Players and parents are always asking me what coaches look for in players and here’s what i tell them;
- PHYSICAL - coaches want players that are fast with strong puck possession skills.
- HEART - coaches want players with a competitive spirit who practice and play with a high compete level.
- MIND - coaches want players that know how to think the game as fast as they can play it.
Let’s break these down a little and make sure you’re working on all of these important areas of your game.
It's obvious that if you want to play hockey you better know how to skate, pass, shoot, score, and defend. But more than that, you need to be able to do these things with speed and at a consistent level. NHL Coach Mike Sullivan during a USA Hockey Presentation talked about the importance of players being able to play with speed and having good puck possession skills.
Of course there are a hundred other skills that players will develop but putting an emphasis on speed and puck skills helps players stand out among the pack.
The good news is, this is what 100% of the teams practice multiple times a week all season long. Not to mention, they get to test these skills at every game.
So, we recognize the importance of the physical skills, what about heart and mind?
Compete level is something I hear coaches talk about all the time. If you haven’t already, CLICK HERE to read an article that I wrote on compete level.
Compete level is a competitive spirit a player has to work hard, be the best, and yes, to win. I know many say it’s not about winning, but let's face it. We play hard to beat the other team. It is about winning at some level, and that’s where competitive spirit comes in.
The following is an excerpt from my workbook called “The Relentless Player”.
- Competitiveness can bridge the skill gap between you and another player. If you are a relentless competitor, you can knock even the most skilled player off of their game. As a relentless competitor, you make your opponent earn everything they get. Even in a sport like hockey where aggressive play is required, most players aren’t used to dealing with relentless competitiveness in others. By being competitive, you can shake their focus. A tough competitor can often force a highly skilled opponent to back down.
- Being fiercely competitive earns you respect. If you give your all each and every shift, you will earn the respect of your teammates, coaches, scouts, and even your opponents.
- Being competitive carries over into your every day life. In school competitive students work harder and get the best grades, at work, competitive employees stand out and get the best jobs. Being competitive helps you stand out and gives you an advantage over others.
You can't always be the strongest, most talented, or most gifted player on the ice, but you can always be the most competitive.
Which brings me to the 3rd area where coaches expect to see a high level of performance and that is in a players mental game.
When you think of the mental game in hockey, typically the first thing that comes to mind is HOCKEY SENSE or HOCKEY IQ.
Hockey Sense or Hockey IQ is a players ability to think the game quickly. To be able to recognize situations, make quick decisions, and execute the necessary skills, at speed, to gain the advantage.
This kind of thinking includes awareness and anticipation. Think of Wayne Gretzky’s popular quote “I go to where the puck will be, not to where it is”. That’s both awareness and anticipation.
We call this functional intelligence. Being able to use our head to think the game quickly in ways that make us better.
But it’s not enough to be aware and know what’s going to happen, you have to be able to make decisions quickly and then act on those decisions. This quick decision-making is a HUGE part of having functional intelligence.
Watching the World Junior Tournament this year, Tim Hunter, coach of the Canadian team, shared that “quick decision making” was the top priority for the team. Of course, he expected his boys to work hard and to skate fast, but he specifically emphasized the importance of being able to make decisions quickly and to execute skills quickly so as to have an advantage over the other teams in the tournament.
So, coaches recognize that the mental part of the games is a critical piece of the puzzle and look for players who work on this part of their game. But how do you do that?
How do you improve awareness, anticipation, and decision-making?
How do you improve confidence, build commitment, strengthen resilience, improve discipline, enhance focus and limit distractions?
As a Sport Psychologist, this is the part of the game that I focus on the most. The mental game, in my opinion, is at least 50% of the game, and I would argue that as you move up and play at higher and higher levels, the mental part of the game becomes more and more important.
But, here’s a question for you.
What are you doing right now to improve in this area of the game?
I said earlier that the good news was that we practice the physical skills multiple times a week and we get to show off those skills during game time performance. And it is good that we do this.
But, the bad news is, we aren’t doing the same for the heart and mind parts of the game.
If we’ll agree that 50% of the game is physical and 50% of the game is mental (although it’s probably higher on the mental side), then working 100% of the time during the week on only the physical side of the game is leaving players with a gaping hole of important skills that they’ll need to reach their potential.
Neglecting to specifically coach the mental parts of the game means that players are left to do this on their own. They’re left to figure out how to handle their emotions, how to manage their confidence, how to develop resilience and to learn how to perform under pressure.
That’s uncool if you ask me.
Would you leave a player to figure out how to skate on their own and jump right into coaching the power play or how to back check? Heck no.
We all know this and yet I see it over and over and over again throughout the season where players are developing physically but coming up short when it comes to their mental toughness.
Their compete level is low or inconsistent because they’ve never been taught how to manage it. They’re just supposed to figure it out on their own.
Their confidence rises and falls throughout the season because they don’t have the skills to manage their emotions or focus or motivation or commitment. Again, they’re just supposed to figure it out on their own.
IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE THAT WAY
Sport psychology has grown more in the past 20 years than it did in the previous 100 years. What we know now about developing peak performers is growing at a rapid pace.
Many professional teams have specific development programs in this area and have sport psychologists and mental game coaches on staff to ensure that mental toughness is not lacking in their team.
However, this isn’t the case at the youth and junior level. Even with all that we know and are learning every day, youth and junior teams are still ignoring this part of their overall player development and sadly, players are the one’s feeling the pain.
There is a horrible statistic that tells us that in youth sports, 70% of players are done with their sport by the age of 13.
Yikes! … 70% are quitting right as they are reaching a point where they can begin to shine. And the really scary part is, is that the reason they are leaving is because of the mental side of the game.
That’s right, they’re leaving not because they can’t play the game. They’re leaving because the game isn’t fun anymore. It’s too stressful. It’s uncomfortable because they don’t know what to do with their swings in confidence. They don’t know how to handle a pressure and expectations placed on them by their coaches and parents. They don’t know how to improve their awareness, anticipation, and decision making because no one is teaching them in a systematic way.
That’s not cool.
HERE’S MY CHALLENGE TO YOU
Right now, before you get distracted by something else, go to my website and grab a free copy of my book “Hockey Grit Grind and Mind” and commit to reading it as soon as you get it. It’s a quick, easy read, and it will show you that THERE ARE TOOLS to teach this part of the game. They’re out there.
IF YOU’RE A COACH, get your entire team to get the book and then use the book as a teaching tool during the season.
IF YOU’RE A PARENT, bug your coach to make this book a requirement for the entire team. If they resist, GO GET MY BOOK YOURSELF. It’s free for crying out loud (you just pay for shipping).
NOTE: The best coaches are open to coaching this part of the game, they just need the resources and structure to be able to add it to their system, so if you’re coach initially resists, bug him to reach out to me and I can point him to a ton of resources available to help them coach the mental side of the game.
Take the bull by the horns and decide today, that from now on you will stop neglecting the mental side of the game and you will start today to deliberately and systematically start to improve in this part of your game.
HERE’S WHAT I KNOW
You will never reach your full potential without developing mental toughness. There is not a single player in the NHL, AHL, ECHL, NCAA, etc. that is not mentally tough. How do I know this? Because you can’t get there unless you are!
Somewhere along the line, these players made the decision to improve this part of their game and it made all the difference in the world for them.
And it can for you too.
So, take me up on my offer to get your free copy of Hockey Grit Grind and Mind and start today to change your future!