You train your physical game, but what are you doing to train your mental game? To perform consistently at your best, especially in key moments, developing mental skills, such as exercises promoting relaxation can help to stave off unproductive tension, and give you an edge in your ability to direct energy from pressure into positive performance. There is an old saying, “tension kills speed”. Developing these skills not only help you deal with pressure, but also contribute to speed and responsiveness on the ice.
As a mental performance consultant, I work with athletes from a variety of sport backgrounds, including NHL/AHL players and hopefuls. My commitment is to help athletes develop the mental skills and attitudes to have a positive sport experiences and to have “best days on their biggest day.” For many of the athletes I have worked with, this has lead to national and world championships and many other personal victories.
Hockey can be a high pressure sport and there is one set of mental skills no hockey player wants to be without. Those are relaxation skills. Most mental performance coaches agree it is a set of skills that has many benefits contributing positively to both mental and physical aspects of performance.
Here’s what Doug Shepard, from Andrews Growth Programs had to say about the importance of mental skills development and the work Tara Costello, from Ahead in the Game, has done with players. “Tara has worked with a number of players connected with Andrews Hockey, I have seen a lot of positive results from the support she provides these players, and believe the mental training app she has developed has a lot of potential in helping more players improve their mental performance.”
Relaxation mindfulness practice consists of practicing Progressive Muscle Relaxation (P.M.R.), the basic relaxation breath, the centering breath, and tension releasing exercises. By developing in this area hockey players can expect improvement in mind/ body awareness, and control.
However, achieving a more relaxed mental performance-state in key moments takes more consciousness than you might think. It is best if you practice the skills at home, then in your training environments, in order to truly rely on them in the pressure moments of a tournament or championship. To get started practicing the skills at home visit
Many of the athletes I work with practice relaxation and breathing skills regularly. They develop a regular practice of mental training exercises and learn to incorporate key mental strategies during competition. Many quickly start to identify the difference in their mental performance-state and results when they use the skills compared to when they don’t. When athletes see and feel these results, the mental skills become a part of who they are and how they perform. However, in order to get the positive results, a commitment to the mental skills needs to be made similar to the commitment to fitness and sport specific skill training.
There is a common saying, “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” When it comes to developing relaxation skills for performance, you must learn to recognize that there is a distinct breath pattern that is performance-state enhancing, as well as a breath pattern that will diminish an athlete’s mental performance-state perpetuating further stress and anxiety. One will bring calmness and concentration and one will keep in you in “fight, flight or freeze state.”
The breathing pattern that is shallow, where the chest rises on the in-breath, is an indication you are in ‘stress breathing.’ It is commonly accompanied by other stress indicators such as tension in your body, rushed mental / physical activity, and getting short with yourself and others. The performance enhancing breath is defined by your ability to breathe deeply and calmly in high stress/ high stakes moments. This means you can fill your lungs to capacity with oxygen, causing the stomach / abdominal to expand on the in-breath and to subside on the out-breath. When you breathe in control, you can be in control.
Relaxation skills become a performance tool that will not only help you in hockey, but other areas of life as well. One researcher proved that people with no previous meditation experience benefited from 10 minutes of meditation training before taking a pressure-filled math test. The average score of the meditation group was a “B plus” compared to an average of “B minus” for the group with no breathing meditation practice. However, I wouldn’t wait to test the theory and to only give relaxation exercises a try on show day. I highly recommend performers start building relaxation training into a daily or weekly practice and realize other benefits as well. Progressive Muscle Relaxation (P.M.R.) can also been used to aid in post-competition recovery.
When you compete in a high-intensity sport like hockey, especially evening and night games, it can be a challenge to bring your intensity down and can lead to sleep disruption. Many athletes and individuals use P.M.R. techniques as part of a night-time sleep routine to help calm the nervous system and prepare for a quality night’s rest.
The corner-stone exercise for bringing on a more positive-performance-state is the “relaxation breath”. There are a number of variations on this exercise. The basics are to breathe-in deeply through your nose, fill your lungs to capacity with oxygen on a count of two, then pause and to breathe out through your mouth on a count of four. This is also known as the two-to-four breathe. This is great to use between shifts to aid in recovery, and re-focusing before a face-off.
For many athletes I have worked with, they find the centering breath exercise particularly effective for quieting their minds, and concentrating on what’s most important for performance. The centering breath includes the relaxation breath, at the same time concentrating on the center of your body. The ‘center’ is slightly below the belly button. Visualize a line down the center and across your body, where the lines meet at the x-axis, you can locate the center. For a great effect, use the centering breath while mentally rehearsing two to three performance key words. For example, in showmanship you might have performance reminders like, “shoulder back, straight lines, and sharp stop.” This is extremely effective in directing your performance energy in a positive way.
A modified version of P.M.R. can be done as a standing exercise and is great for reducing tension on the spot. Along with breathing, move your attention from head to your toes, and literally shake out your major muscle groups and areas of your body. It generates energy and oxygen flow and challenges the unconscious, instinctual response to stress of tension “pooling” in certain areas of your body. While everyone has differences, common areas of tension include shoulders, back, neck and jaws. The ‘shaking out’ of tension will help channel and direct the natural adrenaline that comes with performance and competing in sport. As many mental performance coaches will say, “Get your butterflies flying in formation.”
Use a heart rate monitor to become proficient at the relaxation response. Increased heart rate is one of the best bio-feedback indicators of stress. When practicing relaxation, hockey players can monitor their heart rate and develop the control to lower their heart rate ‘at-will.’ As with any skill, practice will improve effectiveness. I have taught six year-olds with special needs to achieve better control of their breathing in stressful situations. Relaxation skills are truly for everyone.
A great place to start is to practice P.M.R. is at home, preferably in a quiet place. You can quickly progress to practicing the deep breathing on the way to training. Incorporate breathing and loosening exercises as part of your physical and mental preparation for competition, and you’ll see the results in the quality of your mindset. You can continue to advance by integrating these techniques into practice and games, like the centering exercise during pauses, and then progress to breathing while in a skating stride. Before you know it, you will truly be playing in the moment, whether in regular season or a covenanted championship final.
Summary of Benefits of Relaxation and Breathing for Equestrians
– reduces overall tension / stress
– greater ability to recognize the difference between tension and relaxation
– creates a physically relaxed feeling and calm mental state
– rejuvenates body and mind after a demanding day
– develops body/ mind awareness
– contributes to developing more emotional control
– prepares your mind for visualization
– focuses you on the present moment
– develops deeper concentration ability
Tara Costello, M.A., Mental Performance Consultant, Member of Canadian Sport Psychology Association, Creator of Ahead Sport Mind Training app available in App Store and Google Play
She supports amateur and professional athletes in achieving regional, national and international success. She has worked with National and World Curling Champions, nationally ranked tennis athletes, NHL/ AHL hockey players, elite golfers & equestrians and many others from a variety of sports to achieve personal victories. Tara has been the Mental Trainer for Special Olympics Team Canada helping them succeed at the 2013 and 2015 World Games. Tara provides in-person and distance-based mental performance consulting to athletes throughout North America. She has experience competing in a variety of sports, including western performance classes.
Book – “Choke – What the secrets of the brain reveal about getting it right when you have to” Sian Beilock August 2011
Article – “Getting into the Optimal Performance State” Robert M. Nidiffer, Ph.D