Mentally Strong for the Playoffs

With the regular season wrapping up it’s everyone’s favourite time of year – the playoffs. For the teams and athletes that are still playing it is an exciting time as well as a time that can be filled with pressure and the anxiety to perform. Often times we hear that you have to be mentally strong to have success in the playoffs. You have just come off a long regular season that has taken its toll, both physically and mentally, and you have to find another gear. While this happens season after season, athletes are seldom given the tools to be mentally strong and manage stress.

There are two main ideas or concepts that need to be grasped to be able to maximize your mental fortitude.

  1. The ability to concentrate
    • Often times athletes focus on the wrong thing when trying to concentrate. The natural reaction is to focus most of their energy on just one thing. This is tough to do because there are so many stimuli and distractions during an athletic competition. What we actually want to do is be able to let everything go around what we are trying to focus on. In essence, concentration isn’t about focusing on one thing, it is about letting everything else go around that one thing so it is the only thing that remains. An example would be a goaltender concentrating on the puck. The puck is surrounded by stimuli – the crowd, the noise, the amount of time left on the clock, the situation (overtime, shootout etc.). This makes it extremely difficult to concentrate. If the goalie is able to let all the stimulus and distractions go around the puck so the only thing that remains is the puck, he or she will be much more successful.
  2. The understanding that everything starts, stops, then starts again
    • Everything in life follows this pattern right down to our basic foundation of breathing. Each breath starts, stops, then starts again. Once the breath stops it does not matter anymore. It is complete, done, over; then it starts all over again. That is the exact mental approach we want to practice and carry over to our performance in a game. Each period, each shift, each play starts, stops, and starts again. Once that play or shift or period is over – it is over; it does not matter. The next play or shift or period starts again and the cycle continues. This is the most effective way for an athlete to stay present in the moment and gives them the best chance to be successful. It is hard to perform when worrying about past mistakes. Often you hear people say you need to have a short memory in the playoffs; this is what is meant by that thought. Good or bad you have to let go and move on.

Both these mental attributes are learned skills and can be worked on and developed using the same practice. Find a place to sit that is quiet to start. Sit comfortably with good posture. Close your eyes and take deep breaths through your nose. Bring your attention to your breath, especially where you feel that breath. You may feel it most coming through your nose or through your chest expanding or wherever it may be. Now the tough part: try to clear your mind. This will be extremely tough. This is the whole exercise. As soon as a thought pops into your head, acknowledge the thought and that your mind has wandered. Stop and start again. At first, it will be hard to even go two breaths without having your mind wander. That’s normal. Stay with it. You haven’t failed. Remember everything starts, stops and starts again. We are concentrating on our breath by letting everything else go around it. Spend ten minutes a day working on this and as you become better at it you will be able to use it in other situations, such as in the game. This is how the much needed mental toughness for the playoffs is built.

Until next time,

Strength, Courage, Hustle, Commitment

AJ Zegeln

Originally published in Game On Magazine, Year 7/Edition 5