Playing mind games: Port Moody hockey player helps athletes keep their heads

Port Moody’s Kyle Johnson hopes “My Mental Game” will teach young athletes about the mental side of sport.
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When Kyle Johnson earned a hockey scholarship to Yale University, he thought the constant pressure of climbing up the hockey ranks would subside. 

For as long as he can remember, Johnson wanted to be known as a great hockey player. 

He’d spend hours in the gym and on the ice, perfecting his game. He imagined his competitors were working twice as hard as him, so he spent even more time on weightlifting and wrist shots. He believed he had to dig deeper and deplete his physical and mental energy to be the best athlete he could become. 


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The internal pressure built up in his head as he moved up from major midget to major junior, with the ultimate goal of signing with a professional hockey club. 

“I spent years combing through every resource to try and, for example, be less nervous before a game, or worry less about what the coach thought,” Johnson said. 

Johnson moved from Port Moody to Prince George at the age of 17 to play for the BCHL’s Spruce Kings. He recorded 107 points in 151 games over three seasons, and was named the team’s captain in his final season.  

While Johnson went on to play college hockey at Yale, his younger brother, Kent, blazed a path to the NHL. Kent starred with the BCHL’s Trail Smoke Eaters and the Michigan Wolverines of the NCAA, before being drafted fifth overall by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the 2021 draft.

At Yale, two of Johnson’s seasons were disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. He notched four points in 51 games and constantly fixated on trying to perform on the ice. As he vaulted up the hockey ladder — amateur, collegiate, and, eventually, the professional level — he assumed his game would also improve on a linear path.

But Johnson didn’t know that it was normal for his on-ice performance vary from night to night. 

“It was a lesson I hadn’t learned at that point,” he said. “And it caused me to live with increasing amounts of stress.” 

He didn’t realize the importance of taking a step back, and understanding the core of what may be impacting his performance: the mental side of the game.

Now, he’s created a service to help athletes avoid a similar fate. 

Across sports, a history of burnout

When I was in grade 9, I started taking running seriously. 

Johnson and I went to the same high school in Port Moody. We had mutual friends who were also involved with sports. 

We were both competitive athletes, and perhaps had similar ideas about doing everything in our power to maximize our abilities in our respective sports. I remember being so hyper-focused on every facet of my daily life — eating, sleeping, doing homework — to improve my running. I loved running through Bert Flinn Park, and cooling off in the Coquitlam River after a hard run at the Percy Perry Stadium track.

I was a decent runner in elementary school, but I had never committed to any sort of running-specific training. 

So, I signed up with a local cross country and track club in grade nine, and in my second fall with the club, I placed third in the B.C. high school junior boys cross country championships. That placing was a surprise, and after that race, I pulled away from other sports to focus on running. 

I stopped playing basketball, a sport I picked up to play with friends in high school, and started to focus on running more workouts, upping my mileage, and going for runs twice per day. I viewed running as a sport that I could realistically do in university. I had a dream of making a varsity track and cross country team, and one day, representing Canada at the Olympic Games.

The more I ran, I assumed, the higher I would place at the next provincial meet. The more I ran, the better chance I had of meeting those lofty goals. The more I ran, however, the more I started to lose a passion for the sport.

Like Johnson, I wanted to do more to get the most out of my athletic potential.

I skipped with a jump rope in my parent’s garage after a run. I did pushups and situps in my backyard in the summer rain. Multiple times per week, I did at least four minutes of a core plank before bed. 

During each of those ‘extra workouts,’ I imagined my competitors — who I was vying against for provincial titles and university scholarships — doing the exact same thing. 

I told myself that the harder I pushed my body, the stronger it would become in the long run. 

Although I earned a spot on the University of Victoria’s cross country and track team after high school, and also ran competitively at the University of British Columbia, in hindsight, my focus on doing more might have caused me more harm than good. 

Launching My Mental Game 

Murray Seward is familiar with the ups and downs of navigating an elite sports career. 

His son, Jack, was a pitcher in the B.C. Premier Baseball League for the Coquitlam Reds and went on to play college baseball at Central Arizona College. The level of competition was a sharp jump from high school to college, Seward said. 

