Mental Conditioning – Take Your Game Over the Top


By Greg Siller of Pro Learning Systems


Just as coaches spend time in practices improving players’ physical abilities; they should spend time working with players to improve their mental abilities as well. Your mind is the thinking part of you—the part that talks to itself, and is responsible for creativity, thinking strategy, and problem solving. The mind is a powerful entity that coaches and players can train to get the most out of themselves, their practices and games. What you believe to be true about yourself determines your success, your failures, your ability to risk, your strength to handle any situation, and ultimately how you treat yourself and others.


The game of hockey combines input from both individuals and the collective team to be its best. Working together to make the team function efficiently as a whole is the goal of a team. In team situations, the added challenge lies in doing whatever you can do to help the whole team be the best it can be. Putting the team first or the team’s goal first is putting yourself first, too; it is the only way to win or to achieve your ultimate goals in hockey. You are responsible for your own performance and partially responsible for the team’s performance. You have the power to influence your own performance and the team’s performance through your attitude, commitment, mental and physical preparation, focus, and intensity.


In Embracing Your Potential, by Terry Orlick, the author collected information from several NHL players about achieving success as a player and as a team. This is how they answered the following questions.

·         When the team plays its best, what makes things go well?

o   Total team effort—hard work, intensity, everybody focused and working hard, total commitment

o   Playing as a team—working together, supporting each other, not getting down on teammates, collective effort.

o   Executing our game plan—strong forechecking, getting the puck out of our end quickly concentrating on defense, playing our system

o   Confidence—playing with confidence, executing our game plan with confidence, showing confidence in one another.

·         What can you do better?

o   Be more prepared mentally—be ready to play hard from the start to the finish of the game. Think about what we want to do before stepping on the ice. Be ready to compete.

o   Play with more intensity—work harder, be more physical, be more aggressive, win the one-on-one battles. Make things happen.

o   Be more focused from the start—start focused, concentrate on the little things, and remain focused and intense. Forecheck, get the pucks out of our end, create more scoring chances by skating, get the puck moving as a team

o   Be positive throughout the game with ourselves and with teammates—stay positive, feel great about ourselves, know we can make a difference.


When two players of equal—and often unequal—ability compete, the player with the mental edge most often emerges as the winner. So how can we improve our mental conditioning and mental edge? The good news is that you can achieve this edge, according to Kay Porter (author of The Mental Athlete), with the use of six simple tools:


1.      Keeping a Mental Log

A mental log is a written account of your emotional and intellectual process as you practice and play your games. Your mental training log tells the story of how you, as a coach and player, think, react, process, and support your physical performance. It contains your thoughts, fears, and your emotional strengths. Your log is also a place to write down all the anger, frustration, and negativity you might feel after a poor performance.


This log will help you identify how you think, both positively and negatively, and what you want to change in your thinking habits. Keeping a written log to monitor and analyze your thoughts and responses to competition helps you become more aware of your mental process, your patterns of thought and beliefs. From the information in the log, you can write meaningful physical and mental goals for yourself.


Begin to analyze each practice and game, for similarities, differences, strengths, and weaknesses. Find out what you do in your mind that helps you perform at your peak. Become aware of the mental and emotional beliefs, reactions, and words that limit your performance. Become aware of the times you feel the most powerful and the times you feel powerless, frustrated, and out of control.


If is from the entries in your log that you will form your goals and find the places you most need affirmations and visualization to assist you in performing at your peak. The patterns you see are important in the creation of your working goals for the short, intermediate, and long term. You can use the log as a starting point for a new attitude, a way of letting go of your frustration, self-doubt, and blame so that you can start building a more positive and confident mental attitude.


2.      Setting Goals

Goals form the basis of mental training. Goal setting is the clearest way of establishing a consistent program in your practices and games that gives you a sense of direction and control over what you do.


