Do you know players that are superb in training, but under pressure don’t perform to their true ability? Do you know how to get yourself in the right frame of mind to perform your very best? Have you ever played the game of your life and can’t recall why? Have you ever had a spell when you’ve been playing like a donkey even though you’re trying desperately hard?

It’s more than likely you’ve answered yes to one or all of these questions. Performing inconsistently is common across all sports and applies both to individuals and teams.

People often talk about mental toughness when referring to great athletes – the sporting heroes who seem to have the grit and determination to train hard, to fight back when their down, and to stay in control when the pressure’s on, consistently delivering and being successful over and over again.

What have they learned that makes them perform consistently, exactly when it matters most?

At international level there is very little to differentiate between players’ skill – they’re all good players or they wouldn’t have reached the top of their sport. But to be the very best, training the mind is of the key factors. Although many elite athletes and coaches believe this in theory, few invest as much time on tuning the mind as they do on improving fitness and technical skills.

Sports psychology is an intrinsic part of reaching your full potential. To give you the edge you have to know how to handle the pressure situations that you will inevitably encounter. Focusing exclusively on the physical side of your training is only half the picture. To be a truly great athlete you need to realise that what will set you apart is your mental ability and toughness. Together with physical strength and skills you complete the picture and can be the best.

Psychology must be incorporated into everything. You can’t just turn up to a match and expect it to work. It’ll take as much practice and dedication as physical training, taking time to learn and develop, and drawing on your own past experiences. But if you persist, and genuinely work at it, you’ll reap the benefits.

Many of the senior athletes in hockey are only just learning to apply sports psychology techniques to help enhance their performance and that of the team, mid way through their careers. If you can develop these habits early in your career, you’ll go a long way.

This section focuses on two of the most fundamental areas of sports psychology; planning and goal setting, and focus and concentration.

Planning & Setting Goals

Striking a balance.

As an elite hockey player you will need to be a proficient time manager and planner, setting goals on and of the pitch will help you achieve your aims and targets. You need to start planning and goal setting for the long, medium and short term, allowing you to develop the big picture and the minor detail. Preparation is the key to success.

Why set goals and plan?

Goal setting helps monitor your progress and is a good mental technique for increasing your motivation towards achieving something important. Goals are targets or aims that help you focus and direct your efforts and provide the drive to help you work hard to achieve them.

Goals will help you reach higher levels of personal performance.

Goal setting is relevant to all aspects of your performance, technical, physical and mental as well as lifestyle.

Types of goals.

There are three types of goals you can set and they are interlinked:




Outcome goals can be highly motivating and important to set, as they are concerned with the results or ambitions:

  • Gaining selection
  • Winning a medal
  • Becoming the top goal scorer

However these goals are not always easy to control as they can be affected by the performance of others.

Performance goals are goals over which you have total control and responsibility, they are usually personal standards of performance you set yourself.

  • Pass with over 75% accuracy in a match
  • 80% of penalty corners on target
  • 50% conversion rate at penalty corners
  • Work at 85% of my maximum heart rate in all endurance sessions
  • Gain half a level more in my next bleep test

Performance goals provide a vital stepping-stone to achieving your outcome goals.

Process goals are about the detail, they relate to the processes you need to control if you are going to achieve your performance and outcome goals.

  • Releasing the ball cleanly to your team mate
  • Ensuring your feet and shoulders are in the correct position
  • Making sure the ball placement is right for the desired shot selection
  • Change my line of movement when I pick up the ball, (coming off the line opens up your angles, options and creates space).
  • Make time in my training programme for appropriate endurance sessions
  • Monitor the distances achieved in interval sessions
  • Improve my times for speed sessions

Process goals are important as they help you achieve your performance and outcome goals by helping you focus on the way you need to perform rather than the desired outcome. There are several reasons why this is a good thing to do but crucially by focussing on process goals you are more likely to achieve your desired outcomes. This is because the process is how you get to the endpoint.

You need to be able to set and use all three types of goals effectively in training and competition. It is pointless setting outcome goals without considering the pathway to achieving them – the path way provided by performance and process goals are the foundation and vital to your success.

