The Mental Approach to Playing Hockey


The mental approach is essential to the mindset of the hockey player

By Coach Warren Nye

A frequent topic of discussion is how athletes think and prepare themselves for competition—not just for a game, but for winning or losing. And when things aren’t going well, what do they do?

I’ve asked my friend and colleague, Anthony Lanzillo, a mental health expert who specializes in sports counseling, to provide his take on the subject. I’m sure you’ll agree it is valuable information for both hockey players and armchair athletes alike:

“Being hockey tough is about your ability to stay on the power channel”
Saul Miller – Hockey Tough: A Winning Mental Game

In his book Hockey Tough, Saul Miller discusses the importance of being careful about what you are watching or looking at, and making sure that whatever it is, it is making you more powerful. Like turning on the TV, you want to make sure that the station you’re watching is helping you and if not, you can always change the channel. He recommends that you put “positive programs on your mental TV.”

Hockey Tough cover
Hockey Tough

In working with hockey players—or any athlete—I often say that it is not so much what you are looking at but, maybe more importantly, how you choose to look at it. It’s the mental approach to the game.

For example, in a challenging game-time situation, whether your team is behind in the score or one of your players has been sent to the penalty box, you get to choose how you want tosee and mentally respond to the situation you are faced with. Do you choose to put the situation in a positive frame of reference, which could empower and re-energize you? Or do you choose to put the situation in a negative light and thereby begin to feel emotionally and physically drained?

Being “hockey tough is the mental approach; it’s all about harnessing the mental strength to successfully manage those game-time situations that will challenge your concentration, composure, and confidence. It’s having the right mental approach that helps you play with focus and intensity, and keeps you mentally sharp and steady—especially during those critical moments of a game. Your ability to stay on the power channel in one of those moments will ultimately depend upon you having the necessary mental skills that gives you the most empowering perspective of yourself, and puts you in a position to make smart decisions.

So when does being “hockey tough” really matter? Maybe it’s the moment you lose the puck. The moment a teammate is sent to the penalty box and you are playing a man down. It could be the moment you are verbally taunted by a player from the other team. Or the moment you are behind on the scoreboard. Or even the moment you begin to feel overwhelmed.

According to Anthony Robbins, author of Awaken the Giant Within, a person will make three decisions at any given moment of the day that will determine his future: deciding what to focus on, deciding what things mean, and deciding what to do to create the result one wants. In sports—and particularly in a game-time situation—the athlete needs to be mentally prepared to make the smartest decision. It’s knowing how to mentally manage that moment in order to create the best opportunity for a successful performance.
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As a hockey player, in deciding what to focus on, you always want to zero in on what you want to do. Yet, too many players focus on what they don’t want to do or happen in the game: They don’t want to look bad or embarrass themselves; they don’t want to lose the game. By focusing on what they don’t want, they are simply creating more stress and anxiety for themselves, and therefore will not be effective or competitive. They are so worried about themselves that they can’t really be “in the game,” and will probably withdraw or hold back. They are more concerned about how they look instead of how they can just play their best and contribute to the team. In essence, they have become “dead weight.”

The key is to focus on what you do want. Only set your sights on what you want to do in the game and how you want to play. By taking this perspective, you will become more proactive and more open to seeing every situation in a game as a learning opportunity to grow as a player. When you focus on what you want, you become more assertive, more passionate about playing, and basically feel more “alive.” This creates more enthusiasm, more energy, and a greater sense of empowerment for you and your team.

Anthony Lanzillo has worked in the mental health field for past 20 years as a counselor, case manager and social worker. He specializes in supporting athletes as a sports counselor and mental-skills trainer. Lanzillo writes the Reaching Your Mental Peak blog for athletes SharpMentalSportsSkills as well as the Mental Skills in Sports community for Google+. He now writes articles on mental skills for wikiHow and various sports websites.

Coach Warren Nye is the founder and CEO of UltimateHockeySource and the UHS ProShop. He has served as player, coach, and manager, and has coached many players who have gone on to play professional hockey. is reader supported. When you buy via the links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission at no extra cost to you. Learn more.

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