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04/17/24

JAKE NEWTON'S MIND.

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Jake Newton played ten years with professional hockey teams in seven countries—from the verge of the NHL to the European leagues.

But his story is bigger than that.

Sexually abused as a child, Jake thought he’d suppressed the memories, but a difficult emotional struggle through life and hockey taught him differently. And it taught him about the power of the human mind. Today, he’s a mental performance coach who clearly comes from a place of deep personal experience. A PowerPlayer advocate who’s all about communication, we sat down with Jake for a long conversation. 

We’re glad we did.

Your journey through hockey—and life—has been unusual, to say the least.     I guess it was unusual in that I didn't start ice hockey until age eleven. I started in roller hockey, growing up in a little desert town about 25 minutes outside Palm Springs. We didn't didn't have an ice rink, but we had two roller rinks, and my parents co-owned one. So it was hockey all the time. I switched to ice hockey when it became more popular in California, and that was a commute of about an hour and fifteen minutes, to Riverside. 

I moved away from home when I was fifteen to play junior. That was quite the experience… The things I saw that year, maybe I shouldn't share those, but it was a learning experience. 

My senior year I played with the LA Junior Kings. We were a high level team and we wanted to play in high level tournaments, so we were traveling a week to ten days every month. To Michigan, Minnesota, Massachusetts. But more than that, the commute to practice was a hundred miles, and anybody who’s ever been to California knows what the traffic is like. It should have only taken about two hours, but it took three and a half. Three and a half hours there, homework in the car, having a snack leading into practice, then three and a half hours home. You’d think that at eleven at night, there's not going to be traffic… 

 

The following year, I played with the NAHL Texas Tornado. That was when my life started to drastically shift off the ice. I started to participate in things I don't believe athletes should be participating in. Next, I played with the USHL Lincoln Stars, and the off-ice stuff amplified, but my on ice performance was still at a very high level. I was still the go-to guy, and that enabled me to continue doing things off the ice because I didn't think anything was wrong. I was getting points and going to all-star games and getting offers from colleges. I committed to Alaska Fairbanks on a full scholarship, but they went through a coaching change and I chose to decommit and go back to Lincoln. Then I had an opportunity to live out my childhood dream. 

When I was a kid, I attended a Boston College Eagles game. From that moment, I was like, “I want to go to Boston College!” I’d received an offer from Northeastern, but Jimmy Hayes—rest in peace, brother—who was my roommate my first year in Lincoln, was playing at BC, and he was talking to Jerry York about me. Coach York came to watch me play, but I played so poorly defensively that I was put up on forward. Needless to say, no offer came from Boston College! So I made the decision to attend Northeastern, and got to play against them. I remember going through the handshake line and talking to Coach York. He didn't say, “I wish I had you,” but he said, “You're one hell of a player.” I’ll take that!

Freshman year, I was named to the Hockey East rookie team. I was on an 85% scholarship and the coach was going to push me to a full ride for the rest of my time. But I got an offer from the Washington Capitals. Anaheim apparently heard that Washington made me an offer, and I eventually signed a three year contract with the Ducks. I played professional hockey for ten years, seven of those in Europe, across six different countries: Finland, Sweden, Norway, Italy, Germany, and the Czech Republic.

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Hockey people seem to use the word “adversity” a lot. I'm guessing you’ve got a few thoughts on that?      My childhood sure wasn’t easy. I experienced sexual abuse for two years—from age five to seven—and that transformed my mind. It put me into a constant state of fight or flight: not an ideal mode in which to play the game of hockey. You can’t play with fear.

I remember being told I was too timid. If people could have understood the demons I was battling… I got to the point where I’d be so nervous before going on the ice that I was on the verge of throwing up, because any time there was confrontation between me and an opponent, or heck, even a teammate in practice, I’d instantly become little Jake, and the person in front of me would instantly become the man who’d abused me. 

My first preseason game with Anaheim there were six fights. Every time another one broke out, I kept thinking, “Somebody’s going to ask me. I'm six three, 215 pounds. I'm going to get asked. And when I get asked, I don't have the option to say no. If I say no, I’m the weak link on the team, and we can't have that in this sport.” But I didn't know how to fight. I was a finesse player. I was in fight or flight mode because I was creating stories.

And I never had a positive male role model in my life, which I know is pretty common. My father was an alcoholic, and the effect that had on my psyche, the effect on family dynamics… a lot of dysfunction came from that. Those are two big things in regards to adversity for me. Hockey was my escape, even though, at times, it wasn’t an escape. It was a remembrance of things I’d experienced.

That's why the word “adversity,” from my perspective, well, I've heard too many coaches throw it around thoughtlessly. They don't mean to. It's kind of baked into the language of hockey. But for someone who's really had adversity, or is going through it, it takes on a completely different meaning. Within sports, “adversity” is like clickbait. It’s trending. 

You said hockey was an escape and a threat. What kind of mental gymnastics did you go through to deal with that?     Hockey was an escape until there was confrontation, then the fear would be at its highest point, but absent that, it was a way to express myself, to be seen, to feel heard, to allow my play to do the talking. I wasn’t a talker, I wasn't one to talk crap about anybody because that would put me into a state I knew I couldn’t be in if I wanted to have success within this sport. Within life. 

And I was a gifted player, but I worked hard to have the skills I had. Everybody would say, “Oh, you’ve got natural talent.” Well, maybe, to a certain degree, but you’ve got to be intentional with executing and capitalizing on that, and I was. The adversity away from the rink is ultimately what I feel allowed me to overcome the adversity within the game. Anything I went through in the game paled in comparison to things I was experiencing away from it. That's real life. Hockey’s such a small thing, and this—all of this—is so much bigger.