Effective Goal Setting

Effective goal setting needs to be specific, measurable, achievable, and time-framed, (SMART). Lets take a look at each of these principles in turn and then see if you can set some SMART goals for yourself.

Specific: you need to be precise in stating your goals. Vague aims like “get better at hitting” or “improve my fitness” are generally not very useful. One of the reasons for this is that it’s difficult to know when you’ve achieved them if they are very vague. To be able to do this you need to know where you are now and then set a definite target to aim for. In the examples above you would need to be able to identify how good you are at hitting now or what your fitness is now and then set a target for improvement. This brings us to the second feature of effective goal setting….

Measurable: to be able to state where you are now you need to be able to measure your performance in some way. So, for our examples above you might measure hitting effectiveness by testing your ability to hit the ball into a target area. You may need to be even more specific in looking at your accuracy over different distances open or reverse stick, standing or on the run. Already you can see that by thinking about measurement it also helps you to be specific. It also means that you can probably identify the most important aspect of your hitting to work on. So we might now state our goal as:

“To improve my open stick hitting accuracy over 30 metres from 60% to 75% on the run and 80% to 90% when standing”

Achievable: having stated a specific goal and decided how you will measure it you need to check that it’s realistic. Is it an improvement that you can work towards? Are there practices or training that you can do that will help? Ask a coach or team-mate if they think it’s achievable. One of the things that successful athletes in all sports do is to set challenging goals that will be difficult to reach but that are controllable and within reach if you put in the necessary work.

Recorded: It’s not really a goal until it’s written down. Doing this commits you to doing it. Telling or showing someone else your goal is also useful as they can support you when the going gets tough and share your enjoyment when you achieve your goals. If we look at the fitness example, you might decide that to improve endurance fitness from level 10 to level 11on the bleep test (specific, measurable & achievable) you will run for 30 minutes 3 times a week. So write it down, put your training programme up on the wall, somewhere clearly visible and tick off each session when you’ve done it and tell a friend of family what you’re aiming to do.

Time-framed: Finally, goals need to be set within a time frame. This is another great motivator and will spur you to action. So for our two examples our SMART goals might be:

  1. To improve my open stick hitting accuracy over 30 metres from 60% to 75% on the run and 80% to 90% when standing by the end of November
  2. To improve endurance fitness from level 10 to level 11on the bleep test by the start of pre-season training

Effective goal setting normally includes a mixture of long, medium and short term goals and outcome, performance and process goals – sounds complicated! Well it does take time and practice to be come an effective goal setter but hopefully the examples above have helped illustrate how to get started. The table on the next page shows an example how you might get the right mixture of goals. We’ve also left some space for you to do some of your own goal setting.

Outcome goals are generally most effective in the long term – they give you a clear direction about where you want to go and can be the inspiration that drives you.

Performance goals are most effective in the medium term – they are the SMART targets that keep you on track to achieve your long term ambitions and also give you a sense of achievement along the way.

Process goals are most effective in the short term – these are the things that you actually do minute-by-minute or day to day that help you achieve your performance goals and ultimately make your dreams come true.

Focus & Paying Attention

Do you ever get distracted by;

  • Umpires decisions?
  • The condition of a pitch?
  • A boisterous crowd?
  • The opposition’s comments?
  • The weather conditions?
  • Who’s watching – coaches, assessors, friends, family, or press?
  • The outcome of the game?
  • Irrelevant thoughts like going out that night or what to have for tea?

Of course, we all have!

The question is how well we deal with it when it happens and how to prevent it happening too often or at all. Distractions tend to result in poor performances, which is why Sports Psychologists often report that “distraction control” is probably the most important psychological skill required for success in sport.

Keeping your concentration isn’t just about focusing better or concentrating harder, it’s the quality of your attention that’s important. In fact the harder you try to concentrate the less easy it is to do! You need to become aware of when you have the wrong focus at the wrong time with the wrong content and be able to retune to the right focus at the right time and with the right content. Surely this is obvious but why doesn’t it always work? We have a limited concentration capacity for example while your reading this you probably weren’t aware of the sound you can hear in the background, the feeling of contact with your clothes or the frequency of your breathing. But you are now! This capacity for concentration is severely reduced under pressure of competition or physical pressure so knowing what to pay attention to is important.

