Mind over Matter

Developing The Space Between Your Ears May Be Just As Important As Working On Your Skating Or Your Shot
Jess Myers

Like a moth to a flame, most hockey fans find themselves drawn to the puck as it dashes and darts around the ice.

In reality, even the most casual observers would gain a greater appreciation by paying more attention to what the players who don’t have the puck are doing, and how their actions can lead to victory.

For the people who coach and scout at nearly every level of the game, watching what happens away from the puck reveals the hidden side of hockey: the mental game.

You can use a tape measure and a scale to determine a player’s height and weight. A  radar gun and a stopwatch can show you how fast they can shoot and skate. You can look at a statistics sheet and see which players score goals and assists most often. But the mental side of the game—often called “hockey sense” can most clearly be viewed away from the puck.

When he was coaching hockey at Providence College, long before he built the New Jersey Devils into a three-time Stanley Cup champion franchise, Lou Lamoriello used to say that he saw three types of players on the ice in a typical hockey game: those who watch, those who wonder, and those who make things happen.

Lamoriello was most interested in that third category—the players who seem to always be in the right place when the puck gets there. Innate hockey sense is hard to measure, but it’s a trait that coaches everywhere look for today.

“The first thing we look at is their play away from the puck,” says Cory Laylin, head coach at Hamline University in Minnesota, who recently coached the U.S. Under-17 Select Team at the 2016 Five Nations Cup. “A player can have all the physical skills in the world, but if they don’t have hockey sense and a compete level, it might not matter.”

There have been numerous studies that show how often a player actually touches the puck in a typical game. In an hour of action, a player’s time with the puck on their stick can often be measured in seconds, not minutes.

Coaches and scouts see hockey sense, and the mental side of the game, by watching how players position themselves when someone else has the puck on their stick.

“You look for the players who think the game, who are thinking a play ahead, and anticipating where the play is going,” says David Lassonde, an assistant coach at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, and a long-time member of various USA Hockey international coaching staffs.

“Some evaluators naturally focus on what’s going on around the puck and look at physical skills. It’s better to focus on a player individually, watch where they go and what they do without the puck, to get a sense of their mental skills.”

Not surprisingly, coaches like Laylin and Lassonde have become huge supporters of USA Hockey’s American Development Model, a system that employs tactics like small area games to help develop hockey sense in players. By playing on a smaller ice sheet with fewer players, the amount of time with the puck increases, reaction time decreases, creativity becomes essential, and players develop those all-important mental skills at a faster rate.

“A good player thinks one play ahead,” Lassonde says. “A great player thinks two plays ahead.”

Lassonde believes in making players uncomfortable in practice, testing their mental skills by putting them in stressful situations where they may be out-numbered or overmatched and will find it very hard to succeed. By experiencing those situations in practice, and using hockey sense and skills to find a way out of a sticky situation, the coach feels a natural development happens. And players will be better prepared to fall back on what they learned in practice when the full-speed challenges arise in a game.

Another tactic many coaches recommend to help their players develop hockey sense is to study what the game’s best do when they’re on the ice, and not just when they have the puck. By focusing your attention on one player for an entire shift, no matter where they are in relation to the action, you can see their ability to adjust to the flow of the play, positioning themselves for effectiveness on anywhere on the ice, and knowing when to make a shift change.

“A player who is plugged into the game, and has a well-developed hockey sense, can stop things before they get started defensively, and can start things before they develop offensively,” Laylin says.

A star player at the University of Minnesota 25 years ago, Laylin admits that he is a bit envious of modern players and their ability to access video of nearly every player in the world via the Internet, to study what the best players at every level of the game do with and without the puck.

Along with hockey sense, another part of the mental skills needed to succeed on the rink are drive and competitiveness. Coaches often point to pretenders, who talk a great game on the practice rink and in the locker room, but shrink away from the action when a tight game is on the line.

The flip side of that is a fire that coaches see in players destined for success—those who hate to finish second, be it at a board game, video game or a drill in practice. That mental drive to be the best, or to take the steps necessary in practice and in games to achieve the best, is as good a predictor of success as any statistic related to goals and assists.

There are plenty of ways to note the best physical skills on the ice by watching the players with the puck, and seeing what they do to score goals and help their team win. But the mental side of the game, innate in the hockey sense that separates the good from the great players, is what can mean the difference between winning and losing. It may just be harder to see.

You just need to take your eye off the puck.

Jess Myers is a freelance writer and youth hockey coach in Inver Grove Heights, Minn.


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