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Mastering Mental Toughness & Resiliency

By Steve Mann, Special to Minnesota Hockey, 02/15/21, 2:15PM CST


We’ve all heard the adage, “when the going gets tough, the tough get going.” At its core, this really means when conditions become difficult, people with a strong character become more determined. That character trait is mental toughness, and it’s something that all athletes – regardless of age – can and should aim to employ.

With the prospect of failure facing every player on every shift in hockey, having mental toughness becomes a necessary skill. Off the ice, our kids will have to deal with myriad moments of adversity as they grow.

The good news? Mental toughness – or “mental fitness” as Hans Skulstad, owner of Golden Valley-based Center for Sports and the Mind calls it – is a skill that’s never too late to learn, and youth sports offers the perfect setting to acquire it.

“We now know everyone is neuroplastic, and you can develop certain traits or mental abilities by practice and creating good habits,” said Skulstad, who also serves on the Board of Directors for the Hobey Baker Foundation. “Mentally fit athletes are self-aware and have the ability to apply proper tools, techniques and language to keep themselves from sliding out of control and execute the task at hand. You need to be able to stay in the moment, let go of what happened in the past, and have the tools and flexibility to learn how to problem solve and cope.”

When Mental Fitness Comes into Play

According to Skulstad, mental fitness can be as important as physical fitness for athletes. He believes athletes without the ability to overcome struggle and emotionally cope may render their own physical training meaningless.

Due to the nature of their position, goalies, for example, may be highly susceptible to letting emotions affect their confidence and performance. If a goaltender gives up what they perceive to be a “soft” goal, it may feel like giving up two or three goals and create a negative interpretation of their own abilities.

There are many other occasions where mental fitness comes into play on the ice – a bad turnover or penalty that leads to an opponent’s goal, missing an open net in a tight game or simply taking longer to learn a specific skill or technique.

According to Skulstad, players have to learn to accept that mistakes are part of the game and move on.

“Hockey is a highly emotional game, and if you have mastery over your emotions, thoughts and body, you will have the ability to play through tough things and play well,” he said. “If you don’t, then your mind runs you. If you can learn those skills playing hockey, they can apply to the rest of your life.”

Obstacles to Being Mentally Tough

Whether it’s on playgrounds or in hockey practice, our society does a great job of creating physical obstacles for kids to learn how to climb over, go under and around. As they get older though, children face more mental and emotional obstacles, which present a different challenge but are just as important for them to experience. When parents or coaches try to remove obstacles from their young athlete’s way – sometimes called “snowplow parenting” – they actually create a bigger issue for their children.

“Snowplow or lawnmower parenting is more about fear,” said Skulstad. “The problem is that if you’re doing stuff for kids or over-functioning for them, you’re really telling them they aren’t competent to deal with strong emotions on their own, or that strong emotions are bad. That’s what they pick up on.”

Parents are naturally inclined to defend their own child, particularly if they feel he or she has been slighted or hurt. And there are some occasions, such as an abusive coach, or if there is a bullying situation, for example, where that may be appropriate. Skulstad believes often times kids need to figure out how to manage things on their own.

How to Become More Mentally Fit

How a person responds to pressure, adversity or failure is not fixed. Like shooting and stickhandling, building mental fitness takes time, effort and persistence. But it can most definitely be learned. Skulstad offers the following tips for players, parents and kids to be more mentally fit:

  • Believe in the basics – “Eat well, get plenty of water and 8-10 hours of sleep. One of the cultural myths is that if you can get by with 6 or fewer hours of sleep you’re tougher than someone else. Research shows that’s simply not true. We perform better when we’re well rested.”
  • Have a plan – “Temper expectations by setting daily goals, that include connecting with friends, and create daily habits to promote them. I have clients listen to daily positive messages on their phone 2-3 times per day and recommend they meditate or visualize for 30 minutes a day. For young people, make sure you’re caught up on your homework, try working ahead and push yourself for growth.”
  • Try a little self-reflection – “Look for things you’re thankful for and what you learned. Review your day and take time to pause.”
  • Practice positivity – “A lot of parents think that the best way to make kids tough is to yell at them and tell them they’re not good enough. I call that ‘cold war parenting.’ That just creates a sense of fear and more of a compliance over commitment approach. As parents we have to teach kids important critical thinking skills and be clear on the values we’re trying to teach.”
  • Coaches create learning zones – “Coaches need to create an environment where everyone knows they’re in a learning zone. At practice, put kids in situations where they are pushed past their limits. Give them opportunities to fail and learn and re-boot their brains.”

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