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Mental Toughness: Hockey’s Game-Changer

By Steve Mann, 07/26/23, 12:15PM EDT


Five key components of mental toughness

Beyond physical skills, the hidden game-changer that can take players and teams from bad to good and good to great is mental toughness.


Can you cope with the emotional, physical, and cognitive demands of hockey?

Having a blistering slap shot, elite skating speed, tape-to-tape passing ability or cat-like reflexes in net are all attributes that elevate a players’ individual profile and contribute to team success. But beyond the physical skills, the hidden game-changer that can take players and teams from bad to good and good to great is mental toughness.

The good news, according to Julia Allain, mental skills coach of the USA Hockey National Team Development Program, is that mental toughness is not some unique x-factor that only a few possess.

“I think it’s something we all have the ability to train and develop,” she said. “It’s like building muscle. Everyone has a slightly different path to grow it. And just like you have a strength coach and a skills coach and a goalie coach and a skating coach, I think a mental skills coach should be a regular part of our training programs.”

Decoding the demands

According to Allain, author of the book “Everything I Got: 30 Lessons on What You Give, What You Get, and How You Grow Through Sports,” mental toughness is the ability to cope with all the demands that are being placed on you while you’re performing.

“There’s a lot of demands being placed on athletes,” she said. “There’s the physical demands we’re all very aware of. Those are the ones we spend the most time training, things like physical endurance, physical skill, execution. But no matter how fit you are, I want you giving me your all, even when you’re tired.

We also want to talk about emotional demands. And navigating the emotional whirlwind that a sports game can be. It’s one of the most emotionally charged environments that you’re ever going to be in.

There’s also the cognitive component which is what I think gets overlooked the most. The information processing and decision making. When you’re physically tired and emotional, the decision-making piece gets really hard because your focus is drifting. You’re not able to process information as quickly because your brain’s also trying to remind you to breathe and get your heart rate down, while also juggling this strong emotional experience.

“So, really mental toughness is the edge that helps you cope with all of those demands. And as a result, it’s helping you be more consistent in remaining determined and focused and confident and in control under pressure.”

Five key components of mental toughness

According to Allain, there are many components that make up mental toughness or mental fitness that athletes should pursue. Some of the most critical include:

  1. SELF AWARENESS – The most important is self-awareness. A lot of times we take for granted knowing ourselves, and we spend a lot of time trying to get to know other people and what makes our teammates tick or what does my coach want or how does my coach communicate. And we overlook the importance of self-reflecting and learning what challenges me, what works well for me. We’ve known ourselves our whole life, but if we don’t pause and reflect on experiences and how we’re growing and changing, we’re not actually self-aware enough to know what tools and techniques are going to work best for us.
  2. CURIOSITY There’s a common phrase that when you make a mistake that you want to be curious, not critical. You want to understand why did it happen, and how can I get better and learn from it, and not just critique yourself. For any performer or athlete, it’s important to just be curious about all the different ways you can improve. I give a lot of credit to the kids at the NTDP. When I walked in I was a new coach, and it was a new thing, and yet they were all very curious and interested and wanted to try things out and engage. Sometimes people assume that the best athletes are set in their ways and know what’s good for them. But the best ones are actually always looking to improve and grow and willing to try anything if it will give them a chance.
  3. COMMITMENT A lot of athletes are super committed to their physical training and their physical growth and development and they understand that it takes time to build muscle. It takes time to build mental muscle as well. You have to have patience with yourself and stick with it. It’s not like one conversation with a mental skills coach and everything will be solved for the rest of your career. It’s a constant process that you have to stay committed to.
  4. FLEXIBILITY Within that process comes the next key which is flexibility. You have to be able to adapt and be flexible whether it’s in the moment or over the course of your career. What works for you today, may not work for you next week or next year.
  5. HUMOR Having fun, being able to laugh at yourself, that helps you stay physically loose and also helps motivate you and helps you stay refreshed and energized.

Mental toughness myths

Not surprisingly, mental toughness remains somewhat misunderstood. Allain believes there are two notable myths surrounding mental toughness. First, is that it’s a static trait, something you are either born with or you aren’t. Second, that there are negative emotions, or that players can control their emotions during a hockey game.

A lot of people think mental toughness is this stoicism where you don’t feel anything and you’re just neutral all the time. But if your goal with your emotions is to not have them, you’re really setting yourself up for failure,” she said. “It’s this rigid sense of control that isn’t realistic. So the goal really should be, when you’re talking about your emotions, to work with them rather than against them. In sports or in life, there’s no switch we have that can easily turn our emotions on or off. In hockey especially, one shift you can have the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. If you can accept that your emotions are going to be part of the experience, then they’re going to be a lot less paralyzing when they do arise.”