Staying “Focused”

There are four areas for you to focus your attention on during games and appropriate times to do so. Our attention can either be focussed on internal factors (thoughts and feelings) or external factors (other people, the weather, umpires). In addition your focus can be broad or narrow (just like a torch beam).

So, you can see on the diagram below that our attentional focus can be broad internal (B/I), broad external (B/E), narrow internal (N/I) or narrow external (N/E)

A broad internal focus can mean that you’re thinking through the whole game plan, being aware that you feel hungry and deciding what to have for tea, wondering who’ll be nominated next on big brother etc. Some of these thoughts are relevant to performance and obviously others are not!

A broad external focus can mean that you’re aware that the opposition seem to be attacking mainly down the left side, the umpire seems to be picking on you, the pitch is slippery and it looks like rain Oh, and there’s your mum in the crowd – I wish she wouldn’t wear that hat! Once again you can see that paying attention to some of these external factors can be important (such as opposition game strategies) but others are just using up valuable brain space.

A narrow internal focus can mean that you are very aware of the error that you just made trapping the ball or the goal you just scored or that your feelings of anxiety and frustration are rising. Sometimes we focus very intensely of things that have happened in the past (errors of successes). When we do this we can’t also pay attention to the present. A narrow internal focus can be used very positively .When your attention is here you should focus on positive thoughts, imagine successful outcomes and manage mistakes successfully. These can be focused on before and during games, in your pre match routine and managing mistakes during a game. Don’t dwell on what’s just happened, bin it! One bad touch or missed goal opportunity doesn’t make you a poor player. It is important to recognise that internal thoughts and feelings can become negative (e.g., I hate playing in this position. I bet I miss this. I’m no good at playing on this pitch.) You need to practice getting rid of negative thoughts and replacing them with positive thoughts about the situation.

A narrow external focus of attention refers to you focusing in on an opponent, the ball, a team mate. This is important during a game and particularly when you’re in the play or on the ball. Keep thinking what’s my job here? Your focus needs to be on relevant external cues, not the outcome of the competition, but the detail of the here and now.

Focusing on the strategy or game plan will be something you will do prior to matches as a team and individually and should also be clarified at half time in case changes are to be made. This can help focus you as a team to ensure you’re all working to the same agenda and help you make the right decisions at the right time.

Concentration control

The ability to concentrate effectively and remain focused is vital to your performance because neither technical or tactical ability nor physical fitness will adequately compensate for a tendency to be easily distracted. We all know players who lose it with umpires, who bottle it on the big occasions and teams who can’t seem to put the lower ranked teams away. The challenge is to maintain concentration in the face of distractions, but to do this effectively you need to be aware of distractions that may result in a loss of concentration and be familiar with some effective concentration techniques.

Stay in the Moment

Strategies to help you concentrate

Process Goal – process goals encourage present-focused and task relevant thinking. Thoughts about the past or future can often be a distraction but if you focus on what you need to do right now and how to do it effectively you will tend to be more successful. For example, your team is losing by one goal with 5 minutes left in the game – you could think “we need to score” (outcome) or you could focus on what you need to do to give the team the best chance of achieving that outcome “make a good lead” (process).

Single thought – If you’re finding it difficult to concentrate on the task in hand and are being distracted by irrelevant thoughts, think of a task-relevant cue. For example, you may say to yourself “soft hands”, when you about to receive a pass or “low” if your about to tackle or press a player.

“Bin it” – If an event or a series of events makes you have negative thoughts (e.g. a bad pass, a poor umpiring decision or missing a goal opportunity) you need to stop those thoughts and refocus your attention. You can do this with self-talk, a deep breath and a re-focusing phrase.

Self-talk – You need a key word that will stop the negative thought process:

“Stop” or “Bin It” are good examples.

A deep breath – Research has shown that breathing out decreases muscle tension.

A game related thought – You need to get back into the game so think of a phrase that will get you re-focused on the game and a task you have to perform. It could be relevant to your role/job or a team objective but make it specific.

  • List some distractors that my cause you to lose concentration in the first column
  • Identify which type of distraction this is (broad/narrow, internal/external)
  • Note down the effect that it might have on performance
  • Devise a strategy to help you control your attention