Boosting Mental Toughness
“The referee blew the game for us!”
“My arm is hurting,.. I'm not at 100%.”
“This team is too good, there's no way we can beat them.”
These are the words of hockey players that struggle with mental toughness. Truth is, a mentally tough athlete doesn’t say these kinds of things—only a mentally weak athlete does.
We've probably all been there at points and said some of these phrases, but in order to be successful, you need to be mentally tough.
On this page, we'll talk about what mental toughness is, how to gain more of it, and most importantly how you can improve it.
What is mental toughness exactly?
Jim Loehr, a well-known sports psychologist and author of many mental toughness books, describes mental toughness as follows:
Mental toughness is the ability to consistently perform to the upper range of your talent and skill, regardless of competitive circumstances.
Having the ability to deal with the things that throw you off your game or affect your performance, can be considered mental toughness.
In hockey, that means being able to deal with things like bad referees, crappy ice, fatigue, injuries, or anything else that gets thrown your way.
If you are mentally tough, you'll be able to take these things in stride and maintain your confidence, allowing you to work past or through them.
How to Know if You’re a Mentally Tough Hockey Player
Indeed, some hockey players have more natural mental toughness than others, but you can definitely boost your abilities over time. By the time you finish reading this page, you’ll have a few new tricks up your sleeve to do exactly that.
To figure out if you're a mentally tough player, you need to look at how you react to certain circumstances. Do you react positively or negatively when something doesn't go your way?
For example, how would you react if you showed up to a game only to find out that you left your sticks at home and had to borrow a stick from another player with a different curve and flex than you are used to. Would you get totally bummed out? Would you start to panic? Would you blame your bad passes on the new stick?
If so, your mental toughness could use some work, and it all starts with understanding the 3 different scenarios of mental toughness in hockey:
- being mentally tough in situations you can’t control (like losing your sticks or bad referees)
- being mentally tough when you’re not at your best (like making a mistake that leads to a goal against)
- being mentally tough when you’re in pain (like playing with a sore foot)
Let’s look at these scenarios in closer detail and teach you how to overcome them as a mentally tough hockey player.
How to be Mentally Tough in Situations You Can’t Control
Anything that’s out of your control and that requires increased focus in order to continue performing at your best falls into this category. These “outside” factors can be detrimental to your performance if you don’t know how to deal with them.
So what’s the trick? How do you become so mentally tough that things like bad penalty calls, equipment problems or overzealous parents don’t even phase you?
The key is to change your attitude. You have to change the way you approach situations you can’t control. Instead of seeing them as hindrances or “bad-breaks”, you have to see them as opportunities and challenges. Changing your attitude towards obstacles will motivate you to play harder and force you to zone-in on the task at hand.
For example, take bad referees—this is something every player, coach, and parent can relate to I’m sure. A mentally weak player tends to focus on the bad calls. They yell and complain, and all it does is get under the referee’s skin. This results in more bad calls being made, and it’s a never-ending downward spiral because emotions are involved.
On the other hand, a mentally strong player knows that the situation is the same for both teams, and that if the referee made a bad call, he’ll try to even it up at some point. Rather than waste energy by focusing on the wrong things, the mentally strong player shuts his mouth and focuses on what he CAN control, which is working hard and moving his feet through battles down low so that his opponents are more likely to hook and interfere.
This gives the referee a chance to make up for his previous bad call, and he’s more likely to make a good call now because he hasn’t been yelled at for the past 10 minutes.
Instead of complaining, think of how much better it will feel to win even though it seems like the refs are against you.
See how that totally flips the situation on its head?
Rather than have 20 players complain about outside factors and things you can’t control, treat every bad situation as a challenge—an opportunity to do something great!
Put simply, make it fun when the odds are stacked against you.
Pro tip: One of the best ways to stay mentally tough when dealing with situations out of your control is to visualize. Think of all the situations that can get you off your game (ex: bad call by the referee, noisy fans, etc.), and build them into your pre-game visualization routine. Over time, you’ll have rehearsed enough bad scenarios in your mind that when they happen in real life, they won’t even phase you!
