The Hockey Player’s Guide to Boosting Mental Toughness

Ben LevesqueHockey sense1 Comment

hockey mental toughness

“This game is over…the referee blew it for us.”

“My shoulder is killing me…I’m not 100%.”

“It’s already 3-0 for the other team. There’s no point in trying anymore.”

Statements like these can be heard in rinks around the world, coming from the mouths 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.

If you’re a hockey player and feel like you’ve said these kinds of negative statements one too many times during your hockey career, then you’re going to want to keep reading.

In this post, I’ll walk you through exactly what mental toughness is, how to gain more of it, and most importantly how you can improve it.

Let’s dive in!

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1. What is mental toughness exactly?

Mental toughness: A measure of individual resilience and confidence that may predict success in the workplace, education, and sport.

That’s the official definition (give or take) depending on which source you use.

It’s alright, but it’s not the best definition in my opinion—at least not when it comes to mental toughness in sport.

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.

That’s more like it!

Having to deal with anything that throws you off your game or puts a wrench in your plans so to speak, can be considered mental toughness.

In hockey, that means being able to deal with things like bad referees, slow/choppy ice, fatigue and exhaustion, injuries, or anything else that gets thrown your way.

And when I mean anything else, I really do mean anything else.

Here’s a quick side story from my time in Junior to help prove my point (feel free to skip ahead if you’d like)…

2. Side Story: The missing bag

Back in Major Junior (I believe it was in ’09), our coaching staff chose to fly to one of our playoff games rather than take the bus there because we’d save on travel time and have fresh legs.

It was a great idea…in theory.

The airline we were flying with ended up losing our stick-bag! There we were, all 30-some of us waiting at the baggage claim for a bag that would never come. Finally, we were told the bag had stayed in Montreal and it would only get to us in 48 hours, which was a solid 24 hours past game time.  Our equipment managers had to scramble to get us new sticks on time for our game that night.

For a minor hockey team, it may not have been such a big deal. But at a competitive level, let’s just say guys are very particular about their sticks.

Our equipment managers tried their best to go out and buy us similar sticks, but it just wasn’t possible to get all the right sticks on such a tight schedule.

Let’s just say we were pretty shook mentally. Some guys just couldn’t stop complaining about their sticks, and it had a huge impact on their performance that night.

Whenever I talk about mental toughness, this story always comes up because it’s really a great example of being able to deal with things entirely out of your control.

How would you have reacted in the same situation? Leave a comment at the end!

Alright…moving on 🙂

3. How to know if you’re a mentally tough hockey player

mental toughness in hockey

Mental toughness comes in many different shapes and sizes, but one thing I want you to realize is this: it can be learned, just like improving your speed or improving your hockey sense.

Yes, some hockey players naturally have more mental toughness than others. But it’s definitely something you can improve over time, and by the end of this blog post, you’ll have a few new tricks up your sleeve to do exactly that.

But first, how do you even know if you’re a mentally tough hockey player? 

The answer lies with how you react given the circumstances. Do you react positively or negatively when something bad happens?

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 were forced to use a new curve and stick flex, much like what happened to my team and I a few years back?

Would you get totally bummed out? Would you start to panic? Would you blame your bad passes on your bad sticks?

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 separated shoulder)

Let’s look at these scenarios in closer detail and teach you how to overcome them as a mentally tough hockey player.

4. How to be mentally tough in situations you can’t control

mental toughness out of your 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 so to speak 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 off-side calls, a 15-hour bus ride, slow ice and rowdy fans 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.

The former makes you lose focus and wastes your energy, while the latter motivates you to play harder and forces 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. He yells and complains, and all it does is get under the referee’s skin. More bad calls are 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.

And this goes for coaches as well. I know that sometimes it helps to put pressure on referees, but more times than not it does more harm than good. Instead, you’re better off acknowledging that it was a bad call and getting your players to focus on the task at hand.

In Junior, my coach would literally tell us things like:

“It’s going to be a fun one tonight boys…the fans are booing us and the referees are against us. It’s going to be that much more fun when we win!”

See how that totally flips the situation on its head?

Rather than have 20 players complain about outside factors and things we couldn’t control, he taught us to change our attitude and see every bad situation as a challenge—an opportunity to do something great!

He made us feel like we were David in a neverending story of David vs. Goliath. We were always out to prove something and accept the challenge at hand.

Put simply, make it fun when the odds are stacked against you.

Follow this framework whenever you’re faced with a situation you can’t control. I call it the Acknowledge – Challenge – Focus Framework:

  1. Acknowledge that some things are just out of your control, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Let it be!
  2. See an unfavorable situation as a challenge to better yourself or an opportunity to do something great (ie: overcome adversity).
  3. Focus on the task at hand and put your energy towards something positive, like winning your next battle or recovering loose pucks.

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!

5. How to be mentally tough when you’re not at your best

catching your breath

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.

That means following a hockey-specific training guide to make sure you’re in the best shape possible.

It means building confidence and having total faith in your abilities as a hockey player.

It means learning everything you can about hockey sense to make sure you know what you’re doing on the ice at all times.

(NOTE: Want to stop making mistakes with the puck and start taking control of the game? Grab a copy of The Hockey Sense Handbook and take your Hockey IQ to the next level. Click here to learn more.)

hockey sense handbook

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.

One thing I can tell you with 100% certainty is this:

  • the years where I had the most success as a hockey player and was able to easily bounce back from mistakes was when I had a great off-season
  • the years where I had the least success as a hockey player and wasn’t able to bounce back as easily was when I felt like I had a mediocre off-season

Confidence is the key to mental toughness when sh*t hits the fan, and proper preparation is what gives you that confidence.

Take your off-season training and in-season practices seriously…they affect your performance a lot more than you think!

6. How the toughest in the world stay mentally tough (and fight through the pain)

the toughest in the world

What kind of mental toughness guide would this be if I didn’t at least explore how the toughest in the world stay mentally tough?

If you haven’t guessed already, I’m talking about Ironmen, ultramarathon runners, and other badass athletes that clearly are mentally tougher than I am.

We’re talking about people that have run through a desert for 7 days straight or completed a half-ironman triathlon on a broken foot (not even kidding).

These are the toughest of the tough. Here’s how you can take a page out of their playbook and improve your mental toughness in hockey for when you’re feeling the pain.

Jesse Thomas, Long course athletejesse thomas mental toughness

Jesse’s event is the triathlon long course, which consists of a 1.2-mile swim followed by a 56-mile bike race, and finishes off with a 13.1-mile run.

I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sound fun to me at all.

To top it all off, Jesse has won three of these events in a row, making him the first male in the world to do so.

The best part? He won the third event after breaking his foot 3 miles into the race. How’s that for mental toughness?

Here’s what Jesse had to say about mental toughness in an article on Greatist:

“I think of mental toughness as your ability to deal with pain and to process it. It’s your body’s ability and your mind’s ability—mostly your mind’s. Mental toughness could be the ability to get out of your body what your body is capable of that day.”

For him, mental toughness is obviously about overcoming the pain that goes with the extreme conditioning that he does.

To get over that pain, he uses ‘mental kicks’ which give him a physical boost:

“In a Half Ironman, I’m out there for four hours. I can have a bad 20 or 30 minutes, come out of it, and still have a pretty awesome race. I have go-to mantras. “You’re kicking ass!” “You’re killin’ it!” I say them out loud, almost yelling them. I’ve found that the more physical you can make them, the better—you’re not only saying them, you’re hearing them, too, which makes a difference.”

This is pure gold!

When asked about his mental toughness training methods, he had this to say:

“I definitely visualize before every race. I try to divide it up into as many key points as I can. I set goals and trigger points and I try to tie as little of it to external factors as possible. So, I’ll say, “At halfway through I want to feel like this and I want to make a move that increases my output by 10 percent.” Those kinds of things make me feel like I am on a race plan regardless of where I am in my overall goal.”

The takeaway: Come up with your own mental kicks and use them whenever you feel you need a boost. It can be when you’re tired, when an injury is bothering you, or when your head’s not in the game. Say them out loud so that you can hear them. Add them to your between shifts routine for maximum impact.

Samantha Gash, Ultra-Endurance RunnerSamantha gash mental toughness

Samantha took a semester off from law school to race 155 miles through the Chilean desert in the Atacama crossing—a self-supported race in which participants carry 15 to 30 pounds of supplies on their backs—for seven days straight.

Then, she did multi-day ultra-marathons in three other deserts, making her the first woman and youngest person ever to complete a four-desert grand slam (yes, that’s a thing).

And she did it all in one calendar year.

Insane if you ask me. But it all comes back to mental toughness:

“I try to focus my mind on the positive of completing. When I’m in immense physical pain, I try to dull the pain as much as possible. Once the pain enters your head (as opposed to just your body), you start to legitimize ways of pulling out. I distract myself by thinking about WHY I’m doing it. My body and mind is stronger than I’d ever think.”

The takeaway: Find your WHY and focus on it when times get tough. It’ll take your mind off the pain and outside circumstances, and allow you to re-focus on the task at hand.

These are just two examples of athletes that harness the power of their mental toughness to keep going through the pain. Steal a page from their playbooks and improve your own mental toughness as a hockey player.

When all else fails, try the following exercises for building up that mental toughness…

7. Two  key exercises for training mental toughness (inspired by war)

mental toughness exercises inspired by war

Who’s up there alongside Ironmen and ultra-marathon runners in terms of mental toughness?

Soldiers.

This isn’t a debate over who’s mentally toughest (hey, hockey players are really tough too), but rather to take a look at why soldiers are mentally tough and again steal a page out of their playbook so we can apply it to hockey.

I recently came across an article on The Art of Manliness website and thought it was totally fitting. Here are 2 simple exercises for building mental toughness inspired by war, along with how you can adapt them to the game of hockey.

Train to increase confidence

Soldiers go through very rigorous training for a long period of time. They practice the same scenarios over and over again so that when the time comes, they’re ready.

I’ve already talked about the importance of practice and preparation for building mental toughness (and confidence) above. If you want to learn more about how to do this effectively, check out my article on deliberate practice.

The other 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.

Embrace your sense of duty

During war, soldiers face a ton of situations, many of them life-threatening.

One of the ways they stay mentally tough and win the day, 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.

And if you’re playing to get drafted or to get a full-scholarship, write that down too.

All of a sudden, that soar wrist doesn’t hurt all that much…

8. Required Reading: 5 Books for Boosting Mental Toughness

There’s much more to mental toughness than I can fit into a 4,000  word blog post.

If you want to learn more about mental toughness in hockey and how you can improve it on your own time, I highly recommend picking up a book from the list below:

If I had to choose just one book from the list above, it would be (without a doubt) Relentless: From Good to Great to Unstoppable. Tim Grover is responsible for some of the success of star basketball players like Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade and more.

Even though a lot of the stories and examples are from the NBA world, it totally applies to hockey players. Definitely worth a read if you’re serious about improving your mental toughness and overall mental game.

Either way, consider reading through one or more of those books if you’re currently struggling with mental toughness in hockey. It’ll set you on the right path and give you some extra tools to deal with the three different mental toughness scenarios I’ve covered.

9. Conclusion

That just about sums it up for my quick guide to mental toughness in hockey.

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, use my between shifts routine to calm down while re-focusing to get your mind back in the game.

When it comes to being mentally tough and playing through the pain, just remember the two stories I shared with you above. Can you get through a 60-minute hockey game with a minor injury? For the most part, sure you can. People have pushed their bodies to the limit for hours, days, weeks and months.

With practice, you can too. Use “mental kicks”, find your WHY, and visualize yourself playing through pain before it even happens.

Lastly, to learn more about mental toughness, the list of books I mentioned is a great place to start.

(NOTE: Want to stop making mistakes with the puck and start taking control of the game? Grab a copy of The Hockey Sense Handbook and take your Hockey IQ to the next level. Click here to learn more.)

hockey sense handbook

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