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How to get more ice time + move up leagues + play any role in hockey (become a Mental Programmer)

Updated: Jul 1

I always imagined being a superstar at every level I played at in hockey.

Yes, I know that sounds funny, but most hockey players can relate.

I envisioned myself scoring tons of goals, dangling, and flying around the ice.

It seemed inevitable that I would eventually get to play that style for the rest of my career.

I wrote it on my walls. I saved it as my background on my phone. I shouted the affirmations in the mirror.

I knew that eventually, I would have a breakout year and then I would start scoring and putting up numbers.

In minor hockey, I dealt with a lot of politics (as many players do).

In my mind, I believed that once the breakout year happened, I would be set for the rest of my career as a superstar offensive player.

So every off-season I would be so excited to start my training plan.

I would have total confidence that this offseason was the year I would transform and I would be an offensive superstar for the rest of my career.

I worked heavily on my skills and worked out to get strong and put on size.

Though as you might have guessed, I didn't just become an offensive weapon on every team for the rest of my career.

What I mean is that I DID get to be that top-end offensive guy on SOME teams, but not on EVERY team.

Instead of just being one type of player, I had to play different styles on different teams.

I had different ROLES on different teams.

You Are Not Mcdavid (And that's OK)

Some outlier players (like Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews for example), get to play a very similar style for most of their careers.

They do evolve, but they are able to maintain a similar offensive archetype their whole careers.

They do have to adjust when they get to the NHL and are not able to completely dominate everyone like they did at lower levels.

Ask any pro, they will tell you that: pro hockey is different from junior and college.

Even consider Nathan Mackinnon...

Even Nathan Mackinnon (who is arguably the best player in the world right now) had to learn to play a bit of a different role when he entered the NHL. He wasn't able to dominate the NHL like he did juniors and it took him a little while to figure it out. You can see this with his stats:

(See stats in 2016-17 vs 2017-18)

He attributes a lot of his success this season to working on his mental game and learning to control his emotions.

Even if you are labelled as "the next one", (like Mackinnon was) you will likely have to learn to adapt your game at some point.

99.9999% of players, eventually reach a point where they will have to change roles.

Think about players like Alexis Lafrenière  

He had to learn to play a far more well-rounded game to earn his spot on the Rangers and now he has worked his way up to being an offensive force again.

Look at all of the previous NHL #1 picks. They almost always eventually have to change their roles and adapt their game.

I am sure you too do not fall into that 0.00001% of players who never really have to change their role.

So it's probably time that you started thinking about how you will do this.

It's probably best if you learn the skill of versatility now so that you do not have to stress about it when the time does come to change roles.

Versatility Is Everything

It seems obvious, but sometimes we forget this.

Players must become very good at adapting their game if they want to succeed and keep moving up levels.

That is why adaptability and versatility are key pillars that I teach all of my clients.

That's why I am teaching these skills heavily in the newest version of the Identity Maximize System (Our career-altering mental, physical, and skill development program). Identity Maximize is the main mental program included in the Next Level Academy.

If you can't change roles, you will not be as valuable as someone who can (all things being equal).

If you take two players with equal abilities and attributes, the player with more versatility will be more likely to succeed at higher levels because he can handle changing roles with ease.

This doesn't mean you have to change your skills and your Identity as a player. It just means that you must learn to use your skills effectively and adjust your mental software to the role your team needs you to play at that time.

This offseason, it is imperative that you learn to be able to do this.

Learning to do this is mostly about your mind, not as much about your skills and abilities.

Moving To New Teams

On some teams/levels, your job will be to play high-risk, high-offence hockey.

On other teams/levels, your job will be to play a safer more defensive game.

To make it even more complex, there will be points in each season where a teammate might get hurt, or someone is underperforming or overperforming. You might get moved up the line up or down the lineup.

To be a successful hockey player you need to be versatile.

For much of my career, I was angry that I had to keep changing roles.

I would constantly resent my coaches for limiting me, or for confusing me.

I thought that it was unusual to always be changing roles.

Turns out it's very common. Most players change roles dozens of times throughout the season.

In most games, players have to shift from offensive to defensive styles in order to tie a game or protect a lead.

Instead of getting angry about constantly shifting roles, I could have taken pride in it.

I could have stayed positive and learned to enjoy playing new roles because eventually, this would become important at the higher levels.

I didn't understand how important this REALLY was until I spent the last 3 years working with players from:

  • AAA & Prep Schools - (GTHL, CSHHL, PHL, Minnesota High School League, and more)


  • College Hockey - (NCAA D1, NCAA D3)

  • Professional Hockey - (ECHL, Sweden D2)

  • Speaking with players/coaches/scouts at the AHL/NHL level.

Spending hundreds of hours with these players and people really taught me that:

Once a player has the skill set to play in a league, 80%+ of his development becomes all about his mental software and how he learns to play his unique style within the context of his Team Role.

The Challenge Of Limited Roles

Players often have a hard time changing roles.

From my experience, I had a hard time because it made me very angry.

