Players can spend hours on the ice working on skating, stickhandling in the garage and strength training in the weight room.
But what about the mental side of the game?
How should players at 14U/16U be exercising that aspect of development? And how important is mental strength and preparation?
“Mental strength is a huge part of sports,” said Bob Motzko, head coach of the 2017 U.S. National Junior Team and longtime bench boss at St. Cloud State University. “It’s something you need to develop and something you need to have as a part of your training.
“If you don’t have a (strong) mental game, you’re missing a big part of your game as a whole. Period.”
Positive attitude, positive players
There’s no question it’s difficult to be positive in every on- and off-ice situation. Things happen in hockey and in life, but maintaining a positive attitude in the face of adversity stands out to coaches at every level.
“One night, if your team lines up against a team that’s bigger and stronger and you get walloped 8-0, it’s easy to think that the world is falling,” Motzko said. “But then the next game, with a positive attitude, you go out and have a huge 5-4 win. It shows what a positive attitude can do for you and your team.
“The world is never falling, even in the biggest of failures. You just have to find the positive.”
One way to do that is by finding the positive in one good shift or one good play. Mentally focus on those aspects of the game rather than the final score or the negative plays. Parents and coaches should help remind players of things they did right versus things that went wrong to help reinforce that, too.
Take responsibility for yourself
Motzko said it simply: “When you do the right things, you feel good about yourself. When you cheat, there’s one person who always knows when you’re cheating and that’s yourself.”
A large part of mental preparation and focus is on work ethic and discipline in all areas, including practice, games, school, diet, sleep, etc.
Successful players are mentally focused and intrinsically motivated. Others take a very different approach, one that likely involves cutting corners. It’s another reason mental strength is so important: it helps players reach their goals, fight through adversity, learn from mistakes and grow as players and people.
Keeping focus where it needs to be
At 14U/16U, players are facing many changes with growing bodies, school, friends and plenty of outside pressures. Motzko said it’s important to remember where to focus at the right time.
“When you’re at hockey, your mind should be at hockey,” said Motzko, a father of 13- and 15-year-old hockey-playing boys. “You have to learn how to handle distractions. I see this going through the process with my 15-year-old. You see all the things that come through their world and see how they get distracted. But you have to remind them to focus on what’s in front of them.”
Mental strength has a lot to do with confidence, and it’s a great way to build confidence, too. But beware of how far you let that go, especially when it comes to stats and rankings.
“Everything’s ranked,” said Motzko. “You go on a website and everyone sees that, as a player, you’re ranked in a certain spot; it’s amazing that, three or four years later, those rankings are often completely different.
“With the right mental preparation, you stay on solid ground. You don’t get too down when things aren’t going well and don’t get too high when things are going great.”
Mind over matter
Missed passes, turnovers, allowing a breakaway goal – these things are bound to happen in a hockey career. How players respond to them defines them.
“You need a player that doesn’t focus too harshly on one bad play or one bad shift,” he said. “You need to train your brain to be positive. You need to train it to think ahead and not behind.
“It’s mind over matter.”
As with keeping a positive attitude, players need to learn to not dwell on certain situations and plays of the past. What’s done is done and the outcome cannot be changed. Learn from it, but don’t dwell on it.
Enjoying the game and its surroundings
Motzko admits it’s hard to be drawn to a player at any age who doesn’t look like he or she is having fun on the ice. At every age, fun should remain a top priority.
“Have a little fun,” said Motzko. “It’s why you picked up a stick in the first place. Remind yourself of that. Sometimes players and parents take it far too seriously. Throw a little fun in there and it goes a long way.”