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Performing Under Pressure – A Pro Perspective

Performing Under Pressure – A Pro Perspective

Pressure is a part of the game at all levels. A simple change in perspective can help you manage that pressure.

Game day.

It wasn’t just our season on the line. It was the future of our whole organization.

And this isn’t an exaggeration; if we didn’t win, the organization would get demoted to the second division.

Saying I felt pressure would be a significant understatement.

Fortunately, I had learned an invaluable mental strategy that allowed me to play with great confidence in the most intense game of my career.

I learned to talk to myself instead of listen to myself.

This time of year, the NHL gears up for the ultimate trophy in sports, The Stanley Cup. Pro leagues all around the world are also competing for their respective championships, as well as a more pressure-filled playoff: relegation.

Relegation means the worst team or teams in the league get moved down to the second division. And the best team or teams from the second division get moved up to the first.

Imagine if the worst team in the NHL and the best team in the AHL switched places every year!

This is the all-or-nothing situation I faced in my first professional season in Europe. I was playing for the Frisk Asker Tigers, a team just outside of Oslo, Norway.

Traditionally, Frisk was a great program. However, during the lockout year, they overpaid some players and had to run on a very tight budget for the season. They were essentially a junior team playing in a top pro league.

At Christmas, they were destined for the relegation round. So, they signed a great goal-scorer and me to help them maintain their position in the top league.

How’s that for pressure?

This was hands down the most pressure-filled situation I have ever been in.

I felt responsible for the fate of the organization.

Here’s the situation: four teams – two second division teams and two first division teams (Manglerud and our team, Frisk) – played a round-robin relegation tournament. Each team played each other twice, once at home and once on the road.

One of the second division teams was very good. After the first five relegation games, they clinched a spot in the top division, leaving only one spot remaining.

On the final night of the tournament, that last spot came down to a game between us and the other first division team, Manglerud.

Not only did we have to win, but we had to win in regulation. If they got one point (tie or overtime loss), they would advance ahead of us. If we didn’t win, not only would Frisk lose its sponsorship money and recruits, but the younger players in the area would also likely transfer organizations.

The future of the whole Frisk Asker organization was in jeopardy.

So here we are going into the last game of a long season, on the road, against the other top-league team.

This was hands down the most pressure-filled situation I have ever been in.

I felt responsible for the fate of the organization.

Can you feel the pressure? I bet you can.

Think back to a big game or moment that you’ve had like this. Did you listen to yourself? Or did you talk to yourself?

In the past, I’d listen to myself say things like, “This is the biggest game of my life. The whole organization depends on me. If I don’t play well, my career will be over.”

When you listen to yourself, you hear the doubt, the fear, and the negativity.

This only adds more pressure to the situation and will, without a doubt, hurt your performance. I know from experience…

Instead, I learned to talk to myself.

Talking to yourself is how you play your best when it matters most, like a championship or a tryout.

Leading up to this high-stake game, I downplayed the importance of the situation and told myself, “Even if we get relegated, it’s a good program and they will get promoted back up next year. The whole season put us in this situation, not just this game. This game actually doesn’t matter all that much.”

I highly recommend downplaying the importance of “big games” to decrease the external pressure that you feel.

Our brains are wired so that when we feel pressure, we activate our “fight or flight” response, which flushes our body with adrenaline, making our breath short and our heart pound. This makes you rigid, tight and awkward.

When you calm your heart rate and settle your mind, then you can focus on playing your best.

On the way to the game, I took control of the situation by talking to myself.

I started telling myself, “I just need to play my game. It’s more than enough. I’ve played great in so many big games, this is just another one.”

When you talk to yourself, you focus on the positive side, the side that helps your performance.

Choose to focus on what helps you play your best – “It’s just another game, I know I’ll play great.”

The best goalies simply ingrain great habits in their games through countless reps of purposeful practice and then let the habits take over in games.

Ever notice how you’re not listening to yourself when you’re playing your best? In other words, you get out of your own way…

So next tryout or championship game, remind yourself you’ve played and practiced well, hundreds if not thousands of times, before. Encourage yourself and allow your great habits to take over.

So, on this winner-take-all night, I talked to myself all the way to the rink, “It’s just another game, I’ve played great all year. Same way tonight.”

I talked to myself when I stepped in the net, “I’ll be calm and controlled for the first shot.”

I talked to myself with just two minutes left and a one-goal lead, “Keep playing the same way. I’ve got this.”

I talked to myself until the final buzzer sounded and the game was over. We won, 1-0.

All images in this article courtesy of Espen Hildrup.

About The Author

Michael Garman

Coach Mike Garman is an international goalie coach and mentor. After retiring from professional hockey, he now coaches and mentors goalies all over the world. To learn more about Mike, please visit www.GoaliebyGarman.com and sign up for free pro tips and resources. A lot of his coaching is online with a soon to be released new version of The GoaliebyGarman Academy. You can reach him directly at [email protected]

2 Comments

  1. Espen

    Great article, Michael – and you played like a God in that game!

  2. Greg

    Great article! Talking to yourself instead of listening to yourself is so powerful!