A goal is something you (not someone else) choose to pursue and achieve. It can be easy, difficult, possible or seemingly impossible. Evaluating your present and past levels of performance will help you form goals that are realistic for you. This will also help you set goals that challenge and push your beyond what you may think is possible. Whatever your goals, they must be measureable and specific. As you progress and begin to achieve your goals, you will begin to measure your success in terms of progress rather than in terms of wins and losses. If you structure your goals in this positive way, each time you win or lose will mean that you have achieved or made progress on some goals. Your goals, and your desire to achieve them, are the motivation that pushes you through the tough times, the pain, the injuries, and through the times when you feel stuck at a certain level.


3.      Dealing with Roadblocks

In the world of mental conditioning, roadblocks typically manifest themselves in the form of fear. Fear of failure, fear of success, fear of being judged, being afraid to be honest, and being afraid to commit are examples; and are common stumbling blocks for both coaches and players. Fear can often stop coaches and players from achieving what they want, as it creates self-doubt and confusion in the mind (people can be their own worst critics at times). The good news is that these roadblocks are only temporary barriers/obstacles to being successful. They can be addressed and overcome.


When coaches or players are concerned with their fears, they are focusing outside of themselves. Worrying about not being able to accomplish a goal instead of being in the moment and focusing on implementing the practice plan or game strategy, or on utilizing the players’ physical capabilities effectively, is counter-productive to achieving your goals.


If you want to create success in your life, and deal with your emotional fears, it helps to embrace those fears instead of avoiding them. Successful people see fear, and any failures associated with that fear merely as feedback and information. They see losses as opportunities to learn--to do something different, given a similar set of events.


In the book, Coaching Mental Excellence, the authors discuss the difference between success and winning. While only a very few may win in any competitive environment, success is available to everyone. Success is not determined by how well one does against another, but rather is measured only against oneself. Success is available to every player, to every team, and to every coach every single day. When we are about being a success, we also put ourselves in the best possible position to pick up those cherished wins as well.


Losing or falling short of goals in sports takes a lot of energy. Feeling like a loser wounds us, but finding a sense of meaning or success in those losses heals us. To regain positive energy and maintain a positive perspective, we must find wins within our losses, growth within our setbacks, and joy in the different aspects of our lives. Feeling success or joy, even in very small ways, renews our hope and perspective.


It is easy to be positive when everything is going well. It is much more difficult when you are losing or things are not going well. When stress levels are up, tolerance and patience are usually down. This is when people complain more and are quicker to overact to what others are doing or not doing. People in all settings and players at all levels would serve themselves well by becoming more tolerant of people and events beyond their immediate control. It is a strength to be patient with teammates’ differences and to do what you can to help (without taking responsibility for their faults) that matters. Putting ourselves down, blaming ourselves or others, won’t help. The best we can do is draw upon lessons for personal growth and move on in the best way we know how.


If you believe that you deserve to have what you want, you will move toward accomplishing your goal. If, on the other hand, you do not accept yourself, and you feel that there is something lacking (your emotional fear), then you will deny yourself the things you wish to accomplish. The choice is always yours.


4.      Developing Your Affirmations

After you write your goals, you should turn them into affirmations that will help you to maintain a positive attitude as you transition toward achieving your goals. An affirmation is a positive self-statement that usually is not true at the time you write it, but supports what you want to be true in the future. An affirmation supports the way you want to view yourself and your abilities, and it supports a goal you want to achieve. Affirmations are always positive, present tense, and personal. Positive self-statements are powerful weapons you can use to combat the negative self-talk (i.e., roadblocks) you confront in support of your practices and games. For most people, these are fleeting periods of self-doubt. Those are the times to use an affirmation to change your focus and energy to help short-circuit your negative self-talk or doubt. What you want to do is change your negative thoughts so that they support you and help you to know that you are in control. For every reason why you think that you cannot achieve a goal (because of a roadblock or fear), there should be an affirmation that will help you turn this reason around and eventually let it go.


