Hockey, like all sports, is filled with intangibles and idiosyncrasies that define the game, the culture and determines who achieves the most success. We’ve all heard the saying, “Hockey is 10% physical and 90% mental.” The statement may be a bit inaccurate, but the overall message is bang on. In order to reach the high levels of hockey, you certainly need a high level of physical skill, but it is the mental aspect of the game that separates good from great.
The mental side of the game is what defines consistency in hockey. It’s why one player can dominate one night and be the worst player on the ice the next night. Talent is abundant. The fastest skater in the world doesn’t play in the NHL. The player with the hardest shot in the world doesn’t play in the NHL. The greatest league in the world is full of talented players who are able to think the game at a high level and perform with consistency. As the pace of the game picks up and the plays become sharper, so does their focus. To become elite means to prepare like an elite professional.
Below are 5 effective mental preparation tips to ensure you are always performing at your peak:
1. Mental Simulation: The Game Within the Game
One of the best forms of mental preparation is “Visualization”. This is the process of focusing your energies into picturing processes that occur within a game and acting them out within your mind prior to competition. Professional athletes use these types of techniques to prepare themselves mentally, allowing their mind to connect with their body before a game.
I used to sit up in a dark corner of the arena before games and look out over the calm, tranquil ice surface and go through every possible game situation in my mind. I would essentially play out an entire game, shift by shift in my mind. As I pictured myself in each situation, I made sure that I was always succeeding. I was always making the right plays and coming out on top. This did two things. It boosted my confidence, and it allowed me to prepare my mind for every conceivable game situation. When the game would start and I would find myself in different situations on the ice, I had a boost because I had already played the game within my mind and knew exactly what I had to do. I always felt this gave me a split-second advantage. In hockey, a split-second is an eternity.
2. Method Preparation: You Think, Therefore You Are
Another preparation tip for athletes is to develop a character to personify when you strap on the gear before a game. Just like how method actors get into character before they have to perform on camera, athletes can develop characters they wish to become before they step foot in an arena. This type of preparation is common in sports like football. Players often develop “alter egos” who exude swagger and bravado.
If you have a specific role on a team, this method of preparation can be used to help you emulate a specific style. As a coach, I used to help players determine the style of play they wanted to try and emulate. One player I coached was a big, power forward who had a nose for the net and wasn’t afraid to mix it up. We went on Youtube.com and found a five minute compilation of Brendan Shanahan highlights that he began watching an hour before games. Every game day, he would go into my office, close the door and watch the highlights. This helped him get into the role of “Shanny”. When he stepped on the ice for the game, he knew exactly what his role was and the expectations.
3. Mantra Development
In hockey, each game can demand a different approach. Certain games are more physical, while others demand a more passive approach. Depending on what is expected of you each game, you can develop different mantras. When I was playing in the playoffs in 2007/08 in the ECHL, we were tangled in an emotionally charged best-of-five battle with the South Carolina Stingrays. They were our conference rivals and there was no love lost between us. The series was played entirely on the edge and you often found yourself doing things that weren’t in tune with your regular style of play (I can remember deliberately trying to hurt certain players throughout the series). The entire series was a war. To get ready for each game, I had to develop a mantra and buy into a specific mindset. For the South Carolina series, my mantra became “Warrior”.
In order to encompass the mantra of Warrior, I began listening to Metallica and Avenged Sevenfold before games. Before I left my house, I watched specific scenes from Braveheart and Gladiator and I walked around with a constant scowl. I had to shape the processes of my pre-game routine to develop a warrior’s attitude. The loser of the series was essentially dead, so everything became about surviving. It was kill or be killed. Do or die.
Eventually we lost in overtime of Game 5, ending our season. My defence partner and I achieved our task of shutting down Travis Morin’s line during the series. Morin’s line was one of the hottest lines in the ECHL that season. We held Morin to one assist in the series. We lost the series, but my mantra worked. I played my best hockey of the season in that series and everything had to do with my mental approach.
4. Fine Tune Your Focus
Focus is all about prioritization. At any given time of the day, you might have 10 different things on your mind. You might be thinking about getting an oil change, whether this Thursday or next Thursday is pay day, what you’ll make for dinner, whether you should change your facebook profile picture, what to get your wife for her birthday later this month, or whether or not you should ask your boss for a long overdue promotion. As an athlete, when you enter the arena, your mind should immediately begin the process of prioritizing. When you walk through the dressing room doors, nothing else matters but the task at hand. At this point, it still includes a lot of components. Leading up to warm up you are focusing on matchups, systems, preparations and all the aspects incorporated in your pre-game routine. There is variety, but only one theme.
Once you step onto the ice, your focus narrows even more. Everything becomes about the moment. The past is gone. Even what you let enter your focus window becomes crucial. The human brain can only efficiently focus on two stimuli at a time. The first priority has to be what your senses are telling your body about what is happening on the ice, and in return, the reactions of your body to the stimuli. In hockey, this is called reading and reacting. The second focus priority is the communication from your team mates, helping you to make sound, split-second decisions.
Once you start letting other stimuli into that focus window, you start to lose efficiency and the potential for error increases dramatically. If you add in a screaming coach or parent, or you let taunts from opponents into your range of focus, you will experience significant drop offs in your prioritized focus areas and essentially, your overall focus. Being able to block out these other aspects is what is known as fine-tuning your focus.
This is what inexperienced coaches don’t understand. They think that coaching means being loud between the whistles, constantly screaming instructions. Effective coaching is preparing your team so that they can use the tools they have been given to read and react when the game is on. Plays happen so quickly on the ice that the brain can’t properly process what a coach is screaming from across the ice. If anything, this creates confusion and a detrimental break in focus.
5. Develop a Winning Pre Game Routine
Hockey players are a bunch of superstitious weirdos. Superstition is the Santa Claus of hockey success and it’s part of what gives the sport its unique identity. It is the playoff beard, the rally monkey and the scraggly, unkempt hair. It’s Patrick Roy talking to his posts, Wayne Gretzky wearing blue Tuuks, and Ray Ferraro’s pre game chicken parm. But, like they say, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
In reality, superstitions are part of a routine. The routine is what creates a flow of consistency for an athlete. For some, game day routines can be comprehensive, including waking up at a certain time, eating a specific pre game meal, listening to the same songs on the way to the rink, walking into the rink via a specific path, taping your sticks a certain way, putting your gear on in a specific order and walking out to the rink in a specific order after a unique handshake with a specific team mate. Routines vary in complexity and creativeness, but they all have one thing in common—they serve the purpose of creating a feeling of security and consistency. When you are in the right frame of mind and your soul is at ease, it is easier for everything else to fall into place.