Adrian Shellard, for the University of Calgary
March 1, 2023
Trade deadline a unique time for professional athletes, says UCalgary prof
There are two things vital to the success of a professional athlete: mental skills and emotional management.
But both of those things can be thrown out of the window once a year when the trade deadline rolls around. The trade deadline is a date in the calendar of a sports league after which teams can no longer deal players to other teams.
In recent years, trade deadlines have become a spectacle for fans, with sports networks airing all-day shows dedicated just to transactions. For example, both TSN and Sportsnet will have full-day coverage of the NHL’s trade deadline on March 3. But for the players, the deadline and the days leading up to it can be stressful.
“Any time that there’s rumours or conversations going around that you have no control over, it may become a distraction,” says Dr. David Paskevich, PhD, a sports psychologist and associate professor in the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Kinesiology.
Pressure to perform
Paskevich says anything that is a distraction can lead to a loss of focus for the player, so if they aren’t fully focused on preparing and practising to play it can impact performance in a negative way.
The age of social media has only exacerbated the trade deadline, with National Hockey League teams now tweeting that they will sit players until they find a trade for them.
With the main goal of players being to push for a playoff spot and ultimately a league championship, being involved in trade rumours and sat out can impact a player in two ways.
Paskevich says the first impact is simply the player being held out doesn’t get to play with their teammates.
“Secondly, you could be a little peeved and thinking ‘Why don’t they want me,’ and that can lead to disappointment,” he says.
Not only can the rumour mill be detrimental, but if a trade is consummated the player can also be under increased expectations to perform. If they’ve been traded to a team contending for a championship, the pressure can be on the player to be the final piece that puts the team over the top. If they were traded to a team that is rebuilding, they can be under pressure to be a big piece in helping their new team return to relevance.
“You’re being acquired from that team because you’re expected to be the piece that’s going to make a difference,” says Paskevich.
Support network matters
Players traded at the deadline suddenly lose their entire support network, and often end up living the rest of the season out of a hotel room. Paskevich says players want to go to their new team and make a good first impression, but if they struggle out of the gate that can have an impact.
We know players are most critical of themselves, so if they struggle, they can put more and more pressure on themselves, which can lead to a downward spiral.
The hope is the player’s new team is supportive and puts them in positions to excel right away, and that initial success can have a positive outcome for both player and team.
A player’s reaction to being traded is entirely case by case, says Paskevich. Some could be excited about going to a new team because they haven’t enjoyed the team or the role they had. Other can be devastated because they love their team and teammates, and their family is well situated.
It’s a unique quirk in professional sports, as there are not many other professions out there where one can be shipped across the country without their say.
Players are human first
“You have to be prepared for it,” says Paskevich. “You never want to think about being traded, but I would encourage players during the offseason to think about what they would do if it ever happened.”
While some players may have no-trade clauses built into their contracts that give them a little bit of control on whether they move or not, many players have no such protections. Players sign these contracts to ensure they capitalize on the short time they have to perform at peak level, but the concession they make is they become commodities.
Paskevich says it’s important for fans to remember that players are human first, they have feelings, emotions, family, support, all things that get completely tossed up in the air after being traded.
“When I get traded, I have new teammates, new coaches, new medical staff, a new city,” he says.
“Depending on the player, these are all things that can take a while to get adjusted to.”