I’ve already spoken to you about pressure and how it impacts your game. Let’s talk about those specific things that you’re thinking that are creating that feeling of pressure.
Notice that I called the pressure a feeling. You might not think of it that way, and yet that’s what it is. A feeling due to what you are thinking or believing.
Here are some of the thoughts I’m guessing are going around in your mind:
"I must do better " or " I must BE better"
This thought starts out with you thinking that you have to reach a certain level at what you’re doing. That might be playing defence or being a forward. If you are a goalie then this thought will be shouting at you in all capital letters.
I’ll talk directly to you as the goalie in a separate post.
Do you notice that you compare yourself to someone else with this thought? You might be comparing yourself to a present-day NHL player. Or perhaps it’s a past NHL player that you watched and idolized as you were growing up.
You imagine yourself as this fictional person that you have in your head who is better than you are, right now. That person is who you strive to be, day in, day out as you’re playing.
Am I right? Do you notice yourself unconsciously comparing yourself to the better version of you?
That's a lot of pressure to be carrying around when you are playing NOW.
"I’ve got to make it into the NHL"
You’ve got to make it into the NHL or what? You’re a failure. You’re not good enough. You’ve let your parents down.
That’s a truckload of pressure you are carrying around with this thought.
I watch players in the AHL and see how talented they are. The day they get their break and play their first NHL game is huge for them. They play one game and get sent back down to the AHL and rarely if ever, get called up again.
They are an AHL player, winning games for their team and yet, that isn’t good enough. Why? Because they had expectations of being something different than who they are. And because the competition to get to the NHL level is huge.
Are you a failure at playing hockey? No, of course not. You’re already playing College hockey, or whatever level you’re at and I’m guessing you’re pretty good at it, or you wouldn’t continue to make the team.
Isn’t that enough? Sure, it might be great to go to the next level, but what if playing was about playing your best and having fun where you are and letting the rest work itself out.
You never know which scout might be in the stands looking for players that seem to be able to effortlessly play hockey.
Cale Makar of the Colorado Avalanche is a great example of this. He effortlessly plays hockey. He played for the UMass Minutemen and got them to the finals for the first time in many years. He plays for his team, whichever team he’s with.
When you watch him on the ice he doesn’t appear to overthink things, he just goes out there and does what he does best, play his role as a defenseman on the team.
What I’m talking about is the fact that he hasn’t put pressure on himself, he’s simply gone out and had fun doing what he loves. Playing hockey to the best of his natural ability. If you do that, there’s no pressure.
" I’ve got to beat [insert someone else’s name here] " or " I’ve got to be better than … "
When you’re thinking this thought or believing this though, you are comparing AGAIN. The bottom line is comparison gets you nowhere apart from stressed, uptight and feeling pressured.
What if you dropped the comparison? What if you played YOUR game, your style of hockey? Sure, your coach will talk to you about what he wants you to do. He’s there to make the team work more cohesively as a whole unit on the ice.
How can you be a greater part of that team unit? What do you need to do in the way you play to be in the right place for the cross-ice pass? How can you increase your speed to be the one on the breakaway?
If you are able to turn your thinking this way, rather than focusing on others or a future goal, you’ll notice that your game gets easier and you’ll likely have more fun.
And, funnily enough, your game is likely to improve too.
" I’ve got to master the slap shot [or whatever it is you think you need to get better at] "
Now, this is internal pressure you don’t need to be putting on yourself either. If you have all these other thoughts and this one thrown on top, you must feel so much pressure that I’m not sure how you’re standing up, let alone playing hockey at the moment.
Why put that pressure on yourself?
Wouldn’t it be great if you were good at the slapshot? Sure, it would. And it takes thousands of hours of practice to become the best at anything. So, practice. Practice whatever it is you want to be great at. And know that sometimes it will work, and others it won’t.
The more you practice though the more you will become aware of how different the shot is based on your wrist action, for example, or how you plant your skates, or where you are when you let the shot go.
All of these things will show themselves to you if you’re focused on learning, rather than putting constant pressure on yourself to have to master it.
Throw out these beliefs, or at least make friends with them
These beliefs alone create a lot of constant pressure on you. Why? Because they are taking up space in your mind and having you question yourself regularly.
Throw them out and play hockey for fun. Enjoy being on the rink and spending time with your teammates. Turn yourself into the best teammate ever and the rest will come naturally.
And, if the NHL is where you are meant to be, you will be there. The best thing to do is to enjoy the journey.
Karen Cherrett is a Sports Mindset Coach who specializes in coaching hockey players. Your game is only as good as your mindset. Karen coaches players to be more focused and play with ease, not stress. Life playing hockey should be fun. Your mindset matters. Your mental health matters. Play the game you love without the mental overload.