Mental Skills Training in the NHL: Part 3


by Shannon Penfound, Staff Writer and Event Coordinator, All Habs Hockey Magazine


SARNIA, ON — Elite athletes face immense pressure from coaches, teammates, fans, and also from themselves. This high level of pressure can lead to a variety of issues:

  • Self-doubt
  • Anxiety
  • Loss of confidence

All of these issues can eventually lead to performance decline. Cue mental skills training.

In two of my recent articles, I discussed which NHL teams and which NHL players currently use mental skills training in order to improve the quality of their on-ice performance. Mental skills training helps to improve the mental aspects of an athlete’s skill set. And because an athlete’s success depends heavily on his or her mental capabilities, mental training should be considered as important as the physical, technical, and nutritional training that elite athletes also undertake. So, now that you know the teams and the specific players who currently use mental training, let’s look at why mental skills training helps, as well as the types of techniques elite athletes actually use themselves.


Imagery involves visualizing an experience using your mind. By pulling existing memories into conscious thought, an individual can reconstruct previous events, or even construct potential events. Imagery is a way for athletes to mentally prepare themselves for an upcoming performance and help them to prepare for unknown, and possibly stressful, situations1. Imagery has been shown to:

  • Improve concentration
  • Enhance motivation
  • Build confidence
  • Control emotional responses
  • Cope with pain and injury

Goaltenders often use imagery when preparing for competition, and they may benefit the most from doing so. Pre-game, goalies can take the time to imagine previous errors made during practices or games, then utilize positive imagery to replace them2. Ken Dryden, former goaltender for the Montreal Canadiens, had this to say regarding mental preparation in the NHL:

Because the demands on a goalie are mostly mental, it means that for a goalie, the biggest enemy is himself. Not a puck, not an opponent, not a quirk of size or style. Him. The stress and anxiety he feels when he plays…[is] in constant ebb and flow, but never disappearing. The successful goalie understands these neuroses, accepts them, and puts them under control. The unsuccessful goalie is distracted by them, his mind in knots, his body quickly following2. – Ken Dryden

Photo Le Journal de Montréal, Ben Pelosse
Photo Le Journal de Montréal, Ben Pelosse


Self-talk, or intrapersonal communication, is the dialogue that we share with ourselves on a daily basis. What we say to ourselves is extremely important. With respect to athletes, self-talk can help to increase or decrease things such as self-confidence and motivation1. One study found that instructional and motivational self-talk helped to increase strength, accuracy, endurance, and fine motor coordination1. After practice on January 13th, ahead of the Columbus game, Tomas Plekanec spoke about being faced with a new line mate (Max Pacioretty) again this season, “We’ll play our game. He’ll play his game and I’ll play mine. If it suits together, we will be successful. We definitely can be3.” That night, the line of 67-14-11 was electric and accounted for two of the three PPG the Habs scored. The next night, the Habs faced the Ottawa Senators. Despite a final score of 4-1, the top line accounted for 10 of Montreal’s 26 shots on goal and Pacioretty netted his 21st goal of the season. Brendan Gallagher also had a beautiful play off of a pass from Pacioretty where he fought three Senators to gain entry into the offensive zone and still managed a short shot on Craig Anderson.

Goal Setting

Goal setting is a very common thing for most individuals. We set educational, career, and personal achievement goals on a regular basis. Athletes tend to set the following types of goals:

Outcome goals – the result of a competition, event, game

Performance goals – achieving certain pre-determined standards, usually when compared to others

Process goals – the steps an athlete must take in order to perform well

Why does goal setting work? Outcome, performance, and process goals are thought to have an indirect effect on issues such as confidence and anxiety, and therefore can help to influence behaviour1. Goals can help to narrow an athlete’s attention, prolong an athlete’s persistence, and help in the development of learning new and different strategies in order to achieve the goals that have been laid out1.

(Photo by Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images)
(Photo by Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images)

An effective coach, and an effective team, will play out a game plan before each match. This plan will include a list of objectives (or goals) that the athletes need to work towards in order to have a productive game. Something as simple as creating traffic in front of the net can be considered a process goal that will (hopefully) lead to the team at least creating some solid scoring chances.

Mental skills training includes many tips and techniques other than those listed above. It is an ever-growing field and one in which the NHL is readily adopting. Athletes who prepare themselves mentally can, and will, perform better than those who do not. The next time you’re preparing for a competition, try implementing a few of the techniques discussed and watch your performance and self-confidence improve.


  1. Weinberg, R.S., & Gould, D. (2011). Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology. (5th). Champaign,IL: Human Kinetics.
  2. Gelinas, R. & Munroe-Chandler, K. Athletic Insight: The Online Journal of Sport Psychology, retrieved from
  3. Montreal Canadiens. (January 14, 2015). RAW: Tomas Plekanec, retrieved from




  1. Maybe they will invent a bio metric watch able to read a players bio kinetic feed & algo-readings.
    A players fragile confidence level is being challenged @ every turn in their quest to become a professional hockey player.
    Teams that hire Sports Psychology Professionals are addressing the needs of every young player in their system.
    There are many young kids out there that do not make it due to consequence that are out of their control & it is sad to see for sure.
    Hats off to any team that adopts this program into their teams program to enable all their young prospects the chance to make-it the rewards are endless for both the player & the team in question.

  2. Hi Mark,

    Happy New Year! There are some great emerging programs & studies that would definitely back your claim. I’ll be doing some interesting work over the next few months related to stress levels (increasing vs. decreasing) and reaction time in athletes, for example. There is so much pressure on our young athletes today – much more than in past generations – and I do believe that larger arenas (like the NHL) are beginning to understand the importance of mental preparation/training in order to produce an all-around elite athlete. Fingers crossed this forward thinking sticks around! Thanks for your response!


Comments are closed.