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Positive Under Pressure

06/24/2016, 1:45pm MDT
By Michael Rand - Special to USA Hockey

For youth hockey players approaching the higher levels of their sport, pressure can be a nearly constant factor. Giving these players the tools to properly manage pressure – and their minds – is essential to helping them unlock their full athletic potential.

Perspective, positive self-talk and mindfulness are powerful tools we should strive to provide.

Dr. Peter Haberl, sports psychologist for the United States Olympic Committee, helps explain why that is the case – and how young players can train to reach their peak.

Don’t Overthink It

“Being mindful to me is understanding how the mind works so I can work with it skillfully,” Haberl said. “The way the mind works is two-fold. When we’re focused on the task at hand, we’re at our best. We want to make a distinction between attention and thinking. They’re both valuable, but thinking almost always gets in the way of performance.”

But isn’t thinking critical to the process of executing in the moment? Not exactly. Herein lies the distinction between thinking – even positive thoughts – and being mindful, which allows us to be in the moment. Haberl gave an example of an Olympic skier who had a thought in the midst of competition that she was about to win a gold medal. That’s about as positive as you can get, but it took her out of the mindset she needed to perform her best.

“What’s important for young hockey players is that being mindful gives you the ability to notice the thinking and come back to the moment on the ice,” Haberl said.

Payoff Under Pressure

As with the skiing example, the ability to be mindful is most noticeable when the pressure is highest.

“In those tight moments when the game is on the line – win or lose – that’s when thinking tends to start to intrude,” Haberl said. “The mind might take you to the future or the past, or you can get lost in criticism of performance. None are helpful to your performance. You need to come back to paying attention to the present moment.”

So what’s the good news? These mental skills can be taught and trained.

“What we’re training here is awareness – the ability to focus and refocus,” Haberl says. “I can focus my attention on seeing the puck. Or focus on getting a puck deep into the zone. I can use, at that point, the self-talk to guide my attention on the proper tools of the game.”

Visualization: A New Approach

If you have a preconceived notion of visualization, it probably involves an athlete imagining scoring the winning goal and soaking in glory. That puts them in a positive frame of mind, but it doesn’t necessarily help them deal with the obstacles that might arise during the pursuit of his or her goal.

A new method of visualizing success focuses on a “new wrinkle” that Haberl refers to as mental contrasting. “Rather than visualizing yourself doing well, what you actually want to do is visualize the obstacles to doing well,” he said.

There’s even an acronym to help break it down: WOOP. The W stands for wish, as in picturing what you wish to do. The first O is for the outcome you want. The second O is for the internal obstacle – the “thought, emotion, behavior or attitude that could get in the way. You actively picture the obstacle,” Haberl said. The P is the plan.

“If X arrives in my mind, I will do action ABC. I actively rehearse solving the obstacle in my own mind,” Haberl says. “It makes us much more persistent – it’s not just wishful thinking. We’re thinking about what can get in the way – to effectively navigate those things.”

The Ultimate Goal

As with any sort of training, the end goal is pretty simple: to improve performance. Even at the 14U or 16U levels, Haberl says it is entirely possible for athletes to put these practices to use.

“I’m looking to have a performer who is resilient, focused and internally driven,” he said. “I’m trying to help an athlete perform as close as possible to their fullest potential.”

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