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THE KEY TO MENTAL TOUGHNESS: The ability to Concentrate and Focus (Part 1)

By Enio Sacilotto, President, International Hockey Camps and Director of Player Development, Victoria Royals, WHL

You are playing the first place team in your league, they have the top goaltender and you are not very optimistic about your team’s chances to win going into the game. During one of your shifts, you have a breakaway and the goalie makes a great stop. Your reaction is to tell yourself, “I knew this guy was good, we are never going to beat him.” Later in the period their top line scores back-to-back goals. You are finding now that your concentration and focus is slipping. You are psyched out, not engaged in the game and you are struggling with your performance. This an example of an internal distractions. It is when your worst enemy is yourself. Your mind becomes your opponent more so than the other team.

The next night you are playing a game on the road. It is warm-up and it’s already a hostile environment with the capacity crowd throwing verbal insults at you and your teammates. These verbal attacks are bothering you before the game has even started. About halfway through the period your team gets a questionable penalty called against you, and you lose it on the referees. During this penalty your opponents score a goal. This immediately has the fans giving you the gears again, and this time you come unglued and you start chirping with them as they have become your main focus. Now your game is done as your mind has wandered from your objectives of winning the game. You have become fatigued and have no energy in reserve. You are done both mentally and physically. This is an example of external distractions.

Concentration and focus are one of the most important mental skills for you to master in order to perform at a high level on a consistent basis. You can take two athletes, at an equal skill level, and it is guaranteed the player who concentrates and focuses will outperform his opponent every time. Loss of concentration and focus cause choking and poor performance. The mentally tough athlete has the ability to block out all distractions and keep his concentration and focus.

What exactly is concentration and focus?

The two words are often used interchangeably, but let’s give each a definition: Concentration – is when you are performing on the task at hand and are not distracted by outside influences. Focus – is what you are putting all your mental energy into. It is what you are paying attention to at a given moment.

You are tuned in, nothing else matters but the task at hand. You are in the present moment and there are no possible distractions that can throw you off your game. Any possible distractions you block out.

As the two examples at the beginning of this article indicate there are two types of attention, or looking at it from another angle, two types of distractions: 1) External – things on the outside of you: crowds, refs, coaches yelling at you…. and 2) Internal – thoughts that go on the inside of your brain, being psyched out by an opponent, not having confidence in yourself, being fatigued….

What can I do to learn and improve concentration and focus?

1) Know what you need to focus on, analyze your situation. Stay within yourself, be prepared to play your game. What are the key parts of your game that you need to focus on? What are your biggest distractions you need to block out, are they internal or external?
Make sure that you are focusing on things that are within your control – coaches refer these as the controllables.

This may be contradictory, but be warned that some athletes think too much. Thinking too much about how you are going to perform a certain skill may also be a distraction.

2) Develop a pre-game and pre-practice routine – A consistent routine really helps prepare you to concentrate and focus. Coaches say preparation starts the day before. Make sure you get adequate sleep, eat a healthy meal, prepare your equipment, etc. Your game day routine can be as simple and as elaborate at you wish as long as you have a routine that helps you to prepare for your game. A pre-game routine blocks out internal and external distractions as you have something to focus your mental energy on. More importantly it helps you relax and keep things in perspective – it is just another game.

3) Relax – Listen to your favorite music or learn to meditate. It has been proven that mindful meditation increases your attention span significantly and decreases anxiety.

4) Be Positive – Negative thinking creates negative energy and it drains us of our mental and physical capacity.

5) Focus on the Present – Do not think about the future on what might happen and don’t worry about the past. If you make a mistake – think about it to learn from it – make the necessary adjustments and move on.

6) Simulate situations in practice – All sports experts agree that you play like you practice. Practice hard = play hard. Add the distractions that break your concentration and focus in a game to your practice. If you lose it when you are fatigued, make sure you maintain your focus when you are fatigued in practice. You may need help from your coaches on this one.

7) Use Visualization and Imagery – Using your mind’s eye, review situations that distract you, then see yourself overcoming the distractions then performing well. This will keep you more in control and help you when real situations come up in a game.

8) Set process goals – Concern yourself with how you are going to play and what you need to do. Don’t worry about the end results. Refer to the recent article “Goalsetting – it is all about the process” by Enio for more.

9) Develop “cue” words or short statements – Train the mind and the body will follow. Use words that will help keep you on focus, “move my feet”, “eyes up”, “forget it and focus”, “be in the here and now”. These are a few examples.

10) Focus exercises – There are many ways to practice focusing away from the ice rink that can help you.

11) Keep a journal – Rate yourself daily in practises and games on how your concentration and focus is doing.
Change takes time and like physical practice you need to do mental practice, which needs to become part of your daily routine. Once you start and are consistent with mental practice the positive changes to your mental toughness will be amazing.

If you have any questions, you reach me by email at, phone 604 255 4747 or visit my website at for free player, parent and coaching resources. You can also learn about our specialized personal hockey camps.