Some affirmation examples include:

·         I believe in my own ability as a coach or player.

·         I have a positive mental attitude and self-image.

·         I believe in myself.

·         I am in control and focus.

·         I love to compete and push myself, reaching for my goals.

·         I am a capable and competent coach or player.

·         It is okay to make mistakes. I learn from them and I am stronger.


You should go through this process each time you make a goal for yourself. Positive self-statements support what you want to achieve and help you change your negative belief systems to positive ones. As a result, they cause you to put out a positive intent to the world around you. Your control of and gradual belief in this positive intent is what begins to change your reality. The more you support yourself and you endeavors, the more the world around you will support you. Achieving your goals will become easier because of this.


Once you are familiar with your affirmations, you will find there are many times in your daily life when they come in handy. If you feel tired during a game, or if self-doubt begins to creep into your thoughts during a practice or game, reach inside for these positive statements, and they will help you maintain focus, confidence, and control. They will help you believe you can push yourself further, reach higher, skate longer or faster, and move beyond any self-imposed limitations. Though it is important to acknowledge pain or fatigue, it is ultimately important to go beyond it, to release it, and to focus on the positive to reach your peak performance.


As you repeat your goals as affirmations, your mind begins to absorb and retain these thoughts, and your thinking is reprogrammed into becoming more positive and supportive. You can change your mind through the use of powerful affirmations to help you recondition your beliefs and thinking and reframe your experiences into a positive, learning mode. This allows you to create a new reality with your mind and your emotions.


5.      Relaxation and Visualization

Relaxation enables your mind and body to be more open to peak performance. For you to visualize yourself achieving a goal, you will need to relax, and use your mind and senses to work your way through your goal. That includes moving successfully past any roadblocks and through any fears. Begin to visualize yourself attaining this important goal. See yourself succeeding. You can create your own visualization exactly as you want it to be since you are always in control. With every affirmation and positive visualization you use, you begin to change your current belief systems. You also form new ones that allow you to move, change and to achieve what you want. As you create your visualization of achieving your goal, you can replay this image at any time. It is good to do this when you have nervous energy, such as before a practice or game. You can playback your visualization like a video, watching yourself move toward your goal, past any roadblocks and through any fears, and eventually achieving your goal.


6.      Focus and Concentration

A key element of mental training, and to achieving your goals, is through the use of concentration techniques while you are practicing or playing a game. Concentration is the process of paying attention, focusing, and being in the moment. The better your concentration, the better player you can be. An important component of this process is what you are concentrating on or paying attention to. If you are paying attention to your negative self-talk or have lost your focus, you will play poorly. If you are focused on your practice plan, game strategy, your positioning, the puck, or the opponent you are guarding, you have the opportunity to play your best. Coaches and players need to be in the zone of total concentration during practices and games to be their best.


An important part of focusing and concentration comes when you have made a mistake. You must be able to regain your focus and make the best of the situation. Stopping negative self-talk, and resolving to do better in the next play go a long way toward enabling you to play your best. If your teammates make a mistake, encourage them. Most likely, they are already upset with themselves for messing up. Your encouragement can help them move forward and let go of their mistakes more easily.


In a quote from Phil Jackson, in his book Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior, he says that “In basketball—as in life—true joy comes from being fully present in each and every moment, not just when things are going your way. Of course, it’s no accident that things are more likely to go your way when you stop worrying about whether you’re going to win or lose and focus your full attention on what’s happening right this moment”.


It is most important to be, think and feel in the moment, right now. Savor the experience. For the moment is all you really have because the past is gone and the future is not here yet.


If you are willing to risk and to be dedicated to your mental conditioning in your hockey endeavors, you will go a long way toward achieving your goals and eventually your peak performance. Each new outcome, setback, and move forward is a learning experience and growth step. With each experience, each step, you go beyond your self-imposed limitations. You let go of your fear just a little and become willing to risk the next step.

Contact Greg Siller @ Pro Learning Systems