Killer Instinct in Hockey


Killer Instinct In Hockey Is All About Having Your Opponent On The Ropes And Being Able To Put Them Away.

I call it “standing on their necks” – not sure where that came from but it’s how I would emphasize to my team that we have them down and we don’t want to let them back up.

But having a killer instinct, whether as a team or as an individual player, can be a hard thing to do consistently.

Why is that?

It would make sense that if you are a team or a player with a high compete level, and a strong work ethic, and a strong will to win, then having a killer instinct would be a given, right?

But why is it, game after game, that teams let the other team back in the game? … I see it all the time … Good teams, strong teams, have the other team down, and somehow they let them back in the game.

Here are 5 big reasons why teams and players struggle with having a killer instinct. And maybe even more important, I want to share 5 strategies that teams and players can use to feed their killer instinct so the next time you’re standing on the other team’s neck, you can finish them off.

1. lack the right team identity – we hear the term all the time, “team identity” but far too often when I ask players what their team identity is, they can’t tell me. I see them trying to come up with the words or make something up on the fly, but they aren’t exactly sure. Maybe they’re not sure how to say it, or maybe they don’t know what it is, but either way, if you have to take time to come up with the answer, then there’s a good bet you don’t really have one.

2. the team isn’t in sync – maybe you have a team identity but for whatever reason, the team is out of sync. This often happens because players are playing for themselves rather than playing for the guy next to them. Either that or there is a lack of clarity in the team’s mission. More on that in a second.

3. physical fatigue – this one is obvious – when you run out of juice it’s hard to stay on top

4. lack of mental toughness – this one is not so obvious – because everyone seems to have a different definition of mental toughness, people aren’t exactly sure what it is and therefore they don’t know how to manage it, grow it, or maintain it. Mental toughness, just like physical toughness, is essential to cultivate a killer instinct

5. lack of clarity – if you don’t know what you want and you don’t know who you are, then it’s hard to know where you’re going or what you can accomplish. Many times teams and players don’t know how to finish a team off because they’ve never been taught how to do it. They don’t know what the coach means when he says “don’t let them back in it”. It’s funny but sometimes when a coach (or anyone for that matter) tells you what they DON’T want to happen, now that it’s at the front of your brain, it ends up happening.

so if these are the reasons teams and players struggle with having and maintaining that all-important killer instinct, what are some things you can do to cultivate and manage and feed your killer instinct?

1. cultivate a team identity that promotes the killer instinct – Teams that have a defined team identity know who they are and play accordingly. In a fast, physical game like hockey, performance is a function of instinct, hockey sense, and muscle memory. If you have to take even a second to think about who you are and what you’re supposed to be doing, you are toast. But it’s not enough to know you’re a team that plays with speed, or a team that plays “defense first”. You must know who you are as a team when the pressure is on. Your killer instinct must be a part of the pre-programming you have, right along with your hockey sense and muscle memory. It must be automatic and it must be clear so that in the heat of battle, you know what to do and you do it.

2. increase mental toughness – Mental toughness is a critical part of a player's game and without it, a player will struggle to bring the right amount of confidence, focus, drive, compete, and grit in the heat of battle. Being mentally tough means being able to bring your best you have regardless of the situation or circumstances. It’s about maintaining a level of consistency in your game because you are able to manage the mental part of the game. How you feel, how you think are managed so as to not interfere with what needs to get done. Let’s face it, at the upper levels in hockey, where the skill level is very even, it is the psychological factors that have the biggest impact on performance. You need to ask yourself, how strong is your mental game and what are you doing to make it stronger?

3. play for your team, not for yourself – Hockey is a team sport first and foremost. However, there are times when teams and players start playing to reach personal goals. Or because there are no clearly defined team goals, individual goals fill the void and players end up having their own agenda. This can be remedied by having a clear team identity and strong coaching that consistently acknowledges and rewards team play over individual performance.

4. be clear on what you want – What’s your purpose? Where are you going? What do you want to achieve? You’d be surprised at how many teams and players can’t articulate answers to these questions. Without a mission, a team cannot succeed. Without a mission, players cannot succeed. When you know what you want, you put into motion the forces that will help you achieve it.

5. know who you are as a player – Finally, this last strategy is incredibly important for not only developing a killer instinct, but it is a strategy that I think can improve the performance and development in every player that takes up the challenge to truly understand who you are as a player. And I mean more than just understanding your hockey skills. I’m talking about understanding why you think the way you do, why you feel the way you do, why you do the things that you do. There is a lot going on between your ears and gaining a better understanding of what makes you tick can help predict how you will perform when it matters most. When you understand who you are as a player, you’ll understand your level of killer instinct so that you can execute it when you need to. Your killer instinct is a function of who you are, and when you know who you are, you will know how to finish them off when you have their neck under your boot.

Remember, there are always two dogs in the fight, and right now the team you’re playing this weekend is reading this same blog post and they’re planning on implementing these same strategies. So at the end of the day, it really is about having a compete level and a will-to-win that is stronger and more consistent than the other guy. Just like I say all the time, it’s about consistency! It’s not about just getting there, it’s about getting there and STAYING there. And that takes a level of mental toughness that not all players have.

So, decide what kind of player you are and when you have them down and your standing on their neck, make sure you finish them off, because if you let them back up, they’ll be coming for you!

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Kevin L. Willis, PhD
Sport Psychologist
Level 5 USA Hockey Coach

Compete Level Grit Toughness Preparation