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Blackhawks Wed Mar 25 2015

Crawford Finding the Ability to Forget

Chicago Blackhawks Goalies are a lot like relief pitchers in baseball, meaning, if there's a bad outing, they need to forget it ever happened. The ability to block something out -- suppressing it deep within the hippocampus -- has separated the elite in late-inning relief from those who wind up back in Triple A.

This season for the Hawks, Corey Crawford has excelled in his ability to let go the occasional clunker and come right back a few days later to lock it back down in net. It'd help his cause, and sanity for that matter, if his teammates cleared the zone a little more consistently, but nonetheless, Crawford has put up career numbers in a season where he's on pace to see more shots than ever before.

What's different from this season compared to seasons' prior when the Hawks' netminder would fight through more frequent slumps? Perhaps it's working harder between the pipes as well as exercising his neurological skills.

What's interesting is how an athlete, more specifically Crawford, is able to melt away the memory of a bad night. Then you add on top of it the fact that Crawford still has yet to win the trust of a fan base, despite a 2.19 goals-against average, currently eighth in the league after 50 starts, and it's a wonder he's still able to compete at such a high level.

An interesting research published online (PDF) by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), and partly funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC), as well as assisted by the University of Cambridge's Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute (BCNI), takes a look at how suppression is affected in the memory's unconscious influences.

The study doesn't focus on athletes, per se, but does begin to make sense in comparison to when, after reading the piece, making the connection between one's ability to forget something that happened so recently and then moving on like it never happened.

In looking at Crawford's example this season, he only has lost back-to-back starts three times, letting four goals, eight goals and eight goals combined, respectively, in each of those mini stretches. The result after each two-game skid? A shutout, two goals against and another shutout (the latter shutout came in Florida against the Panthers, a 3-0 win, which was the first game without injured Patrick Kane).

Last season, Crawford had six moments of losing back-to-back games, including the playoffs, which also included the three-game stretch against the eventual Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings. During that three-game skid, Crawford allowed a combined 13 goals. And while he bounced back for Game 5 and Game 6, he allowed eight goals in both of those games combined.

Again, facing a barrage of shots doesn't help anyone's cause in net, however, in Crawford's case last season, he seemingly had a harder time letting go the past and moving on to the next game. This included an eight-game stretch from early December of 2013, until mid-January 2014 (Crawford faced four shots against the Panthers on December 8, 2013, in Florida, before having to leave with a lower-body injury and was out for nearly a month), when the Hawks either lost in regulation or had an overtime loss.

In one specific scenario, Crawford let up four goals on 18 shots against the Dallas Stars at the United Center on December 3, 2013. The Hawks lost 4-3, and Crawford had to come right back two nights later against the Wild, only to give up another four goals, this time on 23 shots, in a 4-3 loss in Minnesota.

This season, while some losses have looked bad (a 6-3 pasting at home against the Stars on January 15, and a 4-0 shutout in Dallas just last weekend), Crow has bounced back admirably (stopping 33 of 35 against the Penguins on January 21, and a 3-1 win Monday night in Carolina). And while there have been some easy goals given up everywhere in between, Crawford has managed to come right back and challenge most every other shot as aggressive as ever.

In the report published on, by Pierre Gagnepaina, Richard N. Hensone, and Michael C. Andersone, it's mentioned "people have some control over whether memories are consciously remembered," however, "suppression's effects on unconscious expressions of memory remain largely unknown." As it turns out, according to the study, an event could trigger a suppressed memory, thus causing the hippocampus to involuntarily remind the individual of said event or image.

In Crawford's case, despite his willingness to forget a blazing slap shot from Zdeno Chara, the likelihood is he'll be reminded of it every time he hears the whistle of the puck go by his mask. This can be intimidating for anyone able to brave a 108 MPH rubber disk coming at them while in a crouching position and a layer of plastic separating their skull from an irresistible force.

In thinking back to science class, the ability to quickly forget about a bad game might have something to do with the primacy (earliest, or long-term memory) and recency (last, or most-recent memory) in each athlete's career. However, after speaking with Rob Mason, a senior research associate at Carnegie Mellon University, that might not be the case.

"If nothing else is involved, the early games [in an athlete's career] may be strongly remembered and the most recent game would be easy to recall," Mason said. "However over a large time frame, other games will be highly memorable (critical games) and some less. It won't be a simple serial position effect (where the primacy and recency effects arise from)."

Mason continued to theorize that memory research likely suggests everyone would be able to put a bad game behind them. The people that may be able to do so might not be exceptional, but rather those that cannot might perseverate on bad outcomes.

With Crawford, and every other player in the NHL, primacy is remembering the very first time they stepped out on the ice, or their first goal/big save. It's why we all remember our first kiss, our first experience with a parent going to a game, musical, concert or even being dropped off at our first day of school.

The same can be said about most-recent events (recency), especially those which have had a bigger impact (the last shutout in a game, the last home run hit, and our most-recent kiss, etc.). For Crawford, it's finding a way to remain exceptional between the pipes while overcoming perseveration.

The Hawks have benefited from Crawford's play and his ability to forget the bad games when needed. And if he and his teammates can continue to play at a high level the rest of this season and into the postseason, all while finding a way to suppress the bad losses, come June, they'll give Hawks fans something to remember for a long time to come.

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