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Gold Medal Mindset: 4 Pillars, Inner Winners & Parents’ Role

By Steve Mann, Special to Minnesota Hockey, 11/15/21, 3:00PM CST


Most of us will never reach the performance peaks of soon-to-be three-time Olympian Lee Stecklein, Tokyo sensation Suni Lee or the legendary Jessie Diggins.

But can we – youth hockey players included – develop the same mindset? Yes, says Dr. Colleen Hacker, renowned coach and professor of sport and exercise psychology.

Mindset is something we all have, and how we perceive ourselves can be a positive or negative source of motivation – determining behavior, outlook and mental attitude. For athletes, particularly those getting ready to compete in Beijing in February, having a positive, growth-focused mindset is a critical component required to overcome pressure and stress and achieve success.

“Kids are more than capable of understanding the Olympian’s mindset, we just have to use language that is developmentally appropriate,” said Hacker, who has served on the coaching staff for six Olympic Games in three different sports, including ice hockey. “I might say ‘cognitive restructuring’ to intercollegiate or elite athletes, but for kids, I might call it ‘stinkin’ thinkin’.’ It’s about our language, how we talk about it and how we present it.”

What is the Olympian’s Mindset?

So, what exactly is this Olympian’s mindset? Dr. Hacker says it’s really an awareness of and a commitment to working in all four pillars of hockey. Dr. Hacker identifies these pillars as:

  • Technical: Unique skills necessary to play like skating, shooting.
  • Tactical: Strategies and concepts like breakouts, forechecks and special teams.
  • Physiological: Physical demands such as cardio-respiratory demands, strength, flexibility.
  • Psychological: Compete level, self-confidence, imagery, ability to focus, controlling activation level.

“Teams and players need to think about these four pillars like a four-legged stool that’s missing one leg,” she said, referring to how many teams at lower levels only focus on the first three pillars. “You can still sit on the stool (with three legs) but it’s exhausting and not efficient. With all four pillars, you will have balance and be better equipped for pressure situations and stress.”

Stopping Hockey-Induced Stress

“Stress comes about when the demands placed on us exceed our capabilities to respond to them,” said Dr. Hacker.

She identifies two fundamental sources of stress. They are: external (i.e. coach needs me to score more goals, parent wants me to get a scholarship, team needs to win or we don’t advance, etc.) and internal (I want to be the best, I don’t want to let anyone down, etc.).

To overcome these types of stressors, Dr. Hacker says, the first thing Olympians do is invest in their capabilities.

“The more capable an athlete is, the less likely it is that they will find themselves in situations where the demands exceed their ability to respond,” she said. “Olympians also do now well. They focus on the immediate task. They aren’t thinking about their last shift or the next one. This makes them fully present on this shift, this puck, this play, this moment. Players who aren’t quite at this same level have much busier brains. They’re thinking about all different things. So, if young athletes invest in their capabilities and in the four pillars, by default they will experience less stress.”

Becoming an “Inner Winner”

Dr. Hacker believes that one thing Olympic athletes and teams have in common is that they are “inner winners,” and focused on strengths, capabilities and motivations rather than on mistakes, deficiencies and losses.

“The inner winner is a mindset,” Dr. Hacker said. “You have a choice over what you focus on as an athlete. The inner winner focuses on the positive, successes and accomplishments. It’s critical to be able to maintain motivation, interest and investment even when things aren’t going well. If you’re scoring goals and the coach loves you then your biggest need isn’t mental toughness. The goal is maintaining confidence and a belief in yourself even when facing adversity or setback.”

Coaches and Parents Play a Big Role

Unsurprisingly, the adults in the lives of young athletes can make a big difference when it comes to them having the right mindset, both on and off the ice.

“The first step is that the proper mindset is being taught intentionally, correctly and actively to begin with,” said Dr. Hacker. “Then, like anything else you have to practice it and then you reinforce it. Then it’s rinse and repeat. The process never ends.”

Parents and coaches, equally but differently, need to consistently model what she calls “competitively helpful responses.”

“More often than not, we have coaches and parents saying the right things about appropriate and helpful responses, but they aren’t modeling it themselves,” she said. “When you’re watching a game at home and see a player make an unforced error and react emotionally or say ‘I can’t believe they just did that,’ making gestures, throwing your hands up, kids are watching that. So, the next day at practice, a coach tells them ‘it’s OK, mistakes are part of the game…’ Now they’re getting a mixed message. And which do you think will have more impact? Seeing it over and over at home, or one remark or speech from the coach?”

Dr. Hacker suggests that in similar scenarios, rather than responding emotionally or with an obvious critique, that adults focus on the positive, saying things like, “notice how they didn’t quit after they made that mistake,” or “this is why it’s so important to be ready so that when the puck drops we’re ready to give 100 percent.”

“It’s saying the same thing but in a different, more constructive way,” she said. “The second way is teaching what to do, and it’s putting the responsibility on the players.”

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