Ben Smith: Playing with Intention
Healthy Habits and Dedication are Keys to Success in Sports
Photo courtesy of Chicago Blackhawks
Playing sports seriously, whether amateur or pro, includes a lot more than showing up on the field or at the rink. Mental preparation, diet, exercise and proper sleep are requirements that make up an athlete’s day, 24/7.
For Ben Smith, a forward with the Chicago Blackhawks, starting young on the ice prepared him for this strenuous physical and mental regimen, including a relentless training and travel schedule.
The East Coast native was drafted by the Blackhawks in 2008 after his sophomore year at Boston College. He played four seasons at the college before turning pro with the Rockford IceHogs, the Blackhawks top affiliate, in the fall of 2009. Smith made his NHL debut in October 2010 and has skated in 131 regular season and postseason games as of October 28 with the Blackhawks over the past five seasons. This summer, the Blackhawks signed Smith, a member of its 2013 Stanley Cup Championship team, to a two-year contract extension.
Smith has a casual, low-key air when he speaks about his upbringing and what brought him to one of the best hockey teams in the world. He credits his family for keeping him level-headed and committed to his education, while sacrificing their time, energy and money to allow him to practice and play hockey. But his easygoing demeanor belies a razor-sharp focus and determination that began when he was a young boy in Connecticut who loved watching and playing hockey.
Chicago youth player Jesse Easterwood is not unlike Smith. The 11-year-old trains year-round at several area rinks and currently plays goalie for the AAA Chicago Mission PeeWee Minor 03 team. From September to February, he, his family and the team will travel to Detroit, Toronto, Pittsburgh and Miami over the course of nine weekends. Smith chuckles at Easterwood’s non-pro schedule because he knows it all too well—that was his own schedule as a kid.
For a professional athlete, proper nutrition and training are a high priority, and Smith says he eats well both during training season and off. “I eat broccoli almost twice a day, steamed; especially the frozen organic ones from Whole Foods,” he says. “Our [Blackhawks] nutritionists have us on a gluten-free diet, so we eat a lot of protein in the form of vegetables and meat.”
Smith recently bought a home and likes to cook meals there whenever he has time. As the season progresses, he often finds himself ordering salads or gluten-free meals from some of his favorite restaurants, including Sunda, PF Chang’s and LYFE Kitchen. He also admits that he’s human. He rarely eats pizza, but when he does, he opts for the gluten-free variety. His main cheat meals are frozen yogurt, the marshmallow Dream bars and tortilla chips with guacamole.
Rest and Relaxation
Protein and a balanced diet are important for Smith and his fellow athletes because they’re on the rink or training for about four hours a day, six days a week. But with an 82-game regular season, rest and relaxation are just as important as diet. “When I’m not on the rink, I’ll use that time to meditate, go for long walks or enjoy the lakefront, especially during the summer,” he says.
To keep his mind strong, Smith meditates and practices intention. While he does some yoga, his form of meditation is based on being mindful about time and place. Before getting out of bed each morning, Smith says he lies still and quiet, with his eyes closed, visualizing how the day will play out and how he’ll perform on the ice. A common myth is that players just show up at the rink and play, he says. “I’m not sure if fans know how much preparation, including mental preparation, goes into playing one game or an entire season,” he notes.
The Easterwood family also knows and appreciates the drill. “Jesse does a lot of stretching,” says his mom, Cheri Easterwood, who can usually be found behind the wheel driving him and his siblings from one rink to another. “Being a goalie means being able to do the splits and getting right back up and sliding into the butterfly position. He does yoga and floor barre with his figure-skating sister in order to be flexible and have a good sense of balance,” she says. “His coach also sends training videos and exercise lists to the team to keep them in shape during the off-season, including goalie-specific exercises.”
The one thing that the Easterwoods haven’t quite mastered is getting quality sleep when they’re traveling through different time zones, and Smith also acknowledges this is tough, even for a seasoned athlete. Blackhawks players don’t underplay the importance of being well-rested. “Playing well is as much mental as physical,” he notes. “Letting your mind and body rest helps us stay strong mentally and physically.”
Strong Mind and Body
Fans may not be aware that Smith comes from a family of professional musicians. His father is a professor of composition, his mother was a concert pianist who now teaches music, and his older brother is an oboist. Smith learned to play guitar and other musical instruments, and while his first love is hockey, education never took a back seat.
Smith’s majored in history and minored in economics and philosophy, and his parents associated a strong sense of pride with getting a college education. “Jerry York [his head coach at Boston College] always said to me that I was a student first, and then an athlete,” he says. “He wanted me to keep my mind strong.” At Boston College, he majored in history and minored in economics and philosophy.
A good education wasn’t all his parents wanted for their son; they wanted him to be thoughtful and empathetic to others, as well. “Some of the best advice I received from my parents was to give your best every day and enjoy what you do,” Smith says. “But also to be courteous to everyone, from my coach to the custodian.”
Don’t Forget the Fun
Smith loves being on the rink and playing hard, but knows it’s just as important to have fun with the friends and family, too. Whether it’s taking time to hang out with them on the weekends or enjoying Chicago summers, Smith is taking it all in.
Back on the Northwest side, Easterwood continues to train hard year-round. He wants to play for the Michigan State University Spartans hockey team for college and study animals (zoology). His ultimate goal is to play professionally for an NHL team. Pressed, he’ll say he wants to play for the Philadelphia Flyers. Who knows, maybe one day he’ll be matched up against Smith on the ice.
Ben Smith feels there is no reason why Easterwood can’t reach his goal if he keeps training and practicing his craft. After all, he’s living his childhood dream of playing professional hockey, too.
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