Kassi Abbott — Confidence, Composure, and Focus — The holistic mental and physical approach to an athlete’s identity
Whenever Kassi Abbott lets a goal past her, she smiles — beams, even — at the changing scoreboard in front of her.
“The other teams probably thought I was crazy, smiling at the scoreboard like that,” Abbott said, “but it helped me shrug off the goals and maintain the focus I needed to stay in the game.” The technique was one of many that the SUNY Plattsburgh netminder adopted as the result of a career long journey toward confidence between the pipes.
Besides, it’s not like she had to use that technique often. Abbott boasted a stalwart average .950 save percentage this past season for the Cardinals, earning her the second all time NCAA D3 record and a write-up as one of Sports Illustrated’s “Faces in the Crowd”. She also carried her team to their third national championship in three years, thanks to a 29-save performance in the shutout 4–0 victory over Hamline College. Abbott saved an unprecedented 47 pucks the year prior against Hamline in a 5–4 overtime loss for the 3rd place title.
Many know her for her accolades and the brick-wall-esque presence she carries herself with in the crease — but few know the path it took to get there. How does a college student gain such a wise outlook on her mental game — and how did it affect her play so drastically? It started with Abbott herself, and her own desire to get better as she segued into her role as one of Plattsburgh’s starting goalies her junior year. But her hockey story, and the formation of her Mental IQ and identity as a player, begins much earlier.
At 13, Abbott earned the starting position in net for her local high school’s varsity team. Even at that young age, she was stopping pucks from girls much bigger and stronger, five or six years her senior, and girls who went on to play college hockey at storied programs. She was still a standout net-minder and was increasingly noticed for her abilities.
But goaltending is tough on the brain. Kassi shared that letting in a goal, even during practice, shook her entire identity as an athlete. “I would a puck get past me, and then another one, and just think, ‘I’m terrible.” She also shared that her body language slumped instantly, and you could see how dejected she felt about the goal — that’s where the smiling at the scoreboard comes in. It counteracts that.
So yes, goaltending is tough on the brain — especially considering that Abbott sacrificed a lot for hockey. She forgoed the typical high school experience for daily practice sessions and online high school. It’s a lot of pressure for an athlete to perform when this is expected of them.
In Abbott’s senior year, her psychology professor approached her with the idea for a thesis on the mental side of athletics. Abbott found the definition of mental toughness in 151 different articles during her last season of her career. “What I found was that each athlete as a person is defined by different levels of confidence, of intensity, and most importantly of that spark that passion that each and every athlete has.” The intersection of all three of those, Kassi explains, is the confidence in her identity as a goaltender that she discovered throughout her career. “If you don’t have confidence, you’re gonna crumble in the bucket.” When she says this, I’m reminded of her comments about her body language earlier in her career. “If you don’t have intensity, your players and coaches won’t trust you with the important job of goaltending. And if you don’t have that spark, that passion for the game — I don’t know why you started playing sports in the first place.”
But the most important thing Abbott learned during that study was that your mental game is unique to each person. Mental toughness is defined by your own experience with those three traits. Your identity as an athlete is intrinsic to those and your performance improves once you discover that confidence, find that clarity, and are reminded of that drive to play that made you pick up the skates that many years ago. Abbott’s road to locating her own athletic identity was reached at the intersection of the best season of her life and one of the best academic pursuits of her life.
For Abbott’s journey, she trained her focus by staring at a wall for 60 seconds, journaling, and visualization of a successful performance to boost her game.
“I realized that when I didn’t visualize myself being successful, there was no way I could be successful.”
The accolades, long deserved, came pouring in for Abbott in her last season in net. I’m sure many have read about her before this moment. The story you haven’t heard, however, is the mental and physical training Abbott did to prepare herself for that moment. If you haven’t believed that her incredible mental perspective toward her game helped her career, here’s your proof:
“I actually was diagnosed with a career ending injury before the season even began,” she says. “I got a second opinion, and was able to hold on until the very end of the year.” Even when Abbott’s body was shutting down, her heart was still there, and her mind was still there.
When she reclaimed her identity as an athlete, she had a life-changing season. She left it all on the ice.