“When he got to the next level, his comment was, ‘Dad, the pitches I used to strike kids out on, they’re hammering me and hitting the ball hard against me,’” Seward said.

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That is a common refrain for most people making the transition out of high school sports into post-secondary.

Seward met Johnson by coaching his brother, Kent, who was around his son’s age, at a baseball camp in Port Moody. 

Seward, who also runs a team building business, was immediately impressed with Johnson’s work ethic and demeanor.

But he was intrigued even more by his interests outside of sports. 

He heard that Johnson studied psychology at Yale and reached out to him last spring to gauge his interest in launching a resource that helped athletes and their parents talk about the mental aspect of sports.

“I said, ‘God, there seems to be like there’s all sorts of other parents who are going through the same thing,’” he said. “A lot of the other junior national team [baseball] parents and college parents I talked to had the same story: parents feel helpless on how to support their kid.” 

Earlier this month, the two launched My Mental Game, an online course and assessment tool. 

The website is designed to help athletes understand adversities in their sport, and give parents the tools to support their young athlete who may be struggling under the weight of expectations. 

“When you’re a big fish in a small pond — one of the better baseball or hockey players in Port Moody — everything comes pretty easily,” Seward said. “Success is happening 99 percent of the time and coaches love you because of that.” 

It can also be an ego blow to a parent if their child starts to perform below past expectations, Seward added. And parents should learn how to support their young athlete when the results don’t always go as planned.

But that’s not always easy.

The challenge is teaching young athletes, who oftentimes experience little failure in their respective sports in high school, how to compete with other athletes who are just as talented as them.

‘Allow athletes to be honest with themselves’

It took me years to understand why running, a sport that I truly loved, caused me so much internal strife. 

As I forced myself to go for runs twice a day, I didn’t realize that I was slowly developing all the symptoms of burnout, or extreme fatigue from overtraining. Ultimately, running started to seem more like a chore, rather than something I wanted to do. 

I had to learn how to have other pursuits — creative writing, journalism, reading — in order to take my mind off running. And while I understand an athlete’s dedication and hard work are (rightly) celebrated by coaches and parents in sports, my personality required me to love the sport a little less to become the best version of myself, on and off the track. 

My Mental Game works across all sports, said Johnson, who in in the midst of preparing for his second season of professional hockey in France.

Athletes who sign up for the service are given a behavioral assessment and a video course that explains the results of that survey. 

The goal is to provide athletes with insight into their mind. 

“Let’s say an 18 year old has this problem where, ‘If something goes wrong that I can’t control, it really irritates me,’” Johnson said. 

“What we’re trying to do is not make it seem like a bigger problem than it is, but allow athletes to be honest with themselves, reflect, and work to change.” 

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Specifically, Johnson says, the lessons an athlete learns through sport is transferable to a career off the ice, court, or running track. Unfortunately though, he says that team sports can also breed other mentalities — a ‘me against the world mindset’ — that fosters a cycle of negative cycle that results in burnout.

His biggest piece of advice for athletes is to strive for their dreams, but realize that doing extra workouts or skill sessions isn’t the best way to get there.

“If you get a college scholarship, or a professional contract as an athlete, it should be because you lived in a way that [you] earned it,” Johnson said. “But the way to do that is not always to do more. The way to do that is to grow yourself . . . and not deplete your physical and mental energy.”

The parental aspect of the website is designed to give parents tools on how to communicate with their children, Murray said. Some children prefer to be supported, others may like a challenge. The key, though, is to understand what communication style best suits an athlete. Murray said that My Mental Game has developed a course to teach parents how to support their children in different situations.

“Kyle has developed a program which helps people learn how their mind is working, why their mind is telling them certain things, what to do with it, what to do with it and how to build habits,” Seward said. “So when adversity hits, they know how to handle it.”

Although the website just launched at the beginning of July, and registration numbers are just picking up, both Seward and Johnson have their sights set on making it a vital piece of information for athletes and parents of all sports. 

“Hopefully this will be a tool that people can use no different than a workout or nutrition program,” Seward said. 

“It will be a normal thing for young athletes to build into their training.” 


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