When the puck drops or the first note of the music is played a “ready” athlete benefits from having positive energy and a confident focus. Pre-event preparation does not need to be elaborate, but it does benefit from being purposeful and consistent. Neglecting the mental and emotional side of warm-ups sets an athlete up for inconsistent performances – some days may be great, but on others a competitor will find himself unfocused (never having mentally checked into the game), and on some days, unchecked emotion of the moment will lead to frenetic skating and questionable decision making. Taking an opportunity to purposefully prepare sets the stage for consistent high performance.
Pregame mental preparation should formally begin 30 to 60 minutes before taking the ice. Having a specific time for beginning to ready mind and emotions for play allows an athlete to deliberately transition from the business of the day, the week’s training sessions, and distracting conversations with friends and parents to attention to the competition at hand. The following perspectives and mental skills are valuable to incorporate into preparation:
Take care of “big” ideas early – Detailed game plans, specifics of good athletic technique, and visualizations of entire skating routines are useful to consider and think about… but not as the skater steps onto the ice or even the 10-15 minutes before. “Big ideas” deserve head space, just not to close to the time when scores are to be earned and pucks are to be put into the net.
Dial in intensity – Sports are fun because they provide challenges and stresses. That said, unchecked stress can lead to excess muscle tension and a racing heart. The wise athlete is aware of how she is physically carrying tension and makes simple efforts to create a calm and ready body. Ways to dial down stress can be: a long exhale to release tension from mind and body, allowing one’s shoulders to drop letting muscles to loosen and stress to fall away, or simply being deliberate in slowing the pace of actions to allow body and mind to settle a bit. Selecting a physical settling habit or two allows and athlete to control stress rather having stress control him.
Get on cue – When it is finally time to step on the ice and perform it is helpful to have 2-3 words to say to one’s self that energizes the body and focuses the mind on the task at hand. The more vivid and meaningful this cue is, the more likely an athlete is to embrace the challenge ahead with minimal distractions. For a figure skater, words like “sharp,” “explode,” and “glow” can prime positive performances. For a hockey player, ideas such as “quick feet,” “head up,” and “drive the net” can be focusing. Taking a moment to consider a brief phrase that sums up you at your competitive best will help you find focus during the ebbs and flows of competition.
Bringing these ideas into your pre-game preparation will allow for your best play to show up and a most enjoyable season. Develop a plan, practice your plan, and refine the plan to maximize the benefits it can provide to positive emotion, consistent focus, and playing up to your potential.
Dr. Naylor leads Telos Sport Psychology Coaching, is clinical faculty at Boston University, oversees the Sports Performance: Mental Game division for Northeastern University athletics, and is a principal at Primary Leadership Development. Check out his books for athletes and sports parents at Lulu spotlight and follow him on Twitter @ahnaylor.