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Mental Toughness is Key to NHL Playoff Success — Sport Psychology Consulting

In Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals of the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs, Ottawa goalie Craig Anderson got yanked after giving up four goals on 14 shots against Pittsburgh.

Two nights later, he stopped 45 shots in a 2-1 win to force a Game 7 with the eventual winners of Lord Stanley’s Cup.

How was Anderson able to get past a disastrous performance so quickly?

“Oh God, Andy does that right after the game,” Senators defenseman Marc Methot told

Anderson, a 15-year veteran at the time, credited his ability to shake off a bad game to working with a sports psychologist at the outset of his career.

“I took my biggest strides in pro hockey as far as mentally probably after my first year (of) pro,” Anderson said after the game. “It was one of those things where I found a sports psychologist that I liked and worked with him when I was a young player. I used those tools, read a couple books along the way. It’s a tough thing to do, but having nights like tonight just emphasize things that I had been taught.”

Mental toughness, especially in the NHL playoff grinder, is as much a key to success as physical prowess — which, let’s face it, at elite levels pretty much evens out. 


Playoffs Heighten Everything

Some say mental toughness is nothing more than the ability to clear your mind and focus on the situation at hand.

Consider everything the NHL playoffs are that the regular season is not:

·         Your games are probably on another TV network, and at a different time of day.

·         Your friends and family are more likely to be on hand, thus you’re more likely to be dealing with ticket requests, and demands on your pregame and postgame time.

·         You’re playing the same team three times in a week — so that guy who rode you into the boards two nights ago, or stoned you on a breakaway, or beat you on three straight faceoffs is back in your face again tonight.

·         There are more reporters to talk to, and more media obligations to meet.

·         The heightened stakes require heightened concentration, which is physically draining.

·         The speed of the game ratchets up with the intensity, also creating a greater physical burden.

·         Expanded rosters crowd the dressing room, even as shortened rotations and longer shifts make ice time an issue at both ends of the spectrum.

Those are a lot of stray thoughts to clear away. But it is possible.


Dealing With the Pressure

Most of the tricks of mental toughness are surprisingly simple, which isn’t to say easy. For example, focus on process (making the right pass) over results (whether it finds your teammate’s stick or earns you an assist). If you’re invested in the process, results tend to follow.  

Sports psychologist Wayne Halliwell builds his NHL playoff approach on several “C” words: control, composure, concentration, commitment, confidence and consistency. His goal is to help players focus, or refocus, amid frustrations including: missed opportunities, bad bounces, bad officiating, physical play and the desire to respond to it in a retaliatory manner, getting robbed by a goalie “standing on his head,” and tough losses.

His approach?

·         Hit the mental toughness basics — breathing, visualization, dealing with pressure and frustration — in as non-clinical a manner as possible. Typically, he’ll show his clients short slips of great athletes in other sports discussing their commitment to the moment they are in, not worrying about the moment just passed or the one yet to arrive.

·         Provide process-oriented focus thoughts (or mantras) such as “move your feet” or “finish your check” for defensemen, and “out and big” or “one shot at a time” for goalies.

·         Don’t underestimate the value of a team playoff theme — it makes for more than a good T-shirt. “Discipline Over Emotion,” “Safe is Death” and the like, Halliwell said, provide a constant focus for the way teams want to think and play.

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