The Sharks and Red Wings battled in a Game 7 in Round 2. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Time is running out fast. If your team doesn’t win the game, you’re done, eliminated. The skills you have mastered, such as passing the puck, shooting at the net, being in the right position at the right time, anticipating the opponent - all those “little things” you normally do with ease are suddenly much more difficult to do. Why? You are experiencing the effects of time pressure.
Every action on the ice takes place in a specific context. These actions or movements exist in relation to the manner in which your brain analyzes the environment. When time pressure builds up, you are still a hockey player skating on the ice trying to win. On the ice, nothing has changed. But in your brain, it’s a completely different world. You’re not only playing to win, you’re playing not to be eliminated and you must win before the end of this seventh game. Things have changed. Your brain feels time pressure. Instead of staying focused on mastering your game, you try to accomplish everything faster because time is slipping away.
Obviously, time passes at the same rate (60 seconds per minute), but in your brain, time goes by much more quickly; you’re facing the relativity of time. Since your brain perceives everything as moving faster, you will move faster. In this case, faster doesn’t mean better, because in this context, you’re losing your coordination, precision and ability to analyze the game. You make more and more mistakes, so pressure increases exponentially. You don’t master anything anymore. You’re moving on the ice and your only purpose is to get rid of the pressure. You don’t do what is necessary to win anymore.
Worst of all, your brain starts to lose its ability to analyze the situation from an overall perspective. It now focuses on insignificant details, which suddenly become the focus of your actions. For some players, negative emotions get so intense that all their attention is focused on trying to forget about them or to make them fade away. Such demands are unsustainable for your brain.
Your body may be on the ice, but your brain isn’t quite there with you. Can you regain “consciousness” when you’re in this kind of trouble? The answer is yes, if you can mentally separate your actions from time pressure. Before the game, a plan must be clearly set, the pace well-defined, the purpose of each action properly explained, etc., and all this in a context where the players set the pace. If you think of doing all this to avoid losing the game at the end of the third period, time pressure will take over your brain and you will lose.
Events on the ice happen fast, you can’t change that, but your brain must stay calm, focused on taking the right actions at the right moment, without the influence of the time running low. Even though victory is won in real time (60 seconds per minute), the subjective experience of time (time pressure) must never take control of your brain.
Dr. Denis Boucher holds a Ph.D. degree in experimental medicine. He manages an exercise physiology laboratory in Quebec and a human performance consulting company in the United States. He has conducted the pre-season on-ice fitness evaluation program for the Philadelphia Flyers. His clinical expertise is in the fields of exercise physiology, nutrition and sport performance. He currently hosts and produces a weekly radio show on XM172 entitled ‘The Little Scientific World of Doc Boucher’ (in French). He will blog for THN.com throughout the season.