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Dr. Saul Miller

Performing Under Pressure in the Playoffs

I had a call from a reporter at the start of the NHL playoffs enquiring about the value of introducing sport psychology to a team in the playoffs. I explained that sport psychology is generally not something you introduce as people are entering into a very challenging performance situation (anymore than you would introduce physical strength training a few days before the big game). Ideally it’s something introduced early in the season and supported with on-going “coaching” throughout the year. This provides the players an understanding of the necessary psychological skills and also gives them time to become comfortable applying them in the more pressure-filled situations.

That’s exactly what we did with SC Bern of the Swiss A Hockey League this year. Despite finishing at the top of the league, Bern had been knocked out of the playoffs in the first round in each of the two previous seasons. Larry Huras, the newly appointed coach (and someone well-acquainted with sport psychology as a performance resource) brought me in to work with the team. We scheduled a couple of weeks of sport psychology coaching early in the season and then followed up with another two weeks towards the end of the season to prepare the team for the playoffs… and to deal with the climate of angst surrounding the team’s recent playoff history.

SC Bern swept the first two rounds of the playoffs and won the opening game of the final championship series against Geneva (for an impressive nine straight wins). Geneva won the second game of the finals tying the series at one game apiece. After the loss the coach thought it would be a good idea if I spoke with the team and reviewed with them a few things relating to focus, emotional control, and attitude (specifically, commitment, confidence, mental toughness and identity-“who we are”) that we worked on during the season.

I was working in southern California at the time so we arranged a videoconference in the dressing room prior to the morning skate before game 3. Because we had worked previously, I was comfortable talking with the team about things already discussed in both individual and team meetings during the season. According to the coach, the players were very positive about the meeting and receiving a “refocusing” message from someone they were familiar with.  They went out that evening and dominated game 3, winning by a score of 6-2.

SC Bern won game 4, then lost games 5 and 6 (each by a goal), creating a game 7 showdown for the Swiss championship. Again, Coach Huras asked if we could arrange a session with the team the morning before game 7. Again, we used a video conference  hook-up and piped the message into the player’s dressing room. Again, we discussed, focus, commitment, identity and mental toughness. The players were positive and responsive about the interaction. And again, the on-ice result was very positive.
Bern won game 7 by a score of 4-1 to win the Swiss A League championship.

As a general rule, people tend to perform under pressure as they have previously performed under pressure in the past unless they are coached to learn some new pressure-coping skills in a more relaxed, low arousal situation. That’s to say, coaching mental skills designed to help performers in any field excel under pressure should be introduced in a gradual and on-going process that is best begun well in advance of future challenges.

Having said all that, a couple years ago I received a call from a long time client who was coaching a pro team in a sudden death playoff situation.  His team was facing an opponent that had beaten them decisively twice during the season and he felt his players needed a positive refocus and an injection of confidence. I spent an intense day with the team; inspiring them and helping them create a very different mindset. Rather than training the athletes how to manage pressure and perform consistently at their best, the exercise was more focused on shifting the team’s perspective to get the players to believe that they could (and would) be successful against a team that had manhandled them during the season.

The exercise worked, and led to the team knocking off their feared opponent. However, my experience has been that for long-term, continued success, it is much better to train athletes over time to manage their own minds rather than relying solely on inspiration boosts during intense times.

So, going back to the reporter’s question, the answer is yes, sport psychology can be a very useful performance enhancer for a team in the playoffs, especially if the coaching staff is on board and the right program is introduced early and reinforced leading up to and during the playoffs. That’s what we did and it helped win a championship.

Dr. Saul Miller is the author of Performing Under Pressure, Hockey Tough and Why Teams Win.

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