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Preparing for Big Games

By Jamie MacDonald, 02/28/23, 4:00PM EST


AJ Mleczko recalls 1998 gold medal game and offers advice for preparing for big games

On the morning of February 17, 1998, AJ Mleczko was preparing for one of the biggest games of her career. 

The Massachusetts native and Harvard star, along with her teammates, were about to compete in the first-ever Olympic women’s ice hockey event — which still stands today as one of the most significant games in Team USA history. 

Team USA went out and defeated Canada 3-1 to earn a gold medal in Nagano, Japan — fueling the growth of women’s hockey. 

Mleczko, even all these years later and highlighted by the 25th anniversary of the win this year, can tap into the memories that may have helped contribute to performing on the biggest stage and how to prepare for it.

“What I remember ... is the normalcy of it,” said Mleczko, who scored two goals and added two assists in six games during the tournament. “And I think that’s the biggest key to preparing for a big game — not the preparation of the day before or the day of. It’s the preparation of the season or the preparation of your career. You go into your rhythms, whatever they are, and you have your routine and you keep it. There are obviously nerves and butterflies, but I think after that first shift you settle in. So I think that it was just a comfort of that routine."

Now a successful broadcaster and mother of four kids who have each played in their own big games, Mleczko has, over the years, gained many perspectives on how to prepare for those moments.

Back to the basics

For Mleczko, a nap was part of her general routine. But she didn't nap before that historic game in 1998.

“I remember that I didn’t sleep that day, and that’s fine because there were other days like that,” she said of times where rest was sufficient for performing. “But I think just going through the routine, eating well, getting prepared, stretching, warming up, all that stuff, I think that’s what got us ready.”

Before history painted the game with much broader brushstrokes, Team USA simply had a game to win.

“The gold medal game was the 15th time we played in that season,” Mleczko said. “We were 7-7 with them and had each scored the same goals for and goals against. It was that even. But one word that comes to mind is simplicity, with that team and with [head coach] Ben Smith. We just worked hard. There was no magic. There was no trickery. There was no special sauce. It was just work. For us, it was going back to basics.”

Smith's approach was to see the game as exactly that: a game. 

In fact, during the team's morning skate, he couldn't have boiled it down much more for the best players in the world preparing for their biggest game.

“That day of the final, at the morning skate, Ben Smith made us do stationary passing -— half of us on the red line and half of us on the blue line — and we’re looking at him like, ‘What is going on?,’” Mleczko said. “And he was trying to pull us back to the basics. He was trying to say, ‘This is hockey. You guys know how to play hockey. You guys worked your tails off to get here.’ His message was that we all know how to do this and to keep it simple. Work hard and get it done.”

Navigating each outcome

Mleczko’s experiences in helping her kids prepare for big games is much different. 

“It's way worse as a mom,” Mleczko said. “And I’m talking about state championships or Nationals games. Those are big deals. As a coach, you get worked up and nervous, but you’re in it and involved. When you’re a parent in the stands, it’s really hard.”

In the lives of young hockey players, big games are family affairs. There’s just no easy way to separate kids’ hopes and dreams from some tether to their parents’ relationships with those hopes and dreams.

“That’s a really tough one, more so now because parents are so much more involved in their kids’ sports lives than they used to be,” Mleczko said. “My parents never watched me practice except for when my father was a coach. I rarely watch my kids practice unless I’m running practice because I’m a coach. [When your kids are younger], and parents are still helping tie skates, after the game, any game, big or small, what’s the message you want to give your kid? ‘What were you thinking when you did that?,’ or, ‘Hey, you guys gave such a great effort, I’m sorry you fell short, are you hungry?’ That, to me, takes a lot of the pressure off."

When it comes time to produce, not only are hopes and dreams on the line, but so, too, are successes and failures. Preparing for either outcome may come down to focusing a little less on the outcome, and that goes for parents and coaches.

