Have you ever noticed that when somebody doesn’t play up to potential, the player’s parents, and often the player him/herself, often chalk it up to mental causes? You’ll hear things like, “he didn’t focus,” or “I just psyched myself out,” or “she just can’t handle the stress of competition,” or “I couldn’t get motivated.”
Although it’s true that some games are lost by pure physical shortcomings, much of the time the mistakes are mental. And yet, what do we do? Go back to the ice and focus on more physical skills—as if another drill in getting to the line faster, or working on our passing, will fix it.
There seems to be an underlying expectation that if the physical skills are up to par, the player will have the confidence and mental toughness to deliver when it counts. Yet we’ve all seen too many talented athletes who didn’t deliver when it counted, to believe that this is true.
So what role do mental skills really play in the success and enjoyment of the game? And how do we help players to develop these skills in age-appropriate and level-appropriate ways, keeping the player’s overall well-being as our goal?
What Are Mental Skills, Anyway?
Mental skills are procedures that help athletes to control their minds consistently as they go through their sport. Mental skills include things like:
Age-Appropriate Mental Skills Training
It’s never too early to start building mental skills. The crucial thing is to build them in age-appropriate ways.
Sports psychologists stress that, although elite teams of older players should focus their mental training on hard work, team play, and playing to win, the coaching and parental emphasis for youngsters should be quite different. With youngsters, parents and coaches should concentrate on building the player’s interest in the game, and on teaching skills and values that will make the youngsters better hockey players and better people. With younger kids, the focus should be on having fun and learning the broad positive values that sport can teach—things like fair play, self-confidence, and the satisfaction of improving skills. As Bobby Orr put it:
“ We’ve got to let our kids go, have fun, and not overstructure them. The values we can teach them while they’re having fun they can use for whatever career they choose.”
(Bobby Orr, as quoted in Hockey Tough: A Winning Mental Game)
Only as players reach older, more elite levels, should the focus shift to the competitive aspects of the game.
How Do We Train Mental Skills?
The simplest principle for mental success at any age or skill levels is: focus on the positive.
With young children, this means encouraging them to think about the good things—the fun they had in the game, the things they did well. Dwell on the positive. Boost confidence and enjoyment. Minimize criticism. Later, as players mature, criticism becomes more necessary, and the player’s mental training can include ways to spin constructive criticism into fuel for improvement and increased confidence. But with children, minimize criticism and focus on what the child did well.
Positive self-expectations are a crucial key to success. One technique that coaches can use with players at any level is to set aside a few minutes before a practice or game to have the players sit silently and think about the good things they’re going to do on the ice that day. With youngsters, the coach might ask them to think of two things they are going to do well. With older players, the coach might ask the players to think of, and visualize, six things.
Players don’t need to share their thoughts. The important thing is for the coach to demonstrate the importance of positive self-talk by regularly scheduling time and having the players practice it. A similar exercise can be done after a practice or game, with players asked to focus on the things they did well, and to allow themselves a feeling of achievement. The key is to focus on positives, not negatives.
Players can develop their own methods of self-talk. For example, when you’re taping your stick, every time you swipe the tape around, say something positive. Swipe the tape and say, “I will make tape-to-tape passes today,” swipe the tape again and say, “I’m a great player, I can do this.”
Each player needs to find the positive strategies that will work for them. Try a technique one day and not the next, and see if it makes a difference for you. The key is to always use positive images. (“I will…” and “I am…,” instead of “I won’t…” or “I will not….” Always focus on the good things you WILL do.)
What about Mistakes?
The key to handling mistakes is to acknowledge them, learn from them, and move on. Spin the negative into a positive. Instead of saying, “I didn’t get to the puck fast enough,” say, “I will get to the puck faster next time.”
When you turn a mistake into a positive goal, you set yourself up for success. Everyone makes mistakes. The athletes who win aren’t the ones who are perfect; they’re the ones who can recover quickly from mistakes. So if you’re having an off day, just keep focused on your positive goals and images.
The key to dealing with mistakes is to recognize them, learn from them, then let them go by spinning the learnings into a positive focus. Parents can help their children immensely by helping them learn this simple technique and encouraging them to make a habit of it. The benefits will be life-long.
What about LOSING?
Argh! Losing!!! Players can get so caught up in losing that they just keep replaying all the mistakes they made. Sometimes players will come up to me and say, “I did this wrong, and I did this, and the coach yelled at me….” Well, dwelling on it isn’t going to help you for your next game.
The best thing that coaches and parents can do after a loss is to help the athlete understand that hanging on to the loss and the mistakes isn’t helping them. Players need to acknowledge the mistakes, spin the learnings into a positive goal, and move on.
What about winning? Just as you let go of a loss and focus on the positive, it’s important not to get too caught up on a win. Congratulate yourself (“Great job, you did all these things really well…,” and so on), but remember that it’s one game in a 30-game schedule. So enjoy it, then refocus on how you’re going to do great in the next game. That’s one thing about hockey—whether you win or lose, there’s always another game.
The conclusion is pretty clear: better mental skills = better hockey. And the great thing about learning mental skills is that once you learn a skill, you can continue to use it for success in your daily life.
For anyone who wants to learn more, here are some great resources:
Hockey Tough: A Winning Mental Game -Saul L. Miller
In Pursuit of Excellence: How to Win in Sport and Life through Mental Training -Terry Orlick
***Good Luck to ALL players finishing out their regular season and as they start their playoff series. Just remember.. you have put the hard work in all season NOW is the time to have confidence in your abilities and let yourself shine! We believe in YOU!