Build Emotional Muscle for High Performance

All performance areas are similar, if you can manage your emotions when the pressure rises, you have a chance to do well, if you can't you probably won't. If you don't have an answer for your emotions, you may struggle to perform to the best of your ability, or play as well as you'd like.

I know in my own professional sports career; negative emotions were a major cause of grief. I just didn't have the answers when emotions spiraled downward sometimes escalating from hesitation to confusion to frustration and even anger. I was continually knocked off my focus by lingering negative emotions, and in my opinion, it was a game-changing factor in an inconsistent career.

I think we can all agree that hockey is a difficult and an emotional sport. Emotions are a major part in how you will play.

Why?

Three main reasons...

  1. Distractions everywhere to stir emotions. Teammates, competitors, coaches, parents, fans all contribute to losing your personal focus and stirring emotion.
  2. Your emotions impact those around you. You have to be at your best and be aware of your emotions because those emotions not only impact you but can be transferred to your teammates and affect their performance.
  3. Chemicals don't help. Stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol that are a part of physical, aggressive sports don't help you make clear decisions and keep calm.

Check Your Emotional Muscles

How prepared are you to deal with the "emotional hazards" in hockey? How much "emotional muscle" do you think you have?

Before I explain some simple biology about emotion in hockey, and give you a few ideas to help, click here to take a quick quiz and check the level of your "emotional muscle" to see where you are.

Chances are you need to build your emotional muscles to get to the next level in your game. Working on your technical skills and physical skills is important, but building emotional muscles will help you leverage all of your talent, work and efforts.

line fight between pit and phi

So Let's Begin…

If you find emotions might be keeping you from better performance, a little understanding about performance and the brain may help you. After all, performance starts in the mind.

Some great work by Dr. Joseph Ledoux of the Centre for Neural Science, New York University and Dr. Daniel Goleman - a Harvard educated Psychologist and author of "Emotional Intelligence" has helped highlight the importance and role of the emotional brain in performance in corporate leadership — and now in sports.

The Alligator and the Computer

Generally, two sections of the brain are important to your play. To keep it simple, let's call them the alligator and the computer. The alligator, or the emotional brain, is the ancient part that has protected human beings from danger through time. It is what leads to "fight or flight." When threats arise and you need to escape trouble, the alligator kicks in.

The computer, or the thinking brain, makes the decisions. When the alligator perceives a threat and starts snapping, the computer decides on the level of the threat and the action. Is it important enough to respond?

What does this mean to you and your play on the ice?

When survival was the daily priority for human beings and reacting to threats was a constant reality, the alligator was a caveman's best friend. But threats are generally not life threatening today. You're a hockey player, not a caveman, and your brain can't differentiate between a life-threatening situation and what's happening on the ice. Your alligator's threats are a bad shift, a chirp from a competitor, a bad call from a referee, a bad goal and other hockey "threats".

line fight

The Little Troublemaker

There's a little, almond-shaped part of your brain, the control center of the alligator, called the amygdala. It's the troublemaker, pushing you around in the ring and causing you to lose your cool. Even if you play like Sidney Crosby in one game, the overstimulated alligator can make you play like a complete rookie in the next.

When the amygdala "hijacks" your brain and the alligator overrides your computer, the computer responds to the threat, and your ability to reason and think logically are reduced. Your working memory becomes less efficient while your blood pressure, adrenaline and hormone levels rise.

Some great work by Harvard trained Brain Scientist Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor highlights that we can manage responses. Within 90 seconds from the initial trigger, the chemical component of your negative emotion dissolves from the bloodstream and the automatic response is over. The emotion is expressed. So, showing some emotion after a bad shift or game isn't bad. After all, you are human.

But, what's important is if you allow the negative emotion to heat up past those 90 seconds, you have chosen to allow the circuit to continue to run. Those 90 seconds gives your brain time to engage the computer which has an inhibitory circuit for the alligator (amygdala). You can then choose a more "performance-friendly" response. If you allow the circuit to run and the negative emotion to continue, it can take 3-to-4 hours for the hormones to clear your system, with the possibility of more hijacks being triggered along the way.

So, simply, the control center of the alligator can undo all of your practice and preparation and sabotage your performance. If you've ever heard the saying "I was so mad I couldn't think straight," this means the alligator is in charge, the computer is over-run and rational decision-making goes out the window. You might know the feeling during a game when things start going south and you can't reverse it.

a brain with an arm flexing

Emotional discipline is like a muscle you can build. In order to build your emotional muscle, here are a few simple ideas that can help you keep the alligator in its cage and make sure the computer is making clear, stress-free decisions.

Know Yourself, Know You!

Clearly understand your own strengths, limitations and triggers in your game. What do you do well, what is not so comfortable for you, and what bothers you and triggers a negative reaction? Identify your strengths, limitations and triggers by writing them down.

A lack of awareness can push you to do things you can't do on the ice. How many times have you tried to do things on the ice that you know you can't do, but tried them anyway and ended up frustrated and frazzled? Clearly understand what you can and can't do and always to play to strengths.

The 90-Second Rule

Tame the alligator with the 90-second rule. The ability to notice what's going on as it arises, and to slow down before you respond, is a crucial emotional skill. Brain experts tell us an emotion is expressed in about 90 seconds. It's fine as a player to feel and express the emotion within reason in that 90-second window. But, when you feel the emotion building, take a breath and be aware. This awareness will help you control your feelings and soften them before they become damaging to your performance.

Stay in the Moment to Stay Calm

The future and past are distractions for you and stir emotion. Unfortunately, on the ice there is little you can do about either one. Carrying the past with you will also distract from the current moment and can have a major impact on your execution. Your destiny lies in the present moment. While the future is where your goals and achievements live, you achieve them through playing in the moment.

Emotions are the engine in the vehicle of performance, and the skills associated with building emotional muscle are indispensable to achieving competitive advantage for you on the ice.

If you want to enjoy hockey more, activate your potential to bring your game to the next level, and be more effective in everything you do, spend some time building your emotional muscles.

Be sure to check out our YouTube Page for more videos such as our Think Box video.


Scoring Key

If you answered Yes to …

  • 0 – You are in control of your emotions on the ice
  • 1-3 – Some work needed in the training room
  • 4-7 – Your thoughts and emotions are getting the best of you on the ice
  • 8 and above – Your performance and enjoyment of hockey are at risk!