Did anyone help you through any of that?     I was on my own. The abuse happened from the ages of five to seven and I didn't receive any help or guidance around it until I was about 22, so fifteen or sixteen years of me just coping, suppressing, running away from things that would come up emotionally. And using working out—using hockey—to push it away. But the more I pushed it away, the more I was inviting it to stay. I was resisting it and it was persisting, and it was going to find a way to come back up. And ultimately it did. It came back up at the worst time, when I was within my professional career.

I don't have any anger, but I know people could see the pain I was in. When I was in Lincoln, I got intoxicated one night. I don't know how I remember this, because it was catastrophic, but I had my hands in my pockets and I face planted. I showed up at the rink the next day with a massive fat lip, scars all over my face. The following day we had a cancer awareness walk and fans had the opportunity to get autographs from us. The coach's wife came up with a little kid and said, “There's Jake Newton. There's the troublemaker…” 

They couldn’t see I wasn't a troublemaker. I was in trouble.

What was the turning point for you?      I'd signed with Anaheim, and my older sister was at our apartment. She made a comment. I don't remember the comment, but my fiancé heard it and said, “Jake, what the hell is she talking about?” At that moment, I didn't know—my mind had shut those memories away. It wasn't until I started therapy that I began to unravel things and got to the root cause of so many of my decisions. I was experiencing pain and emotion directly connected to memories, but I couldn't remember what they were.

Again, I'm at the NHL level at that time, with more money than I’d ever known. And what do you think I did with it? I used it to suppress more, to run away from all the crap. Talk therapy was powerful, but it came after a decision I wish I didn't make—though now I'm grateful for—because it opened me up to healing. I stepped out on my then wife. Thankfully she stayed with me because she saw potential in me and she believed in me. That led to three years of therapy, and we had two beautiful kids together. Had it not been for her staying with me, I don't know if we'd be having this conversation today because I don't know if I would have changed. I'm forever grateful for her. And I love the person I am now. Do I struggle still? Sure, because that's part of human life. But I'm proud of the work I've done to be able to talk freely about the things I experienced. Without everything being the way it was, this doesn't happen. If one thing was different, I don't believe this conversation would be taking place. Had I had success at the NHL level, I don't know if I’d have changed. I was meant to not have a career in the NHL. I was meant to get sent down to the second Italian league. And it took me getting there for me to realize, whoa, I've been the problem all along. But that means I’m the solution as well. 

You're an advocate for mental performance coaching. The answers might be obvious, but why? And why you?     For every “Why?” in my mind, there's a “Why not?” Why not me? I feel mental performance is the missing piece—not for everyone—but for probably about 98% or 99% of players. Some players are gifted physically, and they continue to execute and build on that skill, and they don't necessarily need mental performance training. They’ve already got mental resilience. But that’s like the 1% or 2% of high level athletes. Everybody else needs mindset training because at some point the physical is going to plateau. 

I played at the highest levels and, every time, it was what was going on in my own head that limited my physical abilities. Physically, I was right there with everyone—I wouldn’t have gotten the opportunities I got without that—but once I got to the NHL level, this thing took over, and it abused me. I didn't understand that I could change my thoughts. I had no idea. 

When they plateau or feel stuck, competitive players typically fall into the programming of “I need more time in the gym, more time on the ice.” But how’s that going to help with performance anxiety? How’s that going to help with negative self-talk? How’s that going to help them stop pushing away the nerves and start understanding that nerves are a good feeling? Nerves are a feeling that you're alive, that you're experiencing something that so many people want from competing at a high level. The fact that you're experiencing nerves, that's a good thing, but too often players try to resist that. I provide tools that help people begin having a healthier relationship with themselves. 

And I take the approach of “this is for life.” The tools I talk about can be used for hockey, but really in every area of life. How do people handle negativity coming at them, whether they're getting screamed at by a coach or by a boss? How do they handle themself in the midst of negative self-talk? To me, that’s the game.

What age athletes do you typically work with?     In regards to age, all I need is intention and consistency, but around age fourteen is usually a good starting point, because kids that age can better understand being consistent, having a growth mindset, having goals. And the older they are, the more engaged they are. They understand it’s okay to ask questions. 

You're using PowerPlayer to connect with the people you’re working with. What does the platform do for you and your athletes?       PowerPlayer is helping me reach more people more efficiently. If I’m working with an organization—say fifteen teams, and roughly fifteen kids per team—with the click of a button I can send out private or group comments or questions, or post self-assessment polls or videos. I can spur some future conversation that might happen in a team Zoom session or in a one on one. The app is helping me help people around the world.

For players, confidence is the thing most struggle with. Getting a random PowerPlayer message from a coach who says, “I believe in you,” well, that helps lead you into believing in yourself, which leads to confidence. The whole connection thing matters! Everybody needs support. We all do. We need community. We need to know that somebody has got our back. 

And coaches put in a lot of hours. The PowerPlayer app gives them more time with family, with the things that actually matter. It creates more flexibility, and who doesn't want that?

Are you optimistic?     Absolutely. People are out there doing this type of work. Regardless of ability level, your game will be amplified the moment you begin working on your mindset and breaking free from the blockages we all have—performance anxiety, pre-game nerves, negative self-talk. Again, we are so much more powerful than we've been led to believe. 

I'm here to guide athletes back to themselves. I don’t need to work with them forever, because I just remind them of what they already possess. And that's it. 

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