Intensity, concentration and focus are all important aspects of the mental side of sport. It takes practice to develop these mental skills, the same as it does to improve players’ physical skills like skating, puck handling or shooting.
Players can use several strategies to practice these mental skills that enhance their overall on-ice performance.
Players can’t control past performance and their control over future performance is limited. Mistakes in play are inevitable in sports; a player’s ability to quickly change his or her mental focus from fixating on a prior mistake to focusing on present performance is an important skill that the best players have mastered. By doing so, they are able to play at a higher level more consistently and with more confidence. One technique many players use to make this mental shift is positive self-talk (that little voice in your head). They may learn to use a key word, phrase or a mental picture that helps them eliminate the negative thought (mistake) and replace it with something that brings them back into the current moment and a state of relaxed confidence.
An example of this would be a phrase like “next best shift,” which is, in effect, a player telling himself or herself that the next shift, which they have control over, will be their best one yet. This type of self-talk helps a player shift from dwelling on the past to focusing on the now, which is essential to achieving peak performance. Learning to stay in the moment, in the now, takes concentration, focus, discipline and mental intensity.
The reason mental skills can improve physical performance is because every thought elicits a physical response in some capacity. For example, if someone suddenly jumps out in front of you and scares you, within milliseconds, your body will respond with an involuntary physical response. You may jump, your heart rate will increase and pupils may even dilate. This is a physical reaction to mental stimulus. The same thing is happening during performance situations on the ice. Stress (mistakes, bad calls, bad bounces, etc.) can place thoughts in a player’s mind that can have unwanted physical reactions, such as tightening of muscles, changes in heart rate, etc. – things that impair performance.
The body will try to make reality out of our thoughts. Fortunately, this is also true of positive thoughts. Keeping the body in a better mental state – and returning it there quickly after a setback – helps maintain peak performance.