In the sport of hockey, the nightmare scenario is to be down by 2 goals in the third period of a gold-medal game against an opponent that seems to have your number. That’s what the Canadian Junior Men’s Hockey team faced this past weekend in in Ostrava, Czech Republic.

After a crushing 6-0 loss to Russia in the round-robin, the team found themselves facing their top rival once again in the gold-medal game – and they found themselves losing by a score of 3-1 with just minutes left on the clock. Then, in the face of tremendous pressure, Team Canada roared back to score 3 goals in 7 minutes to win the game.

While this kind of outcome involves tremendous skill and some element of luck, it is also reflective of Hockey Canada’s deliberate efforts through its “Program of Excellence” to prepare Canadian players and coaches for success.

Great coaches prepare to be their best under any circumstance

While many factors contribute to a team’s performance, effective and intentional coaching can make all the difference in critical moments. And it all starts with preparation.

This past June, we had the privilege of working with the coaching staff of all the men’s national teams at Hockey Canada’s “Coaches Seminar” weekend. The coaching staff participated in many activities to take their skills to the next level, including two sessions that we ran: one on self-awareness and self-management under pressure; and one on harnessing emotion and imagination. While these two skill sets are always useful, they are particularly important – and hard to execute – when the stakes are high and things aren’t going your way.

Access the right skills when pressure mounts

Coaching is not about doing everything right, it’s about doing the right things. Following the game, head coach Dale Hunter spoke to TSN’s Tessa Bonhomme about what he focused upon in critical moments during the game when emotions were running high. While his words were brief, Hunter demonstrated a few of the key skills he was able to use during those moments – skills we believe are relevant to any leader guiding a team in the face of pressure:

1. Acknowledge and embrace negative emotion

One can imagine the emotions young players are having when they’re down 3-1 in a gold medal game and feeling like they are about to let down their country. Doubt, frustration, despair – these can all create a toxic cocktail that can lead a team to fall apart.

In the interview, Hunter says he acknowledged the pressure and openly accepted that a group of young players are going to make mistakes. By acknowledging his team’s emotional state and helping them to reframe it, he guided them to use their negative emotions as fuel for performance. Rather than giving in, the team chose to rise to the challenge.

2. Maintain clear line of sight to the team’s shared purpose

When you have a team of stars, it can be hard to get some of them to embrace roles they are not accustomed to playing. The way to manage this tension is by keeping the team focused on the “why” behind the achievement they are pursuing. In the case of this group of young athletes Hunter says, “they all want it for the fans; for the people of Canada.”

“They all want it for the fans.”

Part of what we teach in our resilience programs is that teams do their best work when they choose to connect it to something that’s important to them. By keeping the team reminded of their shared purpose – to win a gold medal for the people of Canada – Hunter was able to keep his team aligned and committed to their respective roles even in those frustrating moments when the hard work was not yielding tangible results.

3. Ensure clarity, competence and recognition

When the pressure is on, it is easy for performers to become unfocused, thinking about negative outcomes or trying to do too much.  Hunter says he told his team to keep going and reminded them that good things would happen if they kept working. This attitude demonstrates three skills at the heart of our coaching model: clarity, competence and recognition. Through his simple reminder, Hunter provided his team with clarity on what was expected of them, acknowledged their competence to complete the task, and by saying “keep working,” reinforced that the coaching staff could see the high levels of effort being put forth by the team.

From the world stage to your desk

Dale Hunter and his team gave us a high-profile demonstration of what these coaching skills look like in action, but these skills are applicable in any coaching situation. Whatever your environment may be, you can get the best out of your people in difficult times by focusing on “the right things” – acknowledging and reframing negative emotions, keeping your team motivated around their shared purpose, and providing your team with the clarity, competence and recognition they need.

What’s not visible in this example is the years of experience, training and personal preparation that allowed this coaching staff to perform under pressure – these skills did not come about by accident. In your situation, the best way to build these skills is to practice them every day. Make them part of your routine, and you’ll be better prepared to lead when things aren’t going your way.