Such a Fine Line


The razor-thin line between the players in the world junior tournament and those watching on television.

When you watch hockey being played at an elite level in a high-pressure, high-importance tournament, it's amazing to watch the skill and brilliance of the players on the ice.

Their skill with the puck, their skill away from the puck, their scoring chances and the amazing defense played to prevent these scoring chances.

Over and over and over, shift after shift after shift, their ability to play hockey at this level is simply stunning.

Take the World Junior Tournament for instance. Right now in Vancouver Canada, some of the world's best juniors are battling it out to see who will come out on top.

Players from Canada, the US, Sweden, Czech Republic, Finland, Switzerland, Denmark, Slovakia, and this year the team from Kazakhstan. These guys are the best of the best at the Junior ranks.

But what makes them better than the player that didn’t get selected for the team? What makes them better than the player they line up against on the faceoff?

The difference between these players can be obvious, but more often it’s a razor-thin line of skill or size or heart.

Coaching and working with players over the years as a Sport Psychologist, I have found some very predictable attributes that allow one player to be selected to represent their country in a world tournament versus the player that was almost selected but left home instead.

I have discovered many critically important skill areas in a player that goes on to compete at this level versus the player that isn’t quite ready.

The great news is, the potential is in all of us. The bad news is, without awareness and deliberate attention focused on these important skill areas, there will always be the haves and the have nots.

For the rest of this post, I will share with you three important phases of development, six important skill areas that must be a priority, and 54 specific skills that a player must manage if they want to play at the highest level in the game.

The three phases of development are;

  • Right Preparation
  • Right Practice
  • Right Performance

Right Preparation consists of the ability to have a plan for your development and performance, to know who you are as a player to get the most out of your potential, and begin the development of a mentally tough mindset to set you apart from others.

Right Practice involves the deliberate effort to learn and improve skill areas such as focus, drive, motivation, and of course deliberate practice. And when I talk about deliberate practice I am talking about the ability to maximize the benefits of your practice time during the week in order to maximize your performance on the ice during competition.

Lastly is Right Performance. This is where the hard work and preparation come together. It’s your ability to translate what you practice into game-time performance. And trust me, this is easier said than done as any player can tell you. This is where mental toughness, resilience, compete level, and grit come together to make you a force on the ice.

Now, obviously as a Sport Psychologist, I come from the perspective that the mental game is a pretty big part of what it takes to be a great hockey player, but let's be honest. If you can’t skate, shoot, pass, score, and defend, you will have a hard time becoming an elite player.

But we need to be honest the other way too and that is to recognize just how important the mental side of the game is and to make sure we’re doing the things throughout our development to strengthen and build this part of our game.

Well, what are those things?

That’s why when I work with players I focus on six essential skill areas that players must possess if they ever have the desire to reach their full potential.

These critical skill areas are;

  • Right Hockey Skills
  • Right Focus
  • Right Drive
  • Right Feelings
  • Right Character
  • Right Opportunities


This is what I call the obvious hockey skills that every player, coach, and parent will quickly gravitate towards as the all-important skills to develop in hockey. Right skills include being able to skate, shoot, pass, score, and defend. It’s having speed. It’s being a strong stick-handler. It’s having a shot that finds the back of the net or the defensive ability to keep that from happening.

But the right skills also include the tactical parts of the game. Positioning set plays such as breakouts and zone entry. It’s designing specialty team tactics that take advantage of having an extra player or being able to defend adequately when you’re down a player.

Lastly, it's about having hockey sense. Hockey sense is an awareness of the game that goes beyond just being able to skate and pass and shoot. It’s about recognizing situations on the ice, being able to make decisions quickly, and execute those decisions in the right way. It’s about being able to predict and anticipate scenarios on the ice so that your positioning and timing let you be a deciding factor in the outcome of the game.

Hockey sense is where the mental part of the game starts to separate from the physical parts of the game and it leads me to start talking about the other five critical skill areas all elite players must have to be their very best.


Right focus is about being able to put your focus on the right thing at the right time and in the right way. Because hockey is such a fast and physical game, focus not only must be accurate and effective, it needs to be done quickly and efficiently. We all know how important focus is in hockey, but how do you practice it? How do you strengthen it? Keep reading.