How to be Mentally Tough When You’re Not at Your Best
The other area hockey players struggle with when it comes to mental toughness is bad performance.
How do you stay mentally tough when things start to go wrong? How do you bounce back from a bad pass or from a turnover that leads to a goal? Seeing things as a challenge won’t do much for you here.
The key to being mentally tough when you aren’t playing well actually happens before you even step on the ice. If you haven’t guessed yet, the key to good and consistent performance is preparation.
That statement holds true in hockey and life.
The better prepared you are for the task at hand, the simpler that task will be and the easier it will be for you to succeed. It also becomes a lot easier to bounce back from bad performances because you believe in your own capabilities.
In other words, if you want to bounce back from a bad shift, a turnover, or a mistake, you have to put in the work to master your craft—both physically and mentally—before they happen.
Only then will you be able to brush off bad shifts, turnovers, and small mistakes as if they were nothing. Only then will you bounce back for the better. Take your off-season training and in-season practices seriously…they affect your performance a lot more than you think!
Two Key Exercises for Training Mental Toughness
1. Train to Increase Confidence
The key to building confidence (and mental toughness as a result), is to overcome smaller failures. By challenging yourself on a daily basis with something you’ve not quite mastered, you develop greater confidence in your skills and learn to deal with meltdowns when larger failures occur.
Things like learning a new language, sport, or musical instrument are a perfect fit for overcoming small failures and boosting confidence.
This is one of the reasons why so many people recommend playing more than just hockey in the summer. It not only increases your overall athleticism, but also helps you build mental toughness and all-around confidence in your abilities.
2. Embrace Your Position/Role
During war, soldiers face a ton of situations, many of them life-threatening. One of the ways they stay mentally tough is by reminding themselves that it’s their duty to protect their country.
It’s their job, no matter what.
Regardless of how they feel that day, regardless of if they’re scared, hungry, happy or sad—their job is to defend their country, and they get the job done. They embrace their sense of duty and it comes above all else.
You can use this exact same concept in hockey to stay mentally tough. For instance, write down everything you’re responsible for on the ice, based on your position.
If you’re a winger, that might be:
- Be tough on the boards
- Move the puck up the ice on breakouts
- Block shots from opposing D-men at any cost
- Be first on loose pucks
- Win puck battles
- Get to the front of the net for scoring chances
Whatever your list consists of is what tasks you’re responsible for. Think of it as your job description. Those tasks need to get done no matter what—regardless of how you feel or how much pain you’re in.
You can even go as far as taping your list of tasks to your stall so that you see them every time you step on the ice. When you’re clear about your tasks, it becomes easier to get them done.
If you've set a longer term goal like making a top tier team or improving your overall speed, write that down too.
All of a sudden, that sore wrist doesn’t hurt all that much…
Remember…there are 3 different scenarios that will test your mental toughness as a hockey player:
- situations where things are totally out of your control
- situations where you make mistakes or play badly
- situations where you’re in pain
When things are out of your control, remember to acknowledge them, see them as challenges, and set your focus on the task at hand.
On the other hand, mental toughness with regards to mistakes and playing badly happens before you even step foot on the ice. How have you prepared all off-season? Are you prepared both physically and mentally? How hard do you work during practices? In other words, are you prepared to perform?
Being properly prepared to perform will eliminate a lot of mistakes right out of the gate, and for the odd mistake here and there, calm down while re-focusing to get your mind back in the game.
When it comes to being mentally tough and playing through (minor) pain, just remember that you have a duty and responsibility to your team, and you need to get those tasks done to the very best of your ability. Of course, if you have an actual injury, you need to be safe and have the injury assessed. If that means you have to come off the ice, that's also outside of your control. Let that be an opportunity or challenge for your teammates to overcome. Come back healthy and ready to meet the next challenge!