The Mental Game

Often as coaches we get caught up in the development of the physical skills needed to play the great game of hockey.  There is no denying it’s important to spend a lot of time on this – but it seems often times we overlook one of the most important aspects of the game…mental preparation.

In order to play this game, a person has to be physically and mentally tough.  Hockey is the fastest of the major sports.  The best in the sport can skate approximately 30 mph.  A player moving at 30 mph covers 44 feet per second.  At this speed, it would take just over 3 seconds for a player to skate from one end zone face-off dot to the other dot on the far end of the rink.  Most midget hockey players can complete that same distance (approximately 140 feet) from a dead-stop in 5-6 seconds.  At 6 seconds, this averages out to be about 23.3 feet per second – 28 feet per second at 5 seconds.

Ice Hockey Rink 140 Foot Sprint
Ice Hockey Rink 140 Foot Sprint

If the average midget hockey player can execute this, they have the physical skills necessary to perform the strides down the ice….but this is just the beginning.  In those 5-6 seconds, many decisions need to be made.  What path do I need to skate? Where is the puck? Am I going to stay on sides? Should I drive the net? Where is the defender? Should I call for a pass?  One or two hands on the stick?  How can we expect youth hockey players to effectively make the best decisions (so they become second nature) without spending time developing these players mentally?

One of the toughest things to watch is a player who is afraid to make a mistake.  This player has been mentally conditioned to associate pain with a mistake on the ice.  This can come from several sources, but most often comes from a coach or parent.  If a coach berates a player for making a mistake, what are the odds the player will try something next time outside of his/her “safe” play zone?  While some coaches may say that’s exactly what they want, others (myself included) would argue great hockey players aren’t made by making only safe plays.  Players need to be given some freedoms to try something new and make mistakes – it’s how we learn…not just a hockey players, but as human beings.  As coaches we must keep that balance in mind between making a simple/safe play and allowing players to make mistakes – without discouraging creativity.

Hockey also requires a unique mental toughness.  In order to set oneself up for success, one must got to be able to mentally prepare to perform at your peak level.  One of the most important aspects of mental preparation coaches can develop is goal setting.  The game of hockey is only effective as a competitive sport because everyone playing it has a common goal….to put the puck in the opposing team’s net!  How can you expect yourself or your players to perform an entire season without clear-cut goals in front of them?  These need to be something more than just: “Win the League” or “Win the National Tournament”.  These goals are obvious – every team / player wants to finish at the top – but vague goals usually lead to sub-par performances.  Goals must be clearly identified and broken down into smaller measurable chunks.  For example:  1 month goal – get 10 of 14 points in league play.  This is an easily measurable goal (make sure it’s realistic for your own team).  Once you’ve established your goals, there needs to be some sort of action plan so you and your team know exactly how they can put themselves in the best position to achieve the goal.

Finally, the mental state a player enters the rink with is one of the most critical parts of the mental game.  If a player is in a poor mental state (distracted, unfocused, nervous, sad, etc.), the chances of them performing at a high physical level are greatly reduced.  If the player isn’t enjoying him/herself when they get to the rink, you’re not likely to have that player live up to your expectations.  Even at the highest levels of the game, coaches work fun into their routines.  Basic human nature craves variety – coaches cannot make going to the rink drudgery for players.  The players simply won’t perform.  There are several ways to incorporate fun into your practice routine.  The first is through the use of small area games.  These games not only develop players quicker than most skill drills, but are also a lot of fun for players because they get to compete.   Another option is the use of unstructured ice time.  Even though ice time is very usually very expensive, kids need to be kids.  Give them opportunities to play around in an unstructured environment.

If you’re interested in finding more ways to train your players mentally, there are a couple great books I found helpful.  The first is Hockey Tough as the name indicates, it’s geared directly toward hockey.  It covers lots of great topics: Managing the Mental Game, Imaging, Controlling Emotions, Playing a Winning Team Game, and more.

The second book I recommend is In Pursuit of Excellence – 4th Edition.  This book covers “how to win in sport and life through mental training.”  This book dives deep into the self-preparation side of things – including: Distraction Control, Positive Images, Goals, Commitments, Resilience, Coaching Relationships, and more.

Skate hard & keep your head up! See you around the rinks.

2 Replies to “The Mental Game”

  1. Kevin,
    You put some great info. on your web site, keep the good informational, instructional stuff coming.
    Your diagram and comments on how Crosby scored his winning goal in the Olympics is great for coaches and players to learn and to realize how important it is to play on the defensive side of the puck in one’s zone in particular and keeping one’s self in between the player and one’s cage, in good positioning and shutting off the passing and or shooting lane as should have been done in Crosbys situation, When I am fortunate enough to teach and coach as is not the case here in Springfield, Mo. I preach emphatically to never give yourself up for one desparate, futile attempt to get the puck, play the player or poke and hope, swipe and wiped.
    Don Ervin

  2. I forgot to mention that Terry Orlick’s book, In Pursuit of Ecellence is a book that every parent, coach and athlete should have and study religiously, Mr. Orlick is as good as one can be in his field.
    Don Ervin

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