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Putting Anxiety on Ice: Emotional Control for Big Games

"Control what you can control."

Stress can make a mess of even the most elite of athletes. Regardless of age or experience level, when the bright lights of competition shine, anxiety can kick in, causing an otherwise competent athlete to lose his or her way.

“Pregame jitters” are common and can be beneficial to performance. They can fuel intensity, increase alertness and put a bounce in a skater’s stride. But for many young players, the pressure before, during and after competition can be overwhelming and potentially lead to mistakes and poor decision-making.

Gerrit van Bergen, head coach of Delano High School’s boys’ hockey team, knows a thing or two about pressure-packed situations. His Tigers have played in four of the past five Section 2A final games and broke through last year with a trip to the Minnesota State High School Hockey Tournament.

As the State Tournament approaches for youth hockey teams in Minnesota, van Bergen offers the following suggestions for coaches and players to help put their anxiety on ice, along with ways to turn tense times into positive experiences.

Consistency Is Key to Managing Nerves

“Players can manage their nerves by focusing on what they can control – effort, attitude, discipline – and keeping their routines similar,” van Bergen said. “I’ve seen players change to an intense warm-up or show up super early for a playoff game, when they didn’t do that during the regular season. As a result, they tend to wind themselves up.”

Of course, not everything always goes according to plan. Car or bus trouble, weather, traffic and other circumstances can cause kids to arrive late, which adds stress and changes routines. Sometimes kids even forget a jersey or piece of equipment. Planning ahead and developing a consistent routine is one of hockey’s many life lessons.

“Over the years we’ve had guys forget equipment. It comes with the territory,” van Bergen said. “However you’ve prepared all season is your best method to show up with a full bag and manage your nerves.”

Put the Game in Proper Perspective

Don’t allow a big tournament, game or shift get you too high or too low.

“Players can control their emotions by focusing on a couple key things,” van Bergen said. “Even though the result has an impact on tomorrow, it truly is just another game. All of the same principles apply: you need to outwork your opponent, you need to take good care of the puck, you need to follow your team’s structure, you need to trust your teammates and you need to have fun.”

Attitude in the locker room and around school should remain upbeat and positive. Always pick teammates up, especially after tough games, and be supportive of each other.

Keep Your Focus When Falling Behind

Did your team give up an early goal or two?

“Managing the emotions and pressure of giving up a goal can be difficult,” van Bergen added. “One of the best pieces of advice a veteran coach shared with me was, ‘You can’t win a game in the first period.’ We think that advice is so important to playing a full game regardless of if you’re up or down. The game is long and playoff games will often feel longer because all involved tend to be more aware of the clock. Being down by a goal means it’s time to make smart and strong decisions and be ready for scoring opportunities when they happen because they will. Focusing on not scoring will become a distraction but preparing and making decisions that lead to the opportunity are how a player and their teammates can climb out of a hole.”

Control What You Can Control

Don’t let negative energy generate from officiating. Officials are human and do their very best to call a good, clean game.

“Every team feels they aren’t getting the right calls by officials in the playoffs, but focusing on that is energy wasted,” van Bergen said. “Control what you can control. As coaches, it is hard to model this for your team, because you want to advocate for your players. But to keep our players focused, we need to let the officials be. I can’t say we always do this well, but we try because we don’t want our players wrapped up in it.”

Don’t Retaliate

Nothing good comes from physical retaliation on the ice. In fact, it’s likely to see the retaliating player march to the penalty box, putting your team at a disadvantage or negating a potential power play opportunity and possibly altering the outcome of the game.

Your coaches – and other coaches or scouts who might be watching – will notice a player’s reaction to physical play.

Coaches Can Set the Example

“When emotions run high before, during or after a game, we feel as coaches that we need to be steady for our players,” van Bergen said. “This can be difficult. In fact, I recall the best player I’ve coached reminding me to remain calm so that everyone else would too. As coaches, we don’t need to generate energy for playoff games – that’ll take care of itself. Rather, it’s our job to channel the energy and support the players. Coaches, players and parents should enjoy the playoffs. It’s fun to be part of these tournaments and see many months of teamwork come together in these moments.”

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