to his internal wisdom, the greatness within, which was saying to him: This is the way to do it. It's true that he had intention behind this. But it was an intention to allow whatever was unfolding to unfold. To allow life to speak for itself."

Mumford said to unlock in this way is subtle, and all about getting in touch with what's inside instead of focusing on what's outside. Mumford and Bryant agreed on another unconventional truth: The best way to score is to try not to score. Bryant's blurb for Mumford's book, The Mindful Athlete, reads: "George helped me ... to be neither distracted or focused, rigid or flexible, passive or aggressive. I just learned to be."

Ahead of the Stanley Cup Final, I asked Connor McDavid to finish my sentence: "The Oilers will win the Stanley Cup if ..." McDavid, 27, politely laughed. He said he couldn't answer that because it was something too far ahead. He was just focused on the moment.

Mumford has studied and taught ontology, the nature of being. McDavid's answer seemed to fit into these lessons. Mumford says you start a journey of 1,000 miles by taking the first step, and being in that first step.

"We get so interested in talking about something that already happened or might happen," Mumford said. "But if you're doing something, you can't talk about what you're doing while you're doing it."

I asked the sports psychologist if he would be able to finish my sentence instead.

"To win a championship, you have to be a champion," Mumford said. "So you have to be it now."

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