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Mental Imagery and the Optimal Mindset for Hockey

Start Using Mental Imagery, Here’s Why

I really believe if you visualize yourself doing something, you can make that image come true – Wayne Gretzky

Mental imagery is the vivid recollection of a specific skill or event.  The purpose of using imagery in hockey is to help learn or practice difficult skills and game strategies; like breakouts from the d-zone, a neutral zone regroup or forecheck. Using mental imagery helps make on ice performance second nature.

Research has shown that constant visualization of how a specific skill should be carried out improves an athlete’s ability to perform that skill in reality.

As a recruit, if you’re not taking mental imagery seriously, you should be.  NHL, CHL and NCAA stars take mental imagery very serious and most have their own sports psychologist who help them develop their pre-game routines and mental imagery techniques.

Mike Cammalleri’s Pre-Game Mental Imagery Routine

Check out Mike Cammalleri during his pre-game visualization routine:

Visualization Works in Hockey

Originally, I had a hard time believing mental imagery added any practical benefit to my game. It took some convincing but I soon came to realize mental imagery is one of the most important characteristics of a serious hockey recruit.

Heading in to my minor-Midget season with the Toronto Young Nationals I read about a study done by Dr. Richard Suinn, a sports psychologist at the University of Colorado.  Suinn had worked with Olympic skiers all over the world and has studied the effect of mental imagery.

In a 1985 study he wanted to compare how a downhill skier’s muscles reacted during a mental imagery session when compared with the same reaction of the skier actually racing down a mountain. Suinn came to realize that the electrical muscles patterns that the brain sent to the skiers legs were almost exactly the same during an imagery session behind closed doors as when the skier’s raced down a mountain. That means that in a mental imagery session the brain was providing physical stimuli to the body as if the skier was actually performing the race.

Another study was undertaken of Basketball players who used  imagery improved 15% more than those who simply practiced shooting but did not use imagery.

Hockey Psychologist Dr. Aynsley Smith

Dr. Aynsley Smith, a renown hockey psychologist noted that its more that just visualizing (seeing an experience in the mind’s eye), it involves touch, sound, sight, feeling and smell. Player’s who have mastered mental imagery techniques can actually begin to encounter the events and performances as if they really happened, including the emotions; joy, excitement, dejection, determination, tension, anger and pain.

They train their subconscious mind to read, react and dictate to their conscious mind how to act and what to do in particular circumstances on the ice. You actions on the ice become automated with more flow and less conscious thought.

I practiced mental imagery techniques so many times that I can close my eyes today and replay break out passes from the d-zone hitting the tape of a winger or a forward and then hustling up the ice to follow the play.

The vividness and control of an image is found to be best when you are in a setting which has few distractions.  Before every game I used to sit alone either at home or at the rink and walk through different team breakouts, powerplays, neutral zone regroups or turn overs, 1-on-1’s, 2-on1’s etc.  When the puck dropped it was as if I had played an entire game. My mind felt sharp and at a minimum, visualizing before each game allowed me to get in the zone and feel mentally comfortable and confident that in any given situation on the ice I was pre-programmed to know what to do.

For me I used to take an overhead view and image by plays developing from behind the net in the air (similar to a video game view of the ice). Other players like to visualize from their own perspective, that is, what they would see through their own eyes if standing on the ice.


As Dr. Smith notes, some players use a pre-performance video to help image the performance they want to have. For example, Ron Hextall had a highlight reel video of saves he made that he used to watch before big games to get him in the “zone”. Glen Sather, former coach of the Edmonton Oilers, used a video of the Oilers defeating the Montreal Canadians in the locker room before a final Stanley Cup game.

In Gretzky’s autobiography, he said that the best goal scorers never know the details of the opponent’s goal tender. What they look for when coming in on goal, is open net, whereas, poor goal scorers can tell you the brand of the goalies’ pads and gloves. Poor goal scorers fix their eyes on where the goalie is, instead of where he’s not. Gretzky used imagery techniques to visualize the net covered with brightly colored lights or red ribbons to attract his eye away from the goalie.

Tom Pederson of the San Jose Sharks also used have players focus on the areas of the net the goalie’s natural stance didn’t cover. He would take 26 pucks and lay them across the bottom of the net across the goal line and then stack 48 pucks high and say to players if you look at the area of the net a total of 4,608 pucks can fit in the goals mouth at any one time. Assuming the goalie can cover 2/3rds of the net that still leaves space for 1,536 pucks which a goalie’s stance can’t cover.  Players working with Pederson would visualize those empty spots just as Gretezky would.

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