I hated it because I always felt like it was a personal attack on me and my playing career. It seemed like changing roles meant it was taking away from who I was as a player and my Identity.

But what I didn't realize is that changing roles was a skill I was actually developing and getting really good at.

I believed that by playing a role, I was limiting my Identity. Looking back this was a very limiting and unhelpful belief.

Just because you play a more limited role, doesn't me that is who you are.

Do not limit yourself mentally that you can only be one role, but understand what your current role is.

"Know your role, and stretch your label." - Darryl Belfry

That way you can be given an expanded role later on.

But how do you actually do these things?

What does it look like to train your role or train to stretch your label?

What Does It Mean To Change Roles?

So first off we must understand what it means to change your role.

Put simply: changing roles means changing what is expected of you as a player. This could mean:

  • Playing a different position

  • Playing a different line

  • Playing more or less minutes

  • Being expected to be more offensive or defensive

  • Being expected to be higher or lower risk

  • And several more details we will break down later

Changing roles is really an altering of your mental software.

It's about changing how you see yourself (Self Image Software) and altering your decision-making preferences (Decision-Making Software) to align with what your coach needs from you at that current time.

This means you cannot be attached to a certain role, or you will struggle to adapt to the rapidly changing hockey environment.

Most players focus too much on trying to refine and limit their Identity Software, but if you want to be versatile, then you must learn to expand your Identity Software while maintaining the things that make you unique.

Yes, I know that this is a little confusing, but it's very important to understand these details as you move from junior to college to pro.

Now when it comes to making these changes, you have the physical training and then the mental training.

Why It's Hard To Train Your Role In Physical Practice Alone…

So we all know that the key to getting better is doing the reps. This is so well known, that it seems silly to say at times. But it's true.

Confidence comes most strongly from the memory bank of proof that you have done the thing you want to do now.

Having done it before means your Mental Software has wired itself to do it again.

The more times you have done it, the more deeply wired it is.

It's hard to be confident in something you have never done before because you likely don't have the Mental Software installed to do it.

So if you can go practice the things required for your role, then that will have a major impact.

For example, if your coach needs you to get really good at zone entries and hitting the 4th man trailing in, then doing more of these reps in practice will likely make you better at them.

But the problem is that when you are not good at something, trying to do it "right" in practice is very difficult. You are going into practice trying to consciously alter a Mental Pattern. It's difficult.

You have to consciously instruct yourself to do something different that is wired into your mind currently. You have to use the voice in your head to override the mental software.

This is a direct flow state blocker.

So what is there to do?

Your best bet it to learn to use mental programming

Mental Programming

As we talked about in our last letter, our brain is really a collection of If-Then Statements.

If this happens → Then I do that

We call these Neurolinks (I learned this concept from Jason Yee from Train 2.0 originally, then from Tony Robins, then from computer programmers)

We call them Neurolinks because your brain is made up of neurons and when these neurons send signals to each other they create our thoughts, emotions, and actions.

Neurons "link" together to send signals to each other. So when we form a new pattern in our mind I like to call it a Neurolink.

When neurons fire together, they wire together using something called Myelin. Myelin is basically like shin pad tape that is wrapped around the neurons and it makes the neurons fire faster, more powerfully, and more accurately.

The myelination of neurons leads to more likelihood that we feel, think, or do those things again. And when we do them, we do them with more strength, accuracy, power, and fluidity.

My Theory Of Mental Programming

It is my theory that instead of going straight on the ice and trying to figure something out, I believe it makes sense to Program your Mental Software before you step on the ice.

I don't think this is a replacement for on-ice work, but rather preparation for it.

Everyone is looking for an edge, and I think this is an effective technique.

I think this will be a common protocol for NHL players in the next 5-10 years.

Say that your coach tells you that he needs you to play a more physical game this weekend.

I believe that a player should have a Mental Programming Protocol that consists of various Software Programming techniques.

These techniques will help him prepare deeply for this newly assigned Role.

Think about how much more prepared that player will be if he has programmed his emotions, thoughts, decisions to perform just how he wants. Then he steps into that first practice ready to roll.

The Mistake With Mental Work

The mistake players usually make when they first try mental work is that they try one technique before a game or practice, then they decide if mental work is for them.

They don't give themselves time to actually master the technique. They might have one bad game after a visualization session, then suddenly they write it off as a waste of time. Or worse, they say mental work hurts their game!

Before you write it off, realize that:

  1. You might not know how to do the technique effectively yet

  2. You might have learned a technique that just isn't right for you

Give mental work a chance. Learn a proper technique. Do it for a month. Then judge how well that technique worked for you. Then play around with other techniques.

If you want to separate from others, you have to find any small edge you can.

And for the 100+ players I have worked with, the mental edge is one of the main things they needed.

So let's learn one of the most basic techniques.

I now am calling it Mental Simulation for the most part, but most people call it Visualization.

Mental Simulation (Visualization)

The most simple Software to focus on is your decision-making software.

The most simple way to program it is through Mental Simulation (Visualization).

