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14U/16U Q-and-A: The Mental Side of the Game

11/23/2022, 8:00am MST
By Kristen Wright

Q: My 16U team played a team of similar physical skill two times this season, winning 3-2 the first time and losing 10-1 a few weeks later, how is this possible?

A: When looking to developing the 360-degree player, the focus is often placed first on developing the physical, technical, and tactical skills that are needed to play the game of ice hockey. However, as players enter the 14U/16U age levels, it is just as important to focus on the psychological, emotional, and social skills that players will need during the season. As players get older and enter high school, increased demands are placed on them including school, social, family, work, sport, etc., and a lot of times, these outside stressors impact the physical performance of athletes at practices and games. Several studies have discovered that mentally tired athletes don’t perform as well (for more information on these studies check out this article).

Because of this, as a player you must become self-aware of your psychological and emotional well-being, including what your thoughts and emotions are in difficult situations. How do you respond to adversity? Do you slam your stick against the boards? Do you snap at your teammates? Or do you focus on what you can do better the next shift and cheer for your teammates? When the emotions during a game get too high or you get frustrated with your teammate or face failure in practice, you need a technique to help you cope with the emotions that arise. Dean Smith, legendary North Carolina men’s basketball coach, recommended, “Recognize it; admit it; learn from it; forget it.” Another technique is to “control the controllables.” Start by asking yourself what you can control in this situation and how you can positively contribute to the environment. When looking at the mental side of the game, as an athlete, you can control your attitude, your body language, and your work ethic. Also, when the pressures of competition get too high, remember why you play hockey in the first place…to have FUN!

The coach is also a key stakeholder in helping players learn how to manage the psychological, emotional, and social aspects of hockey. This can include managing pressure, encouraging productive communication, and managing negative thoughts. All players will deal with the stress of competition and will overcome adversity differently, so it is imperative that coaches create a practice environment that push players outside of their comfort zone and encourage failure so that players can learn what that looks like, what it feels like, and how they can deal with their personal response to that environment.

Youth players may allow doubt and negative thoughts to take over in these situations and this can impact their physiological abilities. Putting them in these environments on a regular basis in practice will help players to develop appropriate individual and team responses that can become good habits by the time they get to the same situations in games. Another important quality to instill in your athletes is a service mentality, where your players stop asking what they can get and start asking what they can give. A lot of players get frustrated when they don’t get what they want (ice time, preferred line mates, preferred position, etc.) and this attitude can destroy a team environment. Instead, it should be the coach’s main goal to develop a group of players that all ask “what can I give.”

As John O’Sullivan with the Changing the Game Project says, “This shift in mentality will teach your players that the selfish attitude may once in a while lead to success, but the selfless attitude leads to excellence, celebrates the success of others, and makes you the type of athlete that every coach and teammate wants on their team.

About the Author

Kristen Wright serves as the manager of girls player development. After playing hockey at Shattuck St. Mary's, she went on to play at Connecticut College where she was a two-time captain and a NESCAC Academic All-American among other honors.

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