How to Play Under Pressure Late in Big Games

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Picture this: the playoffs are looming, and your team is on the brink of advancing with just one more win. It is the 3rd period, and the pressure is palpable. The score is against you, and the clock is ticking down. How do you navigate these high-stakes moments?

The bitter taste of missed opportunities can linger with you for a lifetime. To help you avoid a career filled with regret, I have outlined five essential strategies for playing under pressure late in big games.

Strategy 1: Start with Emotional Control

Hockey is a game of managing chaos. The puck moves fast. Opponents hit hard. Sixty minutes fades quickly. Hockey is everything but calm. However, every player must stay focused and composed so the right decisions can be made, penalities can be avoided, and teams can win.

Paul Kariya was a prolific hockey player. He was fast. He was highly skilled. He was an amazing goal scorer for 15 seasons in the NHL. The reason he was so profound is because he never allowed himself to get rattled by the other team. He knew his purpose was to score goals and always focused on that outcome. In tense situations, he was great at managing his feelings and emotions, which made him calm under pressure. You must do the same.

Emotional control is the cornerstone of performing under pressure. It is comprised of three crucial elements:

  1. Staying Calm: Clear decision-making is the bedrock of effective play late in the game. In the chaos, maintaining a calm demeanor helps you make sound choices, contributing to the team's overall strategy.
  2. Staying Composed: Emotional stability is key. Being unrattled by the magnitude of the moment ensures you can focus on the task at hand without being overwhelmed by external pressures.
  3. Staying Confident: Trust in your abilities and training. Confidence is a powerful ally in high-pressure situations. Remind yourself of the countless hours you have dedicated to practice and believe in your capacity to rise to the occasion.

Not only is emotional control a significant part of playing well, but when coupled with a "present mind" approach, you will become unstoppable.

Strategy 2: Be in the Present Moment

Drawing inspiration from the familiar traffic light system, emotional control in high pressure hockey situations can be visualized as a series of "Signals." In this context, mental performance coach and author Brian Cain best describes the traffic light analogy in relation to how much control you possess. Red Signals symbolize factors entirely beyond a hockey player's control, such as unpredictable weather or unexpected illness. Yellow Signals denote elements where players have some degree of influence, like managing fan reactions or handling external distractions. The ultimate objective for hockey players is to stay firmly within the Green Signals zone, mirroring the "go" signal at traffic lights, especially in late-game scenarios. In other words, focus only on the things you can control right now, which is you in this present moment playing in the 3rd period.

Late in big games it is easy to be haunted by past performances, your last mistake, or to worry about the future. However, success lies in the present moment. Focus on the here and now – the current play, the immediate strategy. Avoid getting lost in hindsight or overwhelmed by the prospect of what is to come. Stay present, and let your training and preparation guide your actions.

Strategy 3: Do Not Focus on the Result

You are controlling your emotions and living in the present moment, but now you find yourself looking up at the scoreboard. It is great to be dialed in to know the game status. In fact, you need to know the score at all times. Are you ahead? Are you behind? This is a good habit, but do not let it be your driving force.

While the ultimate result matters, fixating on it can amplify stress. Stress carries emotional weight and anxiety - one that will make you feel not in control. Instead, direct your attention to the immediate task at hand. Is it driving the net? Making that great pass? Shooting from the blueline? Concentrate on executing the next right move – be it positioning yourself correctly, maintaining movement, or fulfilling your role within the team. By focusing on the process, you enhance your chances of achieving the desired outcome.

Strategy 4: Embrace Adaptable Aggression

Assuming you are focusing on actions instead of results, it is now time to start embracing adaptable aggression. Late-game scenarios often demand adaptability coupled with aggression. Things can change rapidly, and players must learn to adjust without sacrificing aggression. Striking the right balance is crucial – be cautious but not timid, aggressive but not reckless.

The best way to think about having adaptable aggression is to think about ever-changing weather patterns. At one end of the spectrum, we have "Calm Skies," reflecting a conservative and safe approach to the game. On the other hand, there's the unpredictable "Tornado," signifying a reckless and risky mindset. Both are troublesome since you will be playing too conversatively or too aggressively. The perfect approach is "Cloudy with Storms Imminent", think about an intimidating dark, cloudy sky with occasional lightning and thunder. This will allow you to play calm and calculated with a sprinkle of aggression to ensure results without making costly mistakes.

Strategy 5: Communicate with Your Team

And finally, do not forget hockey is a team sport. You may find yourself locking into the other four strategies with a complete neglect for your teammates. Hockey is a team activity, and communication is paramount, especially in pressure-filled moments. Whether it is signaling a line change, calling out plays, or providing critical updates during late game scenarios, clear and concise communication enhances each player's situational awareness and helps maintain a cohesive and synchronized team effort. Do not isolate yourself in the pursuit of individual efforts; instead, communicate effectively with your teammates. Hockey is a game of seconds. Clear and concise communication ensures everyone is on the same page, contributing to a coordinated and strategic response to late-game challenges.

Parting Advice

Playing under pressure late in big games is an art requiring emotional control, staying in the present moment, focusing on process over outcome, developing adaptable aggression, and maintaining effective communication. As you stand on the brink of playoff advancement or an important win, remember these five key strategies to not only survive but thrive in those intense, late-game situations. Victory is often forged in the crucible of pressure. By mastering these elements you position yourself to be a true game-changer for your team.

Scott Schwertly

Founder and CEO of GritBase - a mental performance coaching company for hockey players. We provide customized mental performance strategies to help yo...



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