“At the end of the day, I know how important failure is, too,” Mleczko said. “I know how important it is for the kids to learn both sides of it. And I don’t want my kids to succeed without appreciating what it takes. As a parent, you want so much for your child to succeed in a way that’s meaningful. And not just succeed for the sake of succeeding. And it’s hard as a coach, too, because you want to make sure you make the right decisions, you want to include everybody. You want to make sure that everybody on the bench feels part of the win or owns part of the loss.”

Learning from mistakes

And what about failures? Or perceived failures under the pressures of a big game? 

Four years after the historic win in Nagano, Mleczko and Team USA lost in the gold medal final to Canada at the Salt Lake Games in 2002.

“For us, we were a lesson and not handling that very well in Salt Lake,” Mleczko said. “We sort of created under the pressure, not necessarily from family [as opposed to Nagano, the travel to which was difficult for all but a handful of families], but from all of it combined -— the pressure of being the defending champs, the pressure of being on home soil, family, friends, media — all that stuff that we didn’t handle very well. We were the better team and we didn’t prove it on February 21, 2002.”

Perhaps part of preparing for a big game is to not so tightly tie it to failure or success. Preparing for big games may even be more of a long game than “a big game.”

“I think that it's so cliché to say, but ... relax,” Mleczko said. “Have confidence in your preparation. And I think that goes back to being prepared for your whole season or your whole career, or your summer preparation. Everything you do, every sprint you do, every pass you make, every shot, every practice, every game you play, every mistake you make, every weight you lifted … all of that you can put in the bank as part of your confidence bank account. And you can draw on that to give you the confidence to go ahead and know you are ready.”

Butterflies are going to be normal, too.

“Own the butterflies,” Mleczko said. “If you feel nervous, that’s a good thing. You go out there and you get your first shift in, and they fly away and you can just get into the rhythm of it. At the end of the day, and it’s so much easier said than done, but [my biggest advice is] relax and have fun.”

Finding motivation

Just as preparing at so many ages is a family affair, hockey, as a team sport, makes preparing as a team a shared responsibility, too.

“I think it goes back to how your team operates,” Mleczko said. “There are all sorts of different leaders and different role players. It’s positivity, first and foremost. And that doesn’t mean it has to be all cheerleading and rah-rah. There comes a time that if you’re playing with somebody it's, ‘Hey, I was over here and I thought you were going this way,’ and you talk through something. But I think there’s a way to do it, and a tone of voice in a positive way that you’re all working in the same direction. If you’re not a vocal leader, it can be eye contact. It could be hitting somebody in the shin pads. Maybe you see somebody’s a little bit nervous and you give them a smile. You understand it’s a big game, but, we’re all in this together, right? We’ve all trained and won enough important games to get into this position. So, trust the preparation and take confidence from it.”

There are also players who just may be wired to perform in big games, which isn't to say someone who lets nerves get the best of them are incapable of great things in big moments.

“I think some people are born as competitors,” Mleczko said. "They will rise to the challenge … Nobody really knows what they’re made of until there’s that situation and that preparation. I think some people are just born like that and I think there are also some people who can will themselves there — whether it’s the help of a supportive coach or supportive teammates, or supportive parents, but people who can understand what drives them.”

So much of what it means to perform on the biggest stages for elite athletes, where the margins between the competitors is so thin, comes down to what's between the ears than just about any other physical set of skills.

Mleczko's career ended in that 2002 gold medal final with the loss to Canada, which kicked off the gold medal drought that lasted until the PyeongChang Games — four years before Team USA’s overtime loss to Canada in Sochi.

Failure, too, can serve as an apex motivator.

"It’s a very motivating thing to lose," Mleczko said. "After ’98 we were inundated by people who wanted to talk to us and schools to talk to us. Four years later, no one wanted to talk about us. No one cared about losers. I had a lot more lessons to share because we lost. How do you take that and make it something that isn’t debilitating and feeling like failure defines you."