John Russo

Pre-game player preparation

By John Russo

Let’s Play Hockey Columnist

Overall, one of the most poorly aspects of games that I see in the Upper Midwest is pre-game preparation by the players. I am reminded of this each year when the Upper Midwest High School Elite League starts up – and the Shattuck-St. Mary’s team comes to play. They spend at least a half hour before dressing getting physically and mentally prepared to do their best. The results are often obvious, in that they often take a one- or two-goal lead in the first five minutes of their games.

First of all, however, I want to make certain we understand that pre-game preparation for a Squirt should be very different than for a high school player. While the ingredients are pretty much the same, the level of intensity will be much different. The following are good ingredients to deal with; ingredients that the coaches need to help players with.


Equipment Preparation: This involves reminding the players (often) to make certain that their equipment is in good condition and ready to go before getting to the arena. Some of the check-off items are:

- Skates sharp (no last minute, hurry-up sharpening).

- Good, sound laces that can’t break at the wrong time. Good laces also keep the skates better tightened and more stable as well.

- Stick in good shape; and a spare available; each properly taped. Sticks not too long or short.

- Helmets are OK; screws, pads, etc.

- All other equipment is ok – and in the bag.


Physical Preparation: It includes getting the body ready to play by exercising and getting the heart rate up and muscles limber before going on the ice.

For a Squirt or prepubescent youngster, stretching and the like is important but not nearly as important as for mature youngsters. Once through puberty, the muscles grow faster and larger ­– and are much more subject to injury (both hit related and so called “pull” related). The older players need to do exercises or activities that give their muscles a chance to stretch and warm up fairly slowly (increase the heart rate and blood flow).

Some teams and players use soccer balls or other feet related items such as hacky sacks to play games. Some players like to use a stickhandling ball and warm up with a teammate or two.

Anything that gets the body moving, stretching, sweating, is good. I personally don’t like the hockey on-ice warm-up, as it is done for high school and above because it involves warm-up, then a 15-20 delay for resurfacing, introductions, anthem, etc. This 15-20 minutes allows the players to cool down and lose much of the benefit of the warm-ups. 

In the Elite League, we have always warmed up then started the game immediately. The affect on the ice quality late in the first period is minimal — and the players have a much better chance of avoiding early game injuries. In tournaments, playoffs, etc. (where no JV game is prior), teams could also save $40 or $50 per game by not resurfacing after warm-ups. 

A good pre-game off-ice warm-up might include the following (over a 20-30 minute period). The group activities should be run by the captains with an assistant coach keeping an eye on the process.

- A 3-4 minute jog to get the heart rate up a little.

- A few sprints up the bleachers or outside to continue heart rate increase and get the blood moving.

- Some static stretching, but not too extensive as I believe too extensive static stretching can cause injuries. Moving stretches or just light exercise is the best way to stretch.

- Soccer, shinny hockey or other games to get everybody moving.

- A light static stretch at the end.

- Some “private” time.

This should be done literally up to 10-15 minutes before going on the ice.

Players may also have some personal things that they like to do to physically get ready. This might be especially true for goaltenders.

Coaches should also check the dressing room to make certain that it is warm enough (but not “steamy”) to keep everybody comfortable after the pre-dress off-ice warm-ups.


Mental Preparation: Coaches should help their team players get into good pre-game mental preparation routines. They need to understand that all players are different when it comes to mental prep. It is seldom worthwhile to try to “fire up” the whole team like often seen in football. Most players are overly geared up and need to have time to “gather themselves” prior to games. 

The tail end of the physical warm-up should (as noted) include some “private time” that also includes mental/emotional prep.

Then once the players are in the dressing room and dressing (all in by 15 minutes prior to game on-ice), the coach needs to require everybody to be fully dressed and set, approximately 5-7 minutes before game on-ice. This is when the coach can go over last minute details for the game (primary details should have been handled at the previous practice), then take 3-4 minutes to prepare the players mentally/emotionally.

I like to do visualizations prior to the on-ice, with the lights out, but that is not the only way by any means. This is a time when the coach can go over the positive aspects of each position’s play and ask the players to visualize themselves doing very well, performing their tasks the way they want to, being successful. This is also a time to review the overall goals for the game – in 3-4 categories, both offensive and defensive. Winning is only one of the (overall) goals. Playing well is even more important – and will result in winning if done properly.

Coaches need to remember that half of all teams lose. Pretty easy concept – but in these losses, the coach needs to give the players success measures that can help them keep their confidence up and on track for overall goals.

Of course pre-game prep should never acknowledge losing, but can certainly include other goals and can eliminate negative thinking.

The thing I have always told my teams is that there are only three items a player brings to a game: SKILL, EFFORT AND RESPONSIBILITY (doing your job). Skill can’t be changed for a game, so they can concentrate on the other two. They can choose to try hard and do their jobs or not to.  The result of a hard trying team that does their jobs (actions) is that they will often be successful (outcome). Dwelling on outcome is seldom a good blueprint for players to follow.


John Russo, Ph.D., is founder and director of the Upper Midwest High School Elite League. He was a captain at the University of Wisconsin, and his Coaches Corner columns have appeared in LPH since 1986.