Mastering the Mental Side of Hockey—Or Anything Else

Mastering the Mental Side of Hockey—Or Anything Else

I was working with a Division I hockey team when an assistant coach asked the D men to stand up. “Now, boys,” he said, “Sit down when I hit the right number. Ready? Hockey is 20% mental.”

No one sat.

“Thirty percent.”


He kept going: 60, 70, 80… at 90% his guys started to sit down.

The coach went on to say, “We spend 90 to 100% of our time on our bodies, lifting, conditioning; on our hockey skills, shooting, skating; and so on. But how much time do we spend on our mind and our emotions?”

So how does someone learn to master the mental/emotional side of the game of hockey, the game of life?

There are two basic things with which I help today’s high school, college, and pro hockey players to deal with the mental game: first, to be both old-school tough, and second, to be new-school open. Why?

Hockey (and all sports, and many other endeavors) has a huge mental component, and having both of these skills pays dividends in everything an athlete does on and off the ice. You want to be mentally strong, tough, resilient, and confident so you can handle everything the game throws at you. But you also want to be open: you need to be able to connect with your teammates and coaches, so you can communicate as well as give—and receive—feedback and help so you all work better as a unit. You also need to be open to yourself: as odd as that sounds, you need to be in tune with yourself so you can catch yourself when you are on an emotional detour that takes away from your game and then put yourself back on the right path.

I believe there are seven keys that form the basis of mental/emotional conditioning, to becoming mentally tough and really in touch with what makes you tick. Here is an introduction to the first key:

Intention and Purpose

The one it all starts with is intention and purpose. Intention means to have a “course of action as one’s purpose or objective.” Purpose means “the reason for which something is done or created or for which something exists.”

So, I have to ask: Do you really know why you’re playing all this hockey?

Be honest with yourself: Are the reasons strong and heartfelt enough to keep you going? That is, do you love the game, or are you playing for other people or for selfish reasons?

What are you willing to sacrifice, to do, to examine, to try, in order to improve? Are you really willing to change and grow?

After thinking about these things, ask yourself again: why are you playing hockey? How badly do you want to achieve your goals?

Taking a look inside is invaluable, but not easy! It’s easy to skim over these questions and not really deal with them. But if a player doesn’t really get why he or she is doing something—in this case, hockey—eventually the power will go out of his/her game. Like a building on a lousy foundation, eventually something major will go wrong somewhere: things move and crack, and eventually the building is no good at all.

Another example: if you run a car on lousy gasoline, eventually what’s going to happen? It’s the same with your hockey game: you have to know what you’re trying to accomplish in hockey and why, and the why has to be strong enough to be worth the sacrifices that you inevitably have to make. That’s the foundation, the fuel for your career in this game. If you’re not quite sure of your purpose, or where you want to go in the game, you’re not going to have the confidence you need to succeed. For example, if deep down you’re playing hockey because you think your friends and the girls/boys will think it’s cool, you won’t have the drive to be able to sacrifice, to wake up at 4am or hit the weight room even when you don’t feel like it. You’re building a hockey house on a lousy foundation.

See how strong your foundation is: answer the following questions. Print this document out so you can write your answers down. But really think about your answers for a few minutes before you write. Talk with someone about the questions, if you want, before you write. But take your time, and, most importantly, really be honest with yourself.

Here goes:

Why are you playing all this hockey, and what do intend to do in the game? No one but you is going to read this, so be totally honest.

I play hockey because







My intentions with hockey, where I really want to go with it are







What did you learn from this honest look inside? Write your new knowledge about yourself here:







When you look at your answers, is it obvious to you that deep inside you’re honestly and powerfully motivated? Going back to the metaphor with the car and gasoline, do you see deep down in yourself strong-enough reasons to become better, reasons to love hockey, reasons to wake up early and make social and personal sacrifices to make those intentions come true?

Do you know WHY you’ve chosen this path? Is it for you, yourself, or are you doing it for other people?





Have you learned things about how you think and feel inside that need work?

Are there new directions you want to go? Is it really your intention to get great at the game of hockey? Do you need to change your thinking, your feelings, get a different brand of “gasoline?” (It is always possible to change your gasoline, if you want!) Don’t hesitate to reach out to me or someone you trust to talk about your purpose and intentions with hockey if you’re confused, excited, or whatnot: as I said, it all starts with the gasoline that’s powering the hockey car.

Good luck with this! Be open and honest each day. Really feeling, observing, and tracking your feelings as an athlete will help you so much, because emotions are the gas that powers all of our behaviors, including playing hockey. Sometimes our emotions help us reach our goals, and other times they hold us back. The purpose of this exercise is to get a bead on what your emotions are doing: are they helping you, holding you back or, as is often the case, both?

Again, remember that you can change your emotions; that is what the mental game is all about.

Feel like you need to work on your mental game more? Here’s more information on my Confidence Coaching for Athletes.