15 seconds into the first period was when I knew it was going to be a tough night.
It was a routine puck retrieval on the first play of the game following the opening faceoff. Our defenseman turned, and as the move was executed, the player’s feet clipped together in the middle of the crossover and there was a momentary stumble. The player regained his footing and took three hard strides to the puck as it rounded behind the net.
Kids get tangled up in their own feet all the time. It was nerve-wracking because a full on fall would have left the opposition’s forward with a free pass to the net. But that didn’t happen. I exhaled. Maybe we were going to be fine.
Nope. When I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt we were in trouble was three seconds later, when that retrieved puck was saucer-passed agonizingly slow up in the air across the crease. “Pizza,” I deadpanned on the bench, just as the next opposing forward gathered up the soft pass and deposited it immediately into our net.
1-0. First shift. We weren't ready to play.
Hockey is a physically demanding game. You don’t need your friendly neighbourhood hockey blogger to remind you of that scintillating fact.
What we do need to recognize is the part the physical routine plays in the mind of a hockey player and ultimately the ability to perform to the best of their abilities. Any athlete in any sport benefits from a clear mind prior to and during competition. Being engaged in a flow state where you don’t have to think, you just need to react, means your skills are triggered into life instantaneously.
This is the domain of true skill. Unconscious, intentional, deliberate - three tendencies that don’t seem like they should fit in the same space, yet somehow it works.
The enemy of flow is distraction.
Fire up the tube on any Saturday night and you’re greeted with images of players sitting quietly on the bench staring at an empty sheet of ice. Visualizing key areas of the game before it happens is a favoured method of plenty of players. Braden Holtby, goaltender for the Washington Capitals, found fame a couple springs back during a playoff run in which his dedicated routine before and during games was a hot topic of discussion.
Hockey players need a strong body with willing muscles and bones ready to do the work necessary to help the team. That’s the reason a hockey player’s physical pregame warmup has developed so far in the last 50 years or so.
But it’s warmup’s effects on the mind that truly matters to performance. Sticking with a routine slows down an athlete’s busy mind and tunes them to the task at hand.
I’ve seen the consequences of poor preparation. It’s not apparent in work ethic, speed, or posture. It’s the effect on mental flow state.
Hockey is a game of mistakes. Poor preparation leads to poor execution, reflected in decisions such as passing the puck softly through your own crease 15 seconds into a game.
1-0. Not ready to play.
So how do we maintain a routine? What elements of the routine are important?
…I’m out of room, so you’ll have to stay tuned!