That is because if you want to program yourself to make a new decision, you need to either:

  1. Be in that situation more times and make a better decision

  2. Mentally simulate that situation and see yourself doing something else

  3. Watch others in a similar situation and doing what you want to do in that situation

All three of these things are valuable. But it's hard to be in the same game, or game-like situation (practice) hundreds of times.

But you can mentally simulate that game-like situation a thousand times and it is virtually a guarantee that your brain will be wired the way you want to be.

The only problem that could arise would be that you do the wrong simulation that is not accurate to reality.

This is why you must have a proper process in place.

Let me show you how…

Identity Shift Mental Simulation Protocol

Let me show you how I teach the players I work with.

How To Use Visualization To Program Your Mind

Here is how I teach my guys to use visualization:

1) Decide Neurolinks

You learn what decisions you need to make in the games.

These will be based on your role (Line, Position, Archetype)

You will learn this from:

  1. Coaches

  2. Your own reflection

  3. Watching film

  4. Remembering back to the game

2) Place Yourself Mentally In The Situation

You visualize yourself in that situation you want to program. This is the "IF" part of the situation.

Make this very real. You should feel it with all of your senses.

Take your time practicing this.

It will take about 100-300 reps to really get good at making the simulation feel real.

You can get those reps out of the way today.

3) Visualize Your Response

You then visualize yourself doing the things you want to do in response to the situation.

This is the "THEN" part of the equation.

Then your brain feels as though you did that thing.

This in theory wires your mental software to increase the likelihood that you do that thing again.

You will find at first your brain naturally want to go back to your old pattern here.

If you do find the old pattern continuing to come up. Slow the play down to 25% speed.

Really slow it down and see yourself doing it correctly.

Then speed it up to 50%, then 75%, then 100% then 150%, then 200% speed.

This will teach your brain to process things properly, and then quickly. This will make the game feel just a little bit slower.

Darryl Belfry refers to this as the fourth skill speed (Perception of Speed):

"You may already be familiar with Anatoly Tarasov’s concept of the three skill speeds in hockey—speed of hand, speed of skating, and speed of mind. There is also a fourth skill speed—perception of speed. You might be able to skate fast, understand conceptually where you need to be, and have great hands, but what’s really important is the fourth skill speed, your perception of speed. Everyone, when they’re playing, is viewing the game as being played at a certain speed. The perception of that speed for each individual person is different. The top player, for example, sees the game being played at a very slow pace, crystal-clear. The weakest player on the ice feels like it’s going 90 miles an hour, in a blur. The game is going the speed that it’s going, but the perception of speed is different for each player, and that’s why that’s an important skill speed to continue to develop. I don’t know that we do enough development as it relates to skill speed." - Darryl Belfry (Belfry Hockey)

That is again why I believe Mental Simulation matters because it will teach you to process the game in your mind at various speeds as you develop the skills of actual simulation the game in your mind.

4) Practice Your New Neurolinks (Real Life Simulation)

Now that you have Mentally Simulated the plays, it's time to simulate them in real life.

You now are going into practice with upgraded mental software.

You now get to test your software to see how it holds up in practice.

You may make mistakes as your brain calibrates to any differences between the mental simulation and the practice simulation (practices simulate a real game).

But It will learn faster compared to not doing the Mental Simulations.

5) Play Games

Now take what you have built into your Mental Software (through Mental Simulations and Practice), it's time to truly test the software.

Most players feel nervous before games.

But if instead you view it as a time to test your ability, see what you are capable of, and learn from - the game becomes a lot less scary.

Instead, the game becomes something to be excited about!

6) Collecting Feedback

In practice and games, you get feedback from the real world which tells you how accurate your Mental Simulations were.

This feedback will then alter the way you do your Mental Simulations.

Making your Simulations more valuable. You are upgrading your ability to Mentally Simulate.

You are now beginning to gain more and more control over your abilities.

7) Repeating The Process

Now here is the most important step - you go back to step one and repeat this process for the rest of your career.

This process is only valuable if it is repeated.

Each time you repeat this process you get a little better.

And you get a little bit better at getting better.

It creates a positive spiral up.

Think about where this process could take you in 2 years, 5 years, 10 years from now.

The Mindset Of A Programmer

If you follow the Programming Method I laid out above, there is no doubt you will get so much better than players who just show up to practice and training sessions and hope to be prepared.

You can think of visualization as preparation for practice. It's a way to get ahead of the learning curve.

I believe that more and more pro teams will begin to use the Mental Programming Approach in the coming years as new research comes out showing how powerful this work is.

When a player is given a new role, he will be assigned a Programming Protocol to prepare him for his new role.

After each game players will be given new Programming Protocols to have them make better plays in the next games.

There is no doubt this is where the game is headed.

I hope to work with a science department soon where we could test out these techniques in more detail.

To me the possibilities are endless when it comes to the mental game.

We are only just tapping into what is possible!

That is all for this Identity Letter!

See you at the next level,


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Who is Corson Searles?

I am a former player & mental/performance advisor for AAA, junior, college, and pro hockey players. I am obsessed with dissecting atheletic performance potential, lifestyle design, and hockey development.


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