In practice he’s fast, aggressive and skilled. His stickhandling is outstanding, and there’s no question that this kid has the talent to play at the next level. So how come, whenever the game starts and the pressure of competition is turned up high, the kid does a disappearing act and morphs into a player you can’t even recognize? The speed and aggressiveness are gone, the skills abandon him and he becomes a passive non-factor on the ice! What gives?
One of the main reasons that hockey players at every level seem to mysteriously lose their abilities once the game begins is because of the disruptive effect that their nerves have on their performance. If your athletes get too anxious before games, their muscles will automatically tighten, and that robs them of their speed, reaction time and skills. Out-of-control performance anxiety at game time is probably the single greatest cause of choking and poor performance.
As a coach, you’re in a unique position to directly help your players stay cool and calm in the clutch by what you say to them and by what you get them to focus on just before and during their games. If it’s the right things, then you will help them play loose and at that same high level as when they practise. However, if it’s the wrong things that you fill their heads with, then you’ll inadvertently tighten them up and shut them down.
Use the following 7 guidelines to get the most out of your players at crunch time.
1. MODEL CALM and IN CONTROL — If you’re overly anxious about the game, then your players will immediately pick up on this and start getting anxious themselves. A coach who is high-strung at game time will very quickly string his players out. The bigger the game, the more you need to stay calm and composed. Yelling at your players will never help them stay calm. Neither will freaking out when they make mistakes. Keep your voice calm and relaxed, and model an adult who is in control.
2. Focus your players on the PROCESS of the game, not the OUTCOME — One of the biggest causes of performance anxiety is concentrating on the outcome of a game. If you really want your team to win, then the last thing you should ever talk about with them is the importance of the game and winning or losing! Instead, keep your players focused on their role and doing it to the very best of their ability, one shift at a time, one play at a time. An outcome focus will always tighten them up. A process focus will help calm them down.
3. Keep your players’ GAME FOCUS on things that they CAN CONTROL — There are a lot of things in hockey that are directly out of a player’s control. These “uncontrollables” — playing time, who’s in the stands watching, how big the game is, how big, fast or skilled the opponents are, the outcome of the game (it’s in the future), the officiating, a miscue or mistake (once it has happened, it’s in the past) — are mental traps, and they’re lying in wait for every player in the game. When your athletes concentrate on any of these uncontrollables, either before or during the game, they will get nervous, lose their confidence and underachieve. Your job as a coach is to help them keep their focus away from the uncontrollables and on things that they CAN control.
4. BE POSITIVE as a coach — Nothing good comes from negativity. Ever! Coaches who focus their players on the negative, either before or during the game, end up increasing their athletes’ anxiety, killing their confidence and setting the team up for failure. Negativity steals a player’s heart and stifles motivation. Regardless of how your players are performing, you must stay positive, supportive and encouraging. Comebacks can only happen when a coach is positive. Mistakes can only be corrected when a coach is positive. Positive coaching builds self-esteem and keeps your players loose and relaxed. This is how you get the very best out of your players!
5. MAKE THE GAMES FUN — Regardless of how big a game is or what’s at stake, the more you stress having fun, the more relaxed your athletes will be and the better they’ll perform for you. The secret to peak performance is that the athlete and the team have to be loose. Being too serious as a coach when you approach a game or tournament is a great way to make your players anxious and physically tight, thus setting them up to fail. Want peak performance? Then make the whole playing experience fun for your kids.
6. Help your players QUICKLY LET THEIR MISTAKES GO — There’s nothing that will fuel an athlete’s performance anxiety more than the fear of making mistakes. When your players mess up, help them quickly figure out what they need to do differently next time, and then refocus them on the game in the NOW. Do not ever dwell on your players’ miscues during a game. The time to work on mistakes with your players is always in practice and never when it counts. As a coach, you need to remain calm when your players make mistakes and quickly refocus them on the task at hand.
7. KEEP THE GAME IN PERSPECTIVE — Believe it or not, the real purpose of this game is NOT winning. You have a much more important role here. It’s to teach life lessons in young, developing human beings so that they can become the successful leaders of tomorrow. Specifically, your job is to help your players learn the game, develop self-confidence, master setbacks and adversity, play as a team, adopt fair play and good sportsmanship, and learn integrity, mutual respect and class. The VERY BEST COACHES IN THIS SPORT understand that there is far more at stake here than simply winning hockey games.