Hockey & Emotional Preparation / Management

Bob Dawson

Former black hockey player and contributing sports writer

Emotions and feelings are traits we all share. That’s what makes us human. Generally speaking, they sit at the top of the sports pyramid. Emotions are viewed above such things as motivation, confidence, integrity, and focus because they ultimately dictate how one performs during a competition or game.

One might ask, what are emotions? Simply put, they are mental reactions experienced by human beings to events and situations that are accompanied by physiological and behavioral changes. These changes occur in one’s thinking, reasoning, and perceptions as well as body functions. Moreover, they influence their body to act automatically and unconsciously in a certain way in different circumstances. Because the changes involve cognition and physiology, they also create sensations that one can perceive. Since an individual is perceiving these sensations constantly, they also have feelings when they’re emotional.

Feelings, on the other hand, refer to the conscious perceptions of sensations that are felt in the body. As you might expect, many processes occur in our body that can create sensations leading to feelings. These feelings are how one makes sense of their emotions. Like emotions, feelings are a composite of our experiences and include factors like our behavior, culture, and any traumatic experiences we’ve had.

It should be noted, however, that a person could have unique and strong feelings when they’re experiencing an emotion. Many people often equate feelings with emotions. In reality, feelings are one component of emotions and they occur all the time.

Given the culture of hockey, players, for example, can and do experience many emotions on and off the ice. Based on his research, Robert Vallerand has identified 7 basic emotions experienced by hockey players. They include fear, anger, guilt/embarrassment, surprise, sadness, happiness, and interest. It’s thought that those who are most ready to handle these emotions usually perform well or the best.

To begin with, as a hockey player, one must acknowledge that emotions are powerful, dynamic, situational, and spontaneous.

The most a player can do is to understand and learn how to manage and control their emotions. Given that, two possible approaches come to mind, namely emotional preparation and emotional management.

In the case of emotional preparation, it’s the amount of time one spends looking inward and preparing for when things go wrong. It’s asking oneself “What if I face something unexpected? How will it make me feel? Am I able to effectively understand and control my emotions; recognize, understand, influence, and manage the emotions of others?” The goal is to get one into the right mindset to compete.

It can also involve imagining or visualizing an emotion (e.g., anger, fear) stemming, for example, from a homophobic, racist, or sexist comment or gesture directed at one during a game and mentally rehearsing an appropriate reaction or response. When you know the emotions that could be triggered, you can create awareness and plan how you’re going to react. This can help one compete in a calm and relaxed state.

Focusing, on the here and now, otherwise known as “mindfulness”, is another important tool. One technique is “count breathing” which could become part of a player’s pregame routine. It allows them to bring their attention to the present moment by focusing on counting as they inhale and exhale. When a player is in a mindful state they aren’t worried about what’s going to happen or the mistake they made. They’re fully aware of what’s going on right now and that’s all they’re focused on.

While there are other approaches, one might view the foregoing as a form of “emotional inoculation”, which could improve one’s readiness or response when the real feelings occur. It can be a big help in keeping a player’s emotions in check and functional.

As for emotional management, it’s equally an important consideration due to the demands of hockey. It’s one thing to be emotionally prepared and it’s another thing to be emotionally rested or relaxed to respond effectively. If a player doesn’t process their feelings effectively on and off the ice, it’s easy to get stressed and emotionally drained. This could affect their confidence, mindset, morale, and ultimately on-ice performance and hockey development.

One of the keys here is learning to accept/acknowledge one’s feelings and how to process them rather than let them be a drain on you. Being able to share feelings, having them accepted, and seeking help interpreting them, through a parent, good friend, coach, teammate, hockey administrator, or even a counseling service (e.g., Canadian Sports Helpline) enables a player to process their emotions and channel their energy constructively on the tasks at hand. Taking pride in emotional management can help a player handle, among other things, demanding schedules and stay emotionally healthy.

Also, improving a player’s emotional intelligence, which is the ability to recognize and manage their own emotions and those of others, is essential to handling stress, achieving optimal performance, and enhancing overall well-being. Steps to improve their emotional intelligence include (1) being more self-aware, (2) identifying and reducing emotional triggers, (3) recognizing how others feel, (4) making a choice about how to respond in situations, (5) practicing active listening, (6) communicating, (7) staying positive, (8) empathizing with others, (9) being open-minded, and (10) listening to feedback.

For many players in hockey, the four most basic emotions most often discussed are fear, anger guilt, and embarrassment. Like all emotions, they have their functional value. For example, fear’s function is preparation to avoid or reduce harmful threats, anger appears to be fighting; overcoming or removing obstacles to goal attainment, and guilt discourages behaviors that could threaten one’s ability to get along with others, and embarrassment is to make people feel bad about their mistakes as a form of internal feedback, so that they learn not to repeat the error.

If a player prepares for these emotions and process them well, they are likely to stay functional and enhance their performance. Conversely, if they don’t, it’s easy for them to become dysfunctional in terms of their well-being and performance.

In the sport of hockey, emotional preparation and management can give a player a chance to not only stay healthy but realize their full potential.

Final thoughts

Hockey, as a sport, can provide a positive platform for personal growth and development for those who play the game. In the words of Heywood Broun, Sports do not build character. They reveal it.” When frequent reports appear in the media these days involving racial incidents, we are reminded that hockey can and does bring out the worst in people.

Without a doubt, those who play hockey are passionate about the sport and it generates powerful emotions. Unfortunately, people for one reason or another don’t always control and manage them well. If we all learn and adopt better ways of behaving and functioning, perhaps all involved in the sport and our communities would benefit. For now and going forward, enter the sport of hockey prepared to do your part to make a difference and be part of the change to make the game safer, more equitable, inclusive, and welcoming for all.

Bob Dawson is a former hockey player, diversity management consultant, and senior writer for the Boxscore World Newswire. For additional information, you can visit his website at


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