One key to being able to perform in a clutch situation like the playoffs or against a top rival is preparation. Did you get enough sleep? How is your nutrition? Are you mentally and physically ready to play?
“What’s your physical preparation like? Are you the best you can be at that moment in time? Preparation adds to performance, especially at that age,” Gosselin says. “Are you starting to form a routine on game days? Sleep is a weapon. Are you staying hydrated? Your body needs to be hydrated to be at your best.”
Being prepared should help with composure, which is another essential element of clutch play. Every game is going to have ups and downs, ebbs and flows. Games where there is more at stake can magnify those moments.
“Do you know the objective? Controlling your composure, whether it’s a regular game or a playoff game, is key,” Gosselin says. “Handling yourself, controlling your ups and downs, goes a long way.”
The best clutch players “have the ability to manage emotions in stressful situations,” Jablonic adds.
They manage those emotions, in some cases, by remaining positive in the face of adversity.
“Great players that I’ve seen never let themselves overthink things or fixate on negative things,” Gosselin says. “If that happens to me, it’s an energy drain. Good performers maintain focus and don’t overreact to the small things. They keep it on an even keel and stay positive.”
This is a big one. The leadup to a big game can blow things out of proportion, and it’s only magnified now in a world of social media.
“Don’t get caught up in outside noise. Stay focused. That’s hard to do when you have social media and peer groups” Gosselin says. “It’s important to have a good support group at that age that will keep you pointed in the right direction and offer support when you need it. It comes at home, and other places. We’re all redlining, moving fast. It’s really important to take time to reflect and put things in perspective.”
Both Gosselin and Jablonic made a long list of NHL stars that are good to emulate, with otherworldly star Connor McDavid being an obvious choice as someone who constantly elevates his game in the clutch.
But Gosselin made a good point: It takes everyone on the ice to succeed in key moments, and a lot of times that’s more about making the routine play – and knowing your role on the ice.
“Everyone has a role and everyone brings something different to the table. Can you take your role and improve it?” Gosselin says. “The players that are dependable are the ones that are going to be ones that will be on the ice at the end.”
Gosselin notes that role acceptance starts to become more important as players get older.
“Sometimes we have to help out as adults and coaches,” he says. “Someone might think he’s a goal scorer but maybe that’s not what the team needs in a key moment.”
A lot of these pieces of advice fall under a broader heading: stay present. Be in the moment. If you can lock in on the task at hand – and enjoy the opportunity to play in meaningful hockey games against quality opponents – it will always serve you well.
“Whether you are playing in front of 20 or 20,000 people, if you can put it in perspective and do it the same way it makes a big difference,” Gosselin says. “Focus on the game, what’s going on, and how you are prepared to perform.”
Staying present allows players to process the game mentally and let their physical skills take over. Win or lose, that’s all anyone can ask for.
“Clutch players embrace the moment and enjoy it,” Jablonic says. “Fun is in the forefront.”
Performing when it matters most is part science, part art. It’s about knowing when you will need to elevate your game but also knowing how to be calm enough to be in the right places to make the routine plays.
Asking Guy Gosselin and Dan Jablonic – player development managers for USA Hockey – about what it takes to be a clutch performer at the 14U and 16U level elicited a wide range of traits and factors in response. Let’s take a look at six of them now: