The Hockey Player’s Guide to Visualization and Mental Imagery

Ben LevesqueMental Game3 Comments

hockey visualization

If you’re a serious hockey player, chances are you’ve come across the concept of visualization at least once throughout your career.

You may know it under another name, such as mental imagery, seeing in the mind’s eye, or hearing in the head, but in my eyes, all of the above can be defined as follows:

“A mental rehearsal of a technique, skill, feeling, emotion, or other that you want to change, control, improve, or prepare for.”

If you’re shaking your head right now thinking, “This hockey visualization stuff doesn’t work,” think again…

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It’s been proven time and time again that the world’s best athletes rely on visualization to build confidence, perform better, deal with failure, and prepare for tough competition.

Michael Phelps? He visualizes every detail of every race—his starts, his strokes, his finishes—way before he jumps in the water.

Jack Nicklaus? He says he never hit a shot, not even in practice, without having a very sharp in-focus picture of it in his mind.

Wayne Gretzky? He would visualize himself on the ice to help overcome distractions and focus on his game.

If the best athletes in the world are using visualization to dominate their sport, then why aren’t you?

If you’ve been looking for a competitive advantage to gain an edge over other hockey players, trust me when I say that hockey visualization is itbut only if you do it right.

That’s what this post is all about.

By the end, you’ll know everything there is to know about the topic and how to use it effectively to improve your game.

And even if you’re done trying to climb the ranks and only play for fun, you’ll find that this visualization routine can get you to start playing some of your best hockey ever (just like it did for me).

Let’s start from the top.

The 5 Golden Rules of a Successful Hockey Visualization Session

Before I dive into the nitty-gritty details of how to run through a hockey visualization sesh’ (as I like to call them), you need to understand these 5 golden rules.

Side note: I am by no means the creator of these rules. The world’s top sports psychologists all agree that the following rules lead to better, more impactful visualization sessions.

Rule #1: Be specific

hard passes in hockey

This is rule number one for a reason.

Hockey visualization is only effective if it’s specific. The more detailed you can be with your visions, the better.

For example, if you want to score more goals, seeing yourself score more goals over and over in your mind is a great start.

But what’s even better is to choose a specific scenario you’d like to perfect—maybe it’s deflections in close, one-timer goals from backdoor passes, or high-slot shots after receiving a pass in front—and rehearse it mentally in your mind.

The more detailed and specific you can make your visualization scenarios, the more effective your mental imagery will be.

Keep that in mind as you continue reading.

Rule #2: Test both viewpoints

visualization in hockey

When it comes to visualization, there are two different viewpoints you can use.

One is called associated view, and the other is called dissociated view.

Visualizing with an associated view means seeing through your own eyes as if you were actually playing. You see your hands, your stick, your skates, and what’s going on around you on the ice.

Visualizing with a dissociated view means seeing yourself play the game as if you were a spectator in the stands.

There isn’t one viewpoint that’s better or more effective than the other. You have to test out both and decide which one feels more comfortable (personally, I’m a fan of associated visualization as it feels more real to me).

Stick with what feels right to start, and once you’ve been visualizing for a while, begin to experiment with both.

Tip: If you’re not sure which viewpoint to use, just close your eyes and picture yourself playing hockey for 10 seconds. Which viewpoint came about naturally? Stick with that one!

Rule #3: Pay attention to your environment

visualizing your environment

While you’re visualizing, it’s important that your mental imagery mimics your typical environment or surrounding.

For example, don’t just picture any ice hockey rink. See yourself skating on YOUR rink at YOUR arena.

If you’re preparing for a road game at an arena you’ve already visited, then try to picture it in your mind as vividly as possible.

If the stands are usually full of people, imagine them being full in your head. If they’re empty in real life, make them empty in your mind.

If you’re an amateur player, see yourself playing against other amateur players. Don’t see yourself in the NHL alongside Connor McDavid.

If you’re a beer leaguer, see yourself drinking beer (just kidding).

Whatever your usual environment looks and feels like, try to reproduce it as best you can when you’re visualizing. Your visions have to be as similar to real life as possible for them to be effective.

The goal is to literally trick your mind into thinking your visions are real, which brings me to my next point…

Rule #4: Use as many senses as possible

visualizing with all your senses

To make your visualization sessions even more powerful, you have to use as many senses as possible.

Sight will always be the main driver of your mental imagery (what you see), but you can do better than that.

What does it sound like when you’re on the ice during a game? Try to experience the sound of the crowd in your mind. Try to hear the noise the buzzer makes, your teammates verbally calling for passes, the sound of slapshots, big hits, goal celebrations, the referee’s whistle, etc.

Try to imagine the feeling of the puck on your stick, the flex in your shaft when you take a shot, or the feeling of your skate blades digging into the ice when you race for a puck.

What does your rink smell like? That might sound funny, but I can recall exactly what my Junior rink from back in 2009 smells like because I used to recreate the feeling so often in my mind during visualization sessions.

Remember, you’re trying to re-create real life in your mind, so the more senses you can tie in, the more real it gets.

Taste, on the other hand, might be a tough one to re-create (let me know if you figure that one out).

Rule #5: Fix mistakes & bad habits

visualizing your mini movie

Last but not least, remember that the overall objective of your visualization sessions is to improve your game.

If you see yourself making a mistake or carrying out a bad habit in your mind, stop what you’re doing, restart your vision, and do it right.

The beauty of visualization is that you can just “rewind” your thoughts & visions and “replay” the scenario again, this time doing the right thing.

For example, if you’re visualizing a goal scoring scenario, you may see yourself missing the net or hitting the post (this tends to happen when you lack confidence in your skills).

If this happens, just restart your vision and see yourself doing it right. You don’t want to be clouding your mind with mistakes and bad habits.

Getting started with visualization in hockey

With the golden rules out of the way, here’s the what/when/where of hockey visualization.

Optimal visualization frequency and duration

One of the popular questions I get asked with regards to visualization is how often to visualize, and for how long.

There’s no magic recipe, but I’ve found that visualizing:

  • 3-4 times per week
  • 10 minutes per session

is a great starting point. If you can manage to visualize for 10 solid minutes at least 3 times per week, you’ll start to see a difference in your game in as little as a few weeks.

When starting out, you may struggle to stay focused for a full 10 minutes, so if you can only do 5, that’s better than nothing. Just try and work your way up to 10 minutes and beyond, with 15 minutes being the sweet spot (anything more and you’ll likely zone out and/or fall asleep).

When to visualize

practicing hockey visualization

Another important thing to consider is when to visualize.

This varies from player to player, but for me, the ideal times were:

  • in bed the night before a game
  • a few hours before game time
  • a few minutes before getting on the ice
  • when needed, between periods and/or shifts

Visualization sessions the night before were to fix what I was currently struggling with in my game, and to stop/re-wind what I was seeing until I saw myself doing it right.

Visualization sessions a few hours before game time were to see myself playing my role well, making effective plays in all 3 zones, and being reliable defensively.

Visualization sessions a few minutes before game time were to see myself playing with full confidence and dominating my opponents all over the ice.

Visualization sessions between periods and shifts were to address anything I was currently struggling with during the game and see myself doing the right thing instead.

This is what worked for me. Feel free to copy it and work it into your routine if it’s to your liking.

If not, find a few times throughout the week where you can squeeze in at least 10 minutes (ideally as close to your games as possible) for your visualization sessions.

Once you’ve decided when you’ll visualize, you’ve gotta decide where.

Where to practice visualization

Two things to look for when deciding where to visualize are comfort and quietness.

The last thing you want is to feel all bunched up and uncomfortable, or lose your train of thought every two seconds because of distractions.

Great visualization spots for me were in bed before going to sleep, in the stands at the rink before warmup (the arena is usually dead around this time) and just outside the dressing room during periods (everyone hangs out in the room, so a chair in the hallway might be your best friend).

You might remember the famous video of Mike Cammalleri visualizing on the bench, long before the fans arrived:

Some athletes even like to use noise-canceling headphones along with their favorite music. This can work too, but if you find yourself singing along to songs, then you’re probably not visualizing all that much. Just keep that in mind!

The Simplest Hockey Visualization Routine

Here’s a simple visualization routine you can add to your training to help fix gaps in your game and build all-around confidence.

Step 1: Relax your body

There’s no way your mind can fully relax until your body is at ease.

Finding a comfortable, quiet spot will get you most of the way there, but also try to loosen the tension in your muscles and really ‘let go’ as much as you can.

I found it a lot easier to relax when I was in bed (for obvious reasons), so that’s where my most effective visualization sessions took place.

If you’re just getting started, the comfort of your own bed is a sure bet.

Step 2: Set your intentions

Once you’re in a comfortable, distraction-free setting, it’s time to set your intentions—more specifically, what you want to improve through visualization.

Is it improving your breakouts as a winger? Is it your defensive play down low? Is it beating defensemen 1 on 1?

Whatever it is, be specific and try to think up a “mini-movie” that you can run through in your mind for the next 10+ minutes.

Sticking with the example above for wingers trying to improve their breakouts, I might think up a mini-movie that covers these different scenarios:

  • getting over to the boards quickly when my team recovers the puck
  • being aware of my surroundings while waiting for the puck to arrive (ie: looking around at my options)
  • getting a perfect pass from my D-man versus getting a bad pass from my D-man
  • what happens when I have no pressure versus what happens when I have pressure
  • the different plays I can make using my center, D-man, far side winger, and skating the puck up myself

Keep in mind that you’re not actually visualizing yet—you’re simply preparing the content of your mini-movie (what you want to improve) for your visualization session.

Remember to be as specific as possible with your scenarios. General visualizations won’t have anywhere near the impact that clear, vivid visualizations will.

Step 3: Relax your mind

With your body relaxed and your intentions + mini-movie set, it’s time to finally relax your mind.

There’s no reason to reinvent the wheel here, which is why we’re going to steal a page out of the meditation playbook.

All you need to do to relax your mind is focus on your breathing:

  • Close your eyes
  • Inhale deeply and count “one” in your head
  • Exhale deeply and count “two” in your head
  • Keep going until you get to 10 (ie: 5 deep breaths)
  • Repeat if necessary, until your mind is at ease

If your mind starts to wander off to things like school, work, or last night’s upset loss, that’s okay—just bring your attention back to your breathing (if you don’t know what diaphragmatic breathing is, read this).

Once you feel relaxed, it’s time to fire up your mini-movie!

Step 4: Direct your thoughts

With your body relaxed, your mind at ease, and your intentions set, it’s time to start visualizing.

Here’s where you direct your thoughts towards the mini-movie you planned out in Step 2 and start to mentally rehearse each scenario one by one.

Sticking with the winger & breakout example, this is where you would mentally rehearse (ie: see in your mind) sprinting over to the boards once your team recovers the puck on defense, and then every possibility that would happen thereafter. From a clean pass leading to an easy breakout, to a messy pass that ends up in your skates, and everything in between.

See yourself looking for teammates, protecting the puck with your body, exploding up ice when you get the puck, and more.

If your intention was to improve your face-off taking skills, see yourself winning face-offs at all the different face-off dots. See yourself winning on both your forehand and backhand. See yourself with perfect timing. See yourself being sent onto the ice by your coach to go and take an important face-off in the dying seconds of a game.

All the positive imagery that makes up your mini-movie is what visualization is all about.

Positive imagery, repeated frequently in your mind, will inevitably lead to change in your behavior and your actions.

It’s important to mention that your mini-movie doesn’t have to be just about skills.

You can see yourself being more confident, having great body language, bouncing back after a bad play, leading your team to victory, standing up for teammates, etc.

Whatever you want to improve, plan it into your mini-movie and then walk through the scenario in your mind during your visualization sessions.

Last but not least, remember to stop and rewind your movie if you see yourself make a mistake. You’re in control of your movie, and there’s no reason for it not to be 100% perfect—in fact, you want it to be!

Tip: If you need to, set a 10-minute timer before you close your eyes to visualize. That way, you won’t find yourself opening your eyes every minute to look at the clock.

Conclusion

improving your hockey brain with visualization

Hockey visualization is a powerful training tactic for improving your game.

It’s easy to do, but hard to master—especially when you’re just starting out.

I’ve laid the groundwork for you, but you’ve gotta put in the hours if you want results (it’ll take you a few weeks of consistent visualization sessions before you start to reap the benefits…don’t give up early!).

Start with getting the 5 golden rules down pat, then find a visualization routine that you feel comfortable with. Remember to relax your body, clear your mind, and set your intentions on what you want to accomplish.

Then, once you’re all settled in, close your eyes and direct your thoughts to your mini-movie—the different scenarios you thought up beforehand—so that you can work through them one by one.

See yourself completing the scenarios effectively and successfully each and every time. You’re the director of your movie, which means you decide what happens. You can pause, rewind, or see things in slow motion (especially useful when you want to break down a specific skill or technique) whenever you feel like it.

Build visualization into your training, stick with it for at least a few weeks, and believe me when I say you won’t want to stop.

It’s extremely powerful, but like anything worth doing, it requires practice.

Put in the work, and you’ll be rewarded!

Did I miss anything? Is there anything you’d like to know more about? Leave a comment below because I’d love to hear your thoughts and improve this guide over time!

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

hockey sense handbook

3 Comments on “The Hockey Player’s Guide to Visualization and Mental Imagery”

  1. Pops Ryan

    Ben – this is a great contribution toward the proper development of our game. “Hockey Sense” was a wonderful publication; I printed it out and keep a copy on my desk. I intend to do the same with this. I have finished my own manual and made some slight adjustments in making it a ‘presentation’ for my upcoming interview with the Ukrainian Women’s National Team. There is an agreement on both sides to not publicly broadcast this interview, but I do trust you and feel comfortable in sharing both my manual and the fact that Ukraine IHHF is meeting with me soon. Would you like to see it ?

    1. Ben Levesque

      Hey Pops! Thanks for the kind words. I would love to see it…what you’re doing sounds awesome! You can reach me via email (ben [at] builtforhockey.com). Cheers!

  2. Keith

    Hi Ben, just finished reading the hockey sense handbook about two weeks ago and received your email on visualization. My play has improved with your tips and i am finding myself reviewing the handbook after some of my recent games. I will try to use visualization as a new tool in improving my play in the few remaining game i have left this season. At age 58, last summer I decided to end the continuous 14 years of playing year round ice hockey. Did I miss it? Yes but when I resumed last fall, i seemed like i had never left the ice. So to get to the point what could I be doing to be better prepared during the off season to return to the ice next fall in even better “shape”. I already know and am planning on trying to incorporate more cardio for the physical aspect but other than visualize through the spring/summer what can be done for the mental part?

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