Right drive is all about being properly motivated and driven to do the right things in the right way to reach your full potential. Motivation sounds like a simple concept but when you start digging into it, at least from the perspective of being an elite athlete, the nuts and bolts of motivation can become quite complex. Players who are over-motivated can become perfectionists and stressed out, never able to reach their potential. Players who are under-motivated can struggle to work hard enough to get the most out of their abilities.

And your level of motivation is just a small piece of the puzzle. What about where it comes from? What about what boosts it or drains it? As I said, motivation sounds like such an obvious part of reaching your full potential, but trust me, there are a lot of moving parts and can make the already difficult journey of becoming an elite hockey player that much more difficult.


Come on Kevin! We’re not going to start talking about feelings, are we? Seriously!? Well, yeah, we are, because managing the right feelings is a critical part of being able to reach your full potential and the effect our feelings have on our overall performance cannot be underestimated.

Think about concepts like confidence, courage, energy, emotional control, intensity, composure. I could go on and on. We know these things play a huge role in your overall development but how and in what way? These are things we need to know. These are things we need to be able to manage and address. Leave these things to chance and you can sabotage all of the time and effort you put into developing your physical skills. But HOW DO YOU WORK ON THESE? Keep reading.


Ask any coach one of the most important attributes they look for in a player and they will all respond with the word CHARACTER.

Well, what’s character? I define character as the attributes of values, attitude, responsibility, accountability, team game, leadership, personality, temperament, appreciation, sportsmanship, and gratitude.

Are these things you are either born with or not or are they things that can be developed and enhanced? Of course, they are part of your DNA but they are also a part of your environment and upbringing.

So, if we know that every coach is looking for character in their players, doesn’t it make sense to have a strong one? How do you develop this part of your game? Keep reading.


Ok. So, I have to stop and admit right now that this area, Right Opportunity, is really something beyond personal definable characteristics that players can develop in their game, however, because environment and support can have such a defining impact on where a player can go in hockey, I feel like it’s important to acknowledge.

So, what do I mean by Right Opportunity?

These are things like, how strong is the coaching in your area? How strong is the competition you are playing? How good are your teammates (so they push you to be better). Where did you grow up, what are your genetics? Heck, there are studies that show that a player's birthday can have an impact on how far they go in the game. Crazy huh?

We also look at things like, who do you know? how much support do you have as you move up? And of course, we have to include luck. Sometimes one player will get a lucky break and the player right next to them with the same skills, speed, hockey sense, and mental toughness doesn’t get the same break.

I know that right opportunities are outside the bounds of control for the most part, but recognizing these as actual attributes that can have an impact on your overall hockey development allows you to accept the good with the bad, and use these as things to push you whenever you have doubts are struggling along the path.

Hey listen, I know hockey is a hard hard journey, To move up and play at higher and higher levels requires a level of sacrifice that many players just aren’t willing to give. But if you’re a player that has what it takes to persevere when it's hard, and shine when your time comes, then you are a player worthy of the designation of being called a complete player.

I’m sharing this with you because, for me, it’s helpful to have a roadmap of what I need to work on in order to get to where I want to be, and so far I have never seen such a roadmap for becoming a complete player.

But here’s the thing. This is just the map. The hard work to get to where you want to go requires effort in ALL of these areas.

It’s not good enough to just be a great skater or have a powerful shot or be able to keep pucks out of the net. To be a complete player, you must have skills and abilities in ALL of these areas including focus, drive, emotional control, resilience, discipline, willpower, and character.

And to get there requires deliberate focus and effort on all of these “RIGHT” areas.

So, Let's Do Something About It

So, here at the midpoint of the season, ask yourself, are you doing everything you can to develop in all of these areas?

If not, why not?

Nobody is going to hand you anything. The guys that are playing in the world juniors were not handed anything. They worked hard, they put themselves in situations where if they were properly prepared, they would have a chance to be successful, and they had the commitment and courage to put it all on the line to see how good they could really be.

What about you? Are you willing to do the same?

CHECK OUT MY BOOK - Hockey Grit Grind & Mind

That’s it for now

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

Focus Clarity Compete Level Grit Toughness Anxiety Confidence Resilience Preparation Fitness Deliberate Practice