Postseason Success: The Key to Winning it All

adult hockey players celebrating

Must-win situations can result in below-average performances. Here’s how to avoid that.


Now that it is playoff time for many teams, it is important to examine postseason success. Often teams have successful seasons; but when it comes to the postseason and the added pressures of must-win situations, that can result in below-average performances. Whether your team is starting the first round of a playoff series, heading to the Finals, or made it all the way to the Championship, postseason success is a tough road to follow.

Athletes often refer to the playoffs as the “real season” or a “new season.” This is important to think about for postseason success because the playoffs are exactly that—a whole new season. Everything that your team has done up to this point has been in preparation for the playoffs, and now is the time to put that preparation to good use.

This article touches on a few key concepts that all athletes, their captains and coaches, should apply in these high-pressure situations.


Stick to the Plan

A common mistake a lot of teams make when they enter the postseason is that they try to do too much. All of a sudden the principles that were utilized during the regular season are not good enough, or too basic. Teams try to make things more difficult thinking that this might trick the opponent, when in fact complicating things often results in mistakes and backfires. You must remind yourself to Stick to the Plan so that you and your team keep doing what you did all year. Whatever the game plan is it was good enough to help your team make the playoffs. So why change things?

It is critical that your team reinforces the systems that have been run all season. Remember to keep it simple, to move the puck the way you always have, and shoot the puck when given the opportunity. No one should get too individual, and don’t narrow the focus. Remember, even though the fancy play might look really good, it often doesn’t work and causes a turnover and loss of possession. In the playoffs, one mistake is sometimes all an opponent needs to win the game.

The playoffs produce stress, anxiety, and a feeling of pressure on everyone involved. These feelings can make it hard to play to one’s potential. Elite athletes have learned how to cope with this stress and are able to demonstrate peak performances when pressure arises, but some athletes are seen to crack under the pressure. Such (often less-experienced) players lose track of the plan. These times are wonderful opportunities for athletes to refocus and keep the basics in mind, as well as an important factor for postseason success.

The teams that can stick to the plan have a much greater chance at postseason success in pressure situations, when compared to teams who aren’t able to do so.


Stay In the Present

In the playoffs, anything can happen! Any team can win at any given time; any team can have an amazing scoring run, or an amazing comeback. Any team can score a beautiful goal and any team can score a lucky goal. In other words: Anything Can Happen!

Given that fact, it is important that you and your team stay in the moment and focus on the present. You can’t change the past; all you can control is your performance at that particular point in time. If you are constantly worried about what happened during the last shift, the last period, or the last game, your performance will suffer. You should always remember to be in the moment and focus on the now. This is key to helping you play to your potential. The best players are able to play one shift at a time and focus on each individual shift.

On a team, every player has a role. Whether you’re the top team in the league or the team that wasn’t supposed to make the playoffs, your team consists of a group of players who all have a responsibility. Essential for success is the ability to have every player fill their role and contribute to the overall success. A captain or coach should make sure that their players know and understand their role. Players must accept what they need to do to make the team successful and do whatever it takes to fulfill their role.


Control the Controllable

Oftentimes teams get caught up in the passion of the playoffs, and overreact when there is a bad call made by the refs or if their opponent comes out and scores an early goal. Unfortunately, these are situations that are beyond your control. If you spend too much time worrying about what you can’t control, you lose your focus on what you can control: your own performance.

Only you can control the way you play, and that should be your focus. Don’t spend time worrying about the referees or the opponent. Peter Smith, Head Coach of McGill University’s Martlet hockey team, is quick to remind his athletes that referees are like the weather: “You wake up in the morning, look outside, and prepare for whatever Mother Nature brings that day. If it rains, you put on a raincoat and grab an umbrella; if it’s sunny, you wear a t-shirt and shorts. If a referee makes a bad call, you have to live with it and you adapt to it.”

Yelling at the ref will not change their call. In fact, getting on the wrong side of the referee usually ends up working against you. And a coach or captain that loses control on the bench often loses control of their players. The game plan should include how you want your team to play, and not focus on what the opponent can do. Control the controllable!


Expect to Win

At the beginning of each season, many teams come up with a slogan or a team objective. A favorite slogan is Expect to Win, and this applies more so in the playoffs than at any other time of the season. Teams need to have the confidence in themselves, their teammates, and their captains or coaches, that they expect to win each game.

This expectation starts in the warm-up: It is important to show your opponent that you’re a confident team. Intimidate the opponent in the warm-up: This is done by having an organized, structured, and intense plan for your pregame on-ice routine. Get yourself prepared for competition during that time, both mentally and physically, so that you have confidence when the game begins. Confidence in yourself, your teammates, and your coaches reflects an Expect to Win philosophy.


Have Fun!

Lastly, to play well you need to have fun. Playing when you’re frustrated, upset, or angry and your performance suffers. There is a fine line between playing focused and playing frustrated; it is important that you figure out the balance between being focused, serious and in the zone, while still being able to have fun when you’re out on the ice. Be sure to smile, take the time to enjoy the moment, and laugh with your teammates. You’ll find that when you’re able to do this consistently, you will play better and position you and your team for postseason success.

Team leaders must make sure to keep the environment fun and upbeat! A stressed coach will have stressed-out players. Keep cool, and enjoy the moment.

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