By Steve Chmielewski, PT, DPT, Level 5 Coach
With the All-Star break passing and the playoffs in sight, youth leagues are also gearing up for their big tournament pushes within their respective leagues in hopes of “going the distance.”
At this point in the year, each team typically has developed camaraderie that has helped them bond over the grind of the 5-6-month long season. As we come into the tail end of the season you may find that emotions begin to rise, and behaviors change as the expectations and long-term goals for the season are achieved or postponed. Coaches, parents, players and even organizations as a whole can experience the pressure as the financial, physical and time commitments are expected to provide dividends for their desired team. Most would agree that these feelings are counter-productive in nature. So how can we minimize this stress, particularly in the most important time of the year? This answer really needs to be addressed from three viewpoints to fully encompass the spectrum of the word TEAM.
From the coach’s perspective, the preparation for the playoffs does not begin when the playoffs are approaching, but throughout the season. This is typically apparent when the “culture” of the team is established in preseason meetings, tryouts, practices and during the season though expectations on and off the ice. At each level it is imperative that the coach maintains open dialogue with the parents and the players to ensure there is an understanding of how the team is going to be developed and how things might change throughout the season and into the playoffs (e.g. ice time, lines, positions the players might be asked to play). This is obviously an ongoing process for coaches, which develops and adapts over time as the expectations of the team change (e.g. to win, to develop, to have fun).
Typically, coaches are responsible for setting up a “together” atmosphere that might be in the form of team warm-ups prior to the game, team dinners or parties, and parent meetings throughout the year. These are all avenues coaches typically take throughout the season to build unity and camaraderie as the team approaches the playoffs. Coaches may also have more subtle ways of preparing players to give them an added advantage when it comes to reducing the anxiety and emotions that come with the playoff atmosphere. For example, scheduling a number of tournaments throughout the season can allow the coach to assess the players’ reactions to games with pressure situations and reinforce positive habits. This also allows coaches to identify approaches that should be avoided prior to the playoffs. Another example might include scheduling a game with a resurface between the second and third period to have the players experience the down time between periods, which is often the structure of playoff games.
Having players switch positions on the fly during the game and playing on an Olympic sheet of ice are also ways the coach can challenge and prepare their team for various situations that may be encountered in the playoffs. This type of playoff planning must be scheduled far in advance and will require fostering a relationship with each individual. What about during or leading into the playoffs? As the leader/manager of the team, the coach is relied upon to manage the team in the heat of the moment. This is typically performed through both verbal and nonverbal communication. Coaches will typically know and use players’ emotions to get the most out of them in tough situations based on experiences throughout the year.
Parents also play an important role in the playoffs. From getting kids to the rink on time and making sure they have a backup stick, to reinforcing the positives of a hard-fought game and encouraging improvement. Parents have the ability to help their son or daughter be at their best.
By setting kids up for success and creating a positive environment, parents can reduce pregame anxiety levels. With this in mind it is important for parents to establish a positive relationship not only with their own son or daughter surrounding their play, but the other players on the team as well. Imagine one person in the stands cheering you on after an impressive play and then imagine 40 people. This can reinforce unselfish acts and encourage hard work, thus adding to a player’s self-confidence on and off the ice.
These approaches may be small in nature but can have an impact on the team as they develop through the year and into the playoffs. You commonly hear the phrase “patient with the puck,” which is an instinct often developed when a player relies on their skills and tests the boundaries to which they play. This is much easier for kids who are not worried of criticism from the stands, the bench or during the car ride home. This also leads to a deeper question – can the parents impact the team’s overall puck possession time, power play efficiency or overall depth? When considering a player’s skill development over the course of the year, it is not farfetched to assume that each player would become more confident with the puck, versus panicking under pressure, in the absence of undo anxiety.
Lastly, the player has a significant amount of control to how to set themselves and their team up for success in the playoffs. After watching the 2018 NHL All Star skills competition and game, it was apparent that the rookie Brock Boeser was an impactful and skilled individual. What was even more noticeable was his overall calm demeanor in times of great pressure and limelight. Whether you saw him calmly win the “Shooting Accuracy” competition over Stamkos and Crosby, nonchalantly relaxing in the locker room prior to the final All Star game or being surprised that he won the All Star MVP – it is apparent that Brock exhibits strong mental skills. The pressure that he felt, and how he managed it, relates directly to those pressures and added anxiety today’s youth players may feel within their playoffs runs.
So how do you define “mental toughness?” Sports psychologists define mental toughness with the six C’s: Control, Composure, Concentration, Commitment, Confidence and Consistency. Sports psychologists focus on fostering these concepts to help players focus on the moment rather than the past or the present. Prospects and current NHL players are fortunate to have access to these professionals, but no one can expect a youth player to have access to a sports psychologist. However, this doesn’t mean a player can’t focus on fostering these characteristics through practice and training. Coaches typically will use phrases such as “stay in the moment” or comment on how players need to play “one shift at a time.” These phrases ask a player to disregard the past and the future in order to capitalize on the present, which is where the player is MOST effective. However, some players may count their stats on the boards in the lobby to determine how many goals their team needs or may assess how other teams are doing, while others might focus on how much ice time their teammate is getting compared to them or how they performed in their prior game. Doing these things requires the player to focus on the past, which does not improve a player’s focus on the present. Some coaches commonly try to foster this concept of “being present” by showing video clips of elite performers/athletes or discussing topics such as breathing, visualization techniques, and how to deal with frustrations or pressures. While this concept is easy to say, it is hard to practice due to our natural tendency to focus on the outcome of the games instead of focusing on the process of winning.
What it takes (present approach) vs the need to win (future approach)
As the playoffs approach, I challenge you to listen to your conversations and to review your actions as a coach, parent or player. Are you helping to promote a stronger team after each interaction? Typically, this requires positivity, honesty and sometimes a bit of sacrifice to truly help the “team” be at its best. This is not always the easiest thing to do when pride is involved, but then again PRIDE doesn’t win CHAMPIONSHIPS.
Clarke, Mark. “Brock Boeser’s NHL All-Star Game MVP Windfall Includes $337,500 and a Car.” SBNation, www.sbnation.com/nhl/2018/1/28/16943436/brock-boeser-nhl-all-star-game-mvp-bonus-money.
Halliwell, Wayne. “Preparing Professional Hockey Players for Playoff Performance.” Athletic Insight:The Online Journal of Sports Psychology, vol. 6, no. 2, Sept. 2004, pp. 25–33., http://www.athleticinsight.com/Vol6Iss2/PlayoffPDF.pdf.