According to David A. Jensen, it’s important that a hockey player prepares both body and mind for an upcoming game. And as a former player in the NHL, he should know; he credits his father with helping him hone his own pregame rituals. Now the owner and operator of DAJ Hockey, New England’s premier hockey skills training company, Jensen shares the methods he developed as a pro with young players looking to take their games to the next level. The five steps range from the mundane (drink a lot of fluids) to the metaphysical (visualize your game), and these complementary rituals come together in the final step, during on-ice warm-ups. Here are Jensen’s top five ways to prepare for peak performance in a hockey game:
- Stay Hydrated. It seems obvious, but it’s extremely important to drink enough during the day leading up to your game. Dehydration can affect not only your physical performance, but also your mental performance. If you are not well hydrated, you can suffer from fatigue, headaches, and cramps as the game goes on. Just as important, dehydration can affect your concentration and mental sharpness. You don’t want to be locked in a tight third-period battle and not be in top form.
- Stretch and Stay Flexible. There’s a lot of contradictory research on the value of stretching before athletic activity, but it seems clear that your focus should be on flexibility. The goal is for your body to be loose and to have good range of motion. Start by warming up with a little light jogging in place or skipping rope, and then work on loosening up your ankles, knees, hips, and shoulders with dynamic stretches—that is, those that don’t involve holding the same position too long. (Those classic stretch-and-hold routines are better performed the day after a game.) No one routine will work for every player, so try some dynamic stretches to combat stiffness that can slow you down. Examples include ankle rotations, knee cradles, hip bridges, and the shoulder towel stretch—you can find a multitude of online videos that demonstrate them.
- Warm Up Your Hands. You also want to loosen up your hands and reinforce proper muscle memory just prior to games, so Jensen recommends off-ice stick-handling drills with a ball—either in the locker room or out in the hall. Spend just ten minutes with the ball, maintaining control and practicing some of your favorite moves. This will also “warm up” the connections between your brain and your hands, so you’ll have better control when the puck drops.
- Visualize Your Game. Here’s one that might not occur to many players, but which Jensen believes is really important. In the hours leading up to the game, he would always visualize himself in game situations. “Visualization and positive reinforcement of every conceivable game situation is important for confidence,” he argues. “And it gives the best chance of being mentally sharp at puck drop.” If you’re a forward, imagine yourself receiving the puck in front of goal, and work out how you’d get the shot off and where you’d aim. If you’re a defender, picture making that incisive forward pass that puts your teammate through on goal. It’s almost like you’re adding practice repetitions to work your mental “muscles.” This may seem silly or new-agey to you, but Jensen swears it helped him make better, faster decisions in games.
- Do On-Ice Warm-Ups at Top Speed. The final step in preparation is one that Jensen’s dad always insisted on. When you step on the ice before the game, don’t simply cruise through warm-ups. Treat every drill like it’s an actual game, and do everything at top speed. That way, your muscles and your mind will already be at game sharpness when you go over the boards for your first shift. You won’t have to “play yourself into the game.” While the opposition might be just warming up during the first period, you’ll be at peak performance.
As soon as the puck drops to start the first period, hockey is an intense, fast-paced game; there’s not really time to “get up to speed.” You need to be ready—physically and mentally—to play your best during your very first shift. And what often separate a good player from a very good player are the little extra things that help on-ice performance—the kind of pregame preparation that might give you the edge you need to overcome the opposition. The best way to ensure this kind of readiness is to prepare properly in the hours and minutes before the game. Laying the groundwork for peak physical and mental performance will give you a leg up on the competition and help you come out of the starting blocks at top speed. Following these five steps before every game can help you take your performance to the next level.