Precompetitive Preparations in Professional Hockey

Article excerpt

Sport at the professional level may be stressful intense, emotional, and physically demanding on the players. Coaches and players are constantly searching for new ideas and strategies that are effective in generating optimal readiness in every sense. The hours immediately prior to the competition are critical to determine a player's physical and psychological readiness. How a player engages his cognitions, emotions, and behavior at this time could be the difference between success and failure. Precompetitive preparations are both physical and psychological in nature. Psychological preparation is becoming increasingly important particularly at the elite level, where athletes possess similar physical skills and the difference between winning and losing is perhaps embedded in the behavioral efficiency of the athlete. Psychological preparation requires an athlete to utilize skills such as concentration, focusing and refocusing, arousal control, relaxation, goal setting, positive thinking, and calming the mind before competition occurs.

An athlete may carry out pregame rituals inclusive of psychological skills while preparing for competition. Despite media attention and the widespread belief in the prevalence of ritualistic behavior in sport, little empirical attention has been focused on this area. Most research has concentrated on superstitions in general, and even classified ritual as superstitious behavior (Becker, 1975; Buhrmann, Brown, & Zaugg, 1982; Gmetch, 1972; Gregory, 1979; Gregory & Petrie, 1975; Neil, 1975, 1982; Neil, Anderson, & Sheppard, 1981).

Much of the research to date investigates "sport as ritual" rather than "ritual within sport" (Blanchard, 1988; Cheska, 1981; Harris, 1983; Smith, 1976). Yet athletes do use a variety of pregame rituals that are an important part of their physical and psychological preparation. It would be beneficial for athletes to become more sensitive to the diverse forms pregame rituals can assume and the functions they serve. Athletes can then implement psychological skills as part of their rituals thereby eliminating distractions and allowing for a more focused preparation. Research indicates that the incidence of pregame rituals increases with higher levels of competitive involvement and professional hockey is an example of a sport in which athletes frequently perform pregame rituals (Neil et al., 1981).

Some research studies have focused on superstitious behaviors exhibited and reported by athletes (Buhrmann et al., 1982; Gmetch, 1972; Gregory & Petrie, 1975; Neil et al., 1981). These studies describe in detail, the superstitious beliefs and idiosyncratic behaviors of athletes, and in particular the kinds of rituals, fetishes, and taboos adopted by athletes. However, only a few studies have considered what these behaviors realty mean to an athlete (Dunleavy & Miracle, 1981; Womack, 1979). One reason for this has been the methodological problem facing researchers who wish to study a topic of a personal nature. An athlete's preparations are often private and self-disclosure of these behaviors can be difficult.

On the day of competition coaches aim to have their athletes attain an ideal performance state (I.P.S), a state typically associated with the athletes' peak performance. The I.P.S is the unique psychological state that allows athletes to perform at or near their performance potential. Each athlete needs to discover the conditions under which he or she performs to his or her optimum potential (Cox, 1990). Performance is likely to be enhanced if preparation is repetitious and systematic (Williams, 1986). Pregame rituals are utilized by athletes for many reasons including (a) to focus attention, (b) to organize internal and external stimulus, (c) to isolate oneself from others, (d) to create team cohesion, and (e) to bring good luck. However, Sherman (1988), warns that athletes are vulnerable and the use of rituals can be "nonfunctional. …