As athletes we’re constantly being put into tough situations, and when it comes to distractions they seem to come in the dozens when we’re facing the biggest contests, and the biggest challenges of our careers. The most common questions I typically receive are, how can we overcome those challenges? How can we deliberately produce a state of flow that puts us in the best situation to be successful on the playing field? Here we’ll break down the steps for hacking flow states to get you into the peak performance zone when you need it.
Ice hockey is an extremely fast sport where acute mental focus is absolutely imperative. I’ve dedicated my entire life to ice hockey goaltending. In pursuit of harnessing the same skills the most elite athletes in the world use, I made it a mission to find the answer to these questions.
The difference between not just amateur’s and pro’s, but also champions and non-champions, is their ability to dial in their focus on the things that are going to help propel them to victory in the right moments.
They know how to block out all the noise to find and create flow in their game. It’s all about keeping their mind locked in on the contest, and on the next task in front of them.
I never really knew what being in the moment meant until I had an opportunity to make it on the national stage during the Canadian Junior A National Championship tournament (RBC Cup). With the stakes incredibly high, I realized that being in the moment meant having to ignore the pressure, put my mind in a reactive state, and be focused on the here and now. Most importantly, not to be caught up either in the future or the past.
Now what exactly does that entail? Well, I always like to say the outcome of contests in sport are never predetermined, despite what your odds might look like on paper. And typically, past results are not necessarily indicative of future results. Put simply, it means to liberate your mind from living in the future or the past, to bring it to what’s happening here and now, and getting on with the mission at hand.
You have to trust that you’re prepared to make the right play, and the right decision, in those moments where the outcome of the contest are on the line. But how exactly can we deliberately attempt to bring our mind to the present, instead of being caught up in the future or the past?
All too often athletes can get themselves worked up and over anxious about upcoming contests. This is natural, because obviously we all want to be successful and rise to the challenge when those big moments come. Maybe your playoffs are coming up, you have a championship game, or you have some scouts or coaches, whether amateur or pro, coming to evaluate you.
It doesn’t matter where or when the contests take place. For different people, big contests come at different points. However, the reason we go wrong is because we typically change our approach, both mentally and physically. This is due to trying to compensate for the pressure, when in reality, this idea leads us down the wrong road.
I’ve learned to realize that if we can break the contest and the journey down into bite size amounts, try to win the little battles as often as possible, a little bit of good typically adds up to greatness over the length of the ride.
Having heard this cliché my entire career, I was never actually able to articulate what it meant. That was until the biggest challenge of my life was right in front of me. How was I going to do something I’ve never done - win a league, regional and national championship?
Well I realized that the answer simply lies within this question - how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.
It sounds basic. Yet, when I was faced with the biggest challenge of my career, that’s the mentality which literally helped me break through, overcome the uncertainty, and traverse terrain I’d never been before. I needed to focus on just each step along the way, each rep along the way, and just doing each one as best I could. Again, not worrying about the past, or the future result.
What’s the simplest way to overcome the biggest challenges you face in your career? It’s simply to focus on doing your next rep as best you can. Then, just rinse and repeat as many times as the contest or journey requires. You stay in this mindset until you get what you want, until you become a champion.
If your mind isn’t focused on the here and now when the pressure is truly on, and if you’re too busy caught up in the future or the past, your mind isn’t present in the moment. It isn’t ready to make the right read.
This means you aren’t ready to make the right play, or ready to make the right decision in those dire split seconds when the entire contest is on the line. When we break down our contests or journeys into small bites, and just focus on winning that next small battle in front of us, we typically get lost in the process. This is because all we’re thinking about is making the right play next. This is what flow is all about, getting consumed in moment to moment experiences.
Whether we temporarily falter, or we are on a roll, the mental repetition in your head never changes, and it allows us to find consistency. It allows us to find flow in our game. This way we’re zoned in on only the task at hand, instead of being misled by distractions that take us away from doing our job to our best ability.
So knowing what we know now, how can we deliberately create a state of flow where we’re in a reactive state for each challenge at hand? The answer is to utilize the theory of mindfulness, learning how to thrive in the moment. And the way we’re able to deliberately center our focus and bring ourselves to the present, is to simply by just focusing on one chunk of experience at a time, and doing that next rep as best as you can.
Once you execute a rep on the playing field, move your mind to the next rep that’s inevitably going to come your way. How are you going to execute that rep? How are you going to fool your opponent? What exactly is he doing where you can take advantage of his inefficiency?
The only thing going through your mind should be what your potential next move is. It might sound Zen, but go with the flow and trust your training and instincts.
When we center our attention, it effectively puts us in creative solution-based mindset, ready to come up with answers regardless of the challenges that come our way.
Uncertainty in sports can be crippling for some people. In contrast, I’ve found that breaking performance down, step by step, can help you overcome some of the biggest challenges of your career. All you need to do is deliberately work toward bringing your mind into the moment, no matter what challenge you face.
As a goalie, it doesn’t matter whether you need to make 20 or 80 saves, or land 20 or 100 punches, all your mind is doing is executing that next rep to the best of your ability. You’re not worrying about any other variables, again, just executing the next rep in front of you as best you can.
If we can manage to be present in each moment throughout a competition, that mentality is what sets us up for success and puts us in a situation where we’re much more likely to succeed. The outcome of contests can sometimes come down to just a few miscues. But if you’re focused on the here and now, you have a powerful mindset to avoid the pitfalls of distraction and pressure. This is what puts us into a natural winning mindset, no matter what it takes to win.
Mike is an active professional ice hockey goalie, having played AAA, New England Prep, the USHL, BCHL, NCAA D1, ECHL, SPHL, & the FHL. He has won several championships and awards over a 20-year career. He is also the founder of Goalie Hacks – a podcast dedicated to sharing the best tips, hacks, and strategies that the goaltending realm has to offer.
Enjoyed this? Then look out for more upcoming Experts Corner blogs from Mike coming soon!
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