Does pressure in hockey really exist?
Well, according to some researchers and experts, it really doesn't. It's all dreamed up by you to make it difficult for you to perform when it counts. According to a noted study (Beilock 2010) people create pressure for themselves. The only way we can ever experience ‘pressure' is to create it in our own minds. It is a product of our imagination. Another research paper explains that if we experience 'pressure' it is because we are projecting an imaginary view of the future (Markman et al 2008).
But, have these researchers ever played in a big game or had crowds of people screaming and cheering -anticipating something great? Or, have they ever acknowledged the pressure and used the energy as a positive tool that elevates their performance so they go beyond where they thought they could go?
What is Pressure?
Well, the general definition gives us a good picture of what pressure is... "the feeling of stressful urgency caused by the necessity of doing or achieving something, especially with limited time."
Do you know this feeling?
You practice and practice in a controlled environment you or coaches have created... some skating drills, shooting drills, watching some video and casually working on different areas of your game. All good.
But, then you arrive at the rink for a big game, everyone and everything seems more serious, your time and space is taken away – and the feelings of your controlled practice environment now seem slightly out of your control.
Where Does Pressure Come from?
Pressure can come from both within you or from the outside. Your own expectations are often sources of pressure where you expect a lot (sometimes too much) from yourself. After all, you've worked hard, spent hours practicing and would like a good result. Expectations can also come from the outside. With young players, parents can pile on what kind of results they may be expecting. Coaches can expect results too. Any kind of expectations invites pressure for players.
There are a number of sources that raise the boiling point and can give you the feeling of pressure...
- Thinking about the result of the game (the outcome) and not focusing enough on "how" you are doing it on each shift (your process)
- Timing – you have five minutes left in the game and the team needs a goal
- I'm not ready – your practice did not go well and you don't feel ready
- You're working on something new – will it work when it counts?
- The environment around you – things are a little more serious than they were in practice
- Media and audience effects – if you are playing in a big event there's lots of drama and opinions all around you
- Doubting your own abilities – can I do this?
- Perception of importance – wow this is a big game – the spotlight is on me!
What the Best Do
I have the opportunity to work with some of the world's leading athletes, who are constantly surrounded by "pressure" and we talk about it often.
The great players all acknowledge pressures – but work on creating the best approaches for themselves to best deal with it and maximize their abilities. The very best I work with welcome pressures – it means they have the privilege of playing for something worthwhile and the opportunity to test the hours and hours of work they've put in to get to where they are. Great players acknowledge the reality of pressure and don't pretend it's not there. Pressure, for them, is in perspective and always positive. Consider Jonathan Toews of the Chicago BlackHawks, who with teammate Patrick Kane, signed an eight year, $84 million contract in the summer of 2014 and knows the pressure attached to it...
"I think front and center is the contracts with Kane and I that are kicking in, and that's where everybody's kind of looking," Toews said at the Blackhawks convention. "I understand that. The two of us have worked hard to own up to that, and I think the pressure will be on us maybe more than it has in past years because of that fact. I think we've been up for challenges like that before, and we're ready for this one, too."
How to Best Create Positive Pressure for You
Acknowledging that pressure exists and turning it into a positive is your first step forward. You can also better prepare yourself for pressure situations by following a few key steps that will, like the greats, keep pressure in perspective and use it to your advantage. Here are a few ideas to start...
- Close the gap between practice and play. For most players, the level of attention and focus is completely different. Consider a more structured routine for your practice. Apply approaches to reach targets and goals. For example, at the end of practice, challenge yourself to accomplish something and don't leave the ice until you do it.
- Thinking ahead to what you can't control creates fear… and additional pressure. Keep your focus on each shift and executing to the best of your ability. The current shift is what you can truly control.
- Align your expectations with your abilities right now. What is reasonable for you right now? You might overestimate your abilities sometimes and even you can't live up to them. This creates additional pressure. The expectations of others are not within your control and should not be a reasonable source of pressure for you.
- Build confidence proactively. Your confidence is built over time from the ground up. Allowing little dips in performance to impact your overall confidence will add pressure that will impact your performance.
- Stick to the plan. Develop a plan that plays to your strengths and don't deviate from it unless conditions really change. The best players in the world relentlessly stick to their plans and adapt as needed.
- Enjoy the environment & activity around you but remember that focusing on you and not on the drama or others around you is what leads to high performance.
- Remember why you play. This seems simple – but it's important. Hockey and sports is not life or death. You play because you love it and enjoy it. Embrace the opportunity to feel the privilege of playing, competing and putting yourself in a position to do something meaningful.
Does pressure really exist? Yes.
Should you be afraid of it? No.
Can you use it to your advantage and become a better player if you do? Yes.
Start accepting pressure, use it in a positive way and enjoy the feeling of having meaning in your game.