Mental Toughness begins in Practice

Mental toughness is a catch phrase that is gaining popularity in sports. The phrase has spawned the need for mental coaches, speakers, and even psychologists in hockey. With all the tools out there for players and goalies alike, what is the most prescribed method for becoming mentally tough? Every speaker and psychologist I have spoken to (which has been many) has talked to me about practice. They have talked about practice habits, and also the mentality you learn for how you approach practice.

The thing that separates a good goaltender from the one that will move on to the next level of play is their ability to be able to cope with ups and downs – mental toughness. These ups and downs come in different forms ranging from a goal against, to a win, to losing in a shootout, to getting a shut out. Each is difficult to deal with (Yes even the good is hard to cope with). This toughness is not something that players are born with. This is one of the hardest things to grasp for a young goalie, yet it is something that through repetition, visualization, and practice, can be overcome.

The first lesson I have learned from playing as long as I have is that the first step to becoming more mentally tough is to learn how to practice. How you practice I say? If you are asking yourself this you would not be the first one. The first place that mental toughness originates is in practice. “You play like you practice.” I am sure every player has heard these words uttered at one point or another, practice is as much a mental exercise as it is a physical one. Practice, much to the dismay of Allen Iverson, is where you start the mental training associated with sports. Practice is where you foster that fire in your belly that you will never be beaten. Practice is the time where players grow and become more confident in the skills they posses. And practice is where consistency begins. Throughout my playing days I heard stories about goalies and practice. Some goalies that worked hard, some that slacked off. This brings me to Dominic Hasek - undoubtedly one of the best goalies of our generation. He plays an ungodly style, but yet he wins. How? His fight to never let a puck cross that line is unmatched, and it all begins in practice. I remember watching Dominic practice before our game against Ottawa, and I swear not a single puck beat him in 60 minutes of practice. This is not a joke. He is the starting goalie that night, and there he was diving, sprawling, and saving every puck that came at him, regardless of his own well-being. Long story short, Dominic is a great goalie, not because he is the biggest goalie or has the quickest reflexes in the league; rather he won’t let himself be beaten in practice, no matter what. My point is simple. It’s not just practicing that makes a good goalie – it is what you bring to it. It is how you prepare. It is how you compete within the practice. And it is how you push yourself when there is no one looking. This is mental toughness. Not just going thru the motions but trying to be the best always; in practice and games. That’s what sets a good player apart from a great player.

This might sound easy. It might even sound corny. If you push yourself, I mean really push yourself, to be the best every time you take the ice, and every time you put on the equipment – not just when you are playing games – you will learn what it takes to move on to the next level. It is not easy, but the results are worth the effort. “They battled their hearts out in the games, and learned to bleed in practice.” A quote from a very special coach.

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