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Changing Channels or Parking It = Being in Control

This is an excerpt from Hockey Tough 2nd Edition by Saul Miller.

Some sport psychologists have used the concept park it to describe the experience of tuning out distracting, negative, or irrelevant thoughts and staying tuned in to what's appropriate. If a thought comes to mind that's not going to help you perform or can interfere with your on-ice performance, change the channel and park it.

For example, if you have had a bad shift, let it go and focus on being effective the next time out. Or if an opposition player taunts you, slashes you, or attempts to provoke or distract you in a close game, instead of retaliating, being penalized, and hurting your team, park that thought and possibly file it for later. If it's something that can't be forgotten, then at another time, when it won't hurt your team, even the score. If you are having distracting or disturbing thoughts relating to off-ice issues and it's time to prepare for the game, park those thoughts for the time being and deal with them later.

Paul Kariya was an intensely focused hockey tough competitor who knew his role and what it takes to be successful. He was a point-a-game scorer in his 15 years in the NHL. Before his retirement, I asked Paul how he dealt with the high sticks, late hits, clutch and grabs, and other frustrations in the game. He replied, "Getting angry doesn't accomplish anything. It doesn't help me score." Paul explained: "When I was in the Canadian national program, a sport psychologist introduced the idea of parking it, and it's something I still use today. I'm an offensive player. My job is to play offense. It's not to retaliate. If someone chops or slashes me, I park it and refocus. The ultimate get-even is to put the puck in their net."

Cassie Campbell twice captained Team Canada to Olympic gold and then became a broadcaster for the NHL. I asked Cassie, an experienced player and someone who observes the game at the highest level, what she thought was the most important mental quality for a player to acquire. "I think it's the ability to park it. Not to let any of the many possible distractions affect your performance. That ability enables a player to stay focused and follow through on what is asked of him or her."

Parking requires both perspective and emotional control, qualities of mental toughness. Your ability to tune out a thought, change channels, and park it is a combination of your motivation and your ability to release, breathe, and refocus.

Ville Peltonen was an iconic Finnish hockey player who played in the NHL, in the KHL, and in the top leagues in Switzerland and Finland for a remarkable 23 seasons. I asked Ville, a four-time Olympian and frequent team captain, about the importance of having emotional control and the ability to use breathing, change channels, and not play too tight or too tense. "It is important to learn how to relax before you mentally prepare and get charged up for a big game. To do that you need those personal mental tools, and you need to have practiced them so that you know how to use them. I believe it is a skill just like skating or shooting. Except it is a skill that makes all the other skills even more efficient."

One of my favorite examples of mental discipline, and something I'm fond of telling young hockey players, is this: "When I walk through my neighborhood and my neighbor's dog barks, I don't bark back." I have said this dozens of times. Usually, most players smile and nod. They can appreciate that it's ridiculous to bark back at a barking dog.

On the ice, however, when someone on the other team barks at them, many players lose focus and almost reflexively bark back. My advice is don't go there. Ignore it. Park it. If you do notice the provocation, use it or it'll use you.

How can you use it? As always, change channels, take a breath, release (anger, tension, fear, or whatever), and focus instead on the positive, on what you want to do on the ice (your ABCs). Mental toughness is about maintaining that positive focus, no matter what.

Marg was a talented young center, a smart player who skated well and had good hands and a good shot. However, like many hockey players, she would think too much and about too many things when she was under pressure. Often her thinking was negative, focusing on things she did wrong. This focus caused her to become tense, slowed her reactions, and reduced her touch. The more Marg struggled, the more she worried and the more tense she became. She worried that she wasn't scoring, that if she didn't produce she would get less ice time. The more Marg worried, the less productive she became and the less ice time she saw. It was a vicious cycle.

The first step in helping Marg turn her game around was to teach her to release and breathe, to change channels, and park the nonsense. Because Marg tended to worry, I showed her how to use that worry as a reminder to take a breath and focus on positive feelings and positive plays. Gradually, Marg became better able to change her feelings and manage her mind. As she did, her performance improved dramatically.

Playing hockey tough is playing hockey smart. I have seen players do things, thinking they were being hockey tough and making a statement for the team or for pride, when in reality what they were doing was neither hockey tough nor hockey smart. A key to playing tough and smart is having focus and discipline. And emotional control and discipline go hand in hand.

Mark was a hard-working junior defenseman. Although he wasn't big, he was a fearless, physical player who would stand up to anyone to protect his teammates. The problem was that Mark didn't control his temper. In the second period of a close game, with his team leading 1-0, Mark was speared. He retaliated and was given a two-minute penalty. Not surprisingly, he was upset. Thirty seconds after Mark went to the penalty box, the other team scored a power-play goal. As Mark left the penalty box (still steaming), one of the opposing players skated by and said something to the effect that Mark was a dummy who'd just cost his team a goal. Mark snapped. He jumped the opponent and started throwing punches. When the smoke cleared, Mark was back in the penalty box all by himself with a two-minute penalty for instigating and a five-minute penalty for fighting. The complexion of the game shifted. Hockey tough means not allowing your emotions (right brain) to override your focus (left brain).

Being hockey tough means maintaining a team focus and discipline and doing what serves the team on and off the ice. Real toughness is not responding to every barking dog. It's having a clear focus and acting with purpose and intelligence. It's being in control in the face of challenge and adversity.

When confronted with negativity, frustration, or anger, remember to release, breathe, and refocus.

Change channels. Park it. Play hockey tough, and focus on hunting well.

Learn more about Hockey Tough.

More Excerpts From Hockey Tough 2nd Edition