On to the Mental Side

I spent the majority of Part I of my catharsis addressing what I think are the most important skills for young goalies to focus on in their training. I took a few liberties with announcers and media types, and the response I received from (most) goalies was subdued elation. I think what I wrote resonated with them because our position is fundamentally misunderstood — not all great saves are created equal. But for all the goalies out who took a modicum of pleasure at seeing outsiders get “put on blast,” as the kids say these days, you may not like what’s walking down the slot.

We, the goaltenders’ union, do ourselves a huge disservice with how we mentally approach our position. How can we expect anyone to take us seriously when we’re the most superstitious players around? Why should we expect anyone else to take us seriously when our coaches and teammates look across the locker room and see us in the middle of our superstitious pregame rituals? How many wraps of tape make the knobs on our sticks — 75? Will we have a bad game if there are 76? Why are we adamant that sitting in silence while we dress for the game will have any effect on the outcome? Are we serious when we insist that putting our left skate on before our right is as important to our success as having a good night’s sleep? If we knew a pilot or a surgeon who could only perform after a 10-minute shower, a bagel with peanut butter and an elaborately choreographed handshake with every flight attendant or nurse, would we trust them? Or would we look at them like they had two heads?

In hockey, there’s a myth about our position that says we are weird because we stand in the way of 100-mph slap shots. The last time I checked, penalty killers block those same 100-mph shots too. The only difference is that we goalies wear gear designed specifically to protect from those shots. Using the above logic, penalty killers should also be called weird since they’re less protected. But they’re not weird, and they shouldn’t be considered as such. We aren’t weird because of the dangers of our position. We’re weird because we have to tap each post three times and squirt water down our backs to trick ourselves into believing we’re going play well.

As goalies, we subscribe to superstitions that no one would — or should — take seriously. Patrick Roy used to talk to his posts. I think Patrick Roy would still have been a great goalie even if he kept mum. Braden Holtby, this year’s Vezina Trophy winner as the league’s top goaltender (100% deserving, by the way), would be just as good whether he sprayed his water bottle in the air to get his eyes dialed in or just drank from it. (Emphasis: Not a criticism of Holts and his water droplet tracking. I understand why he does it much more than you do.)

Both of these elite talents adopted their superstitions after playing this game for decades. At some point, a quick comment to the post may have reassured Patrick that he had an ally behind him. I know that Holt’s habitual sprays of water help to reassure him that his on-ice vision and tracking is sharp. Both of these guys are phenomenal goaltenders, and my argument, which I hope is complimentary to both guys, is that I believe they would be still be phenomenal goalies without these habits. They are great despite their idiosyncrasies.

It’s not my place to tell them that these actions don’t make them better goalies. It is my self-appointed job to tell you that neither you nor I are Patrick Roy or Braden Holtby. Braden didn’t see Felix Potvin spray water and say to himself, “The best way for me to be as good as The Cat is to spray my water too.” No. Braden created something for himself that works for him. You spraying your water will not, I cannot stress this enough — will not — make you as good as him.

Routines are helpful and beneficial for all athletes. But a routine is one thing and a superstition is another beast entirely. If I can make a change to my routine without it causing anxiety about my performance, then it’s still a routine and not a superstition. If I change something and the change puts me in a fragile mental space, I’m in trouble before the puck has even touched the ice. I will subtly make changes to my routine so I can control the alterations and still have the benefits of a warm-up and stretch. By making changes, I am not stuck in a “I have to do Exercise X or I’ll mentally be behind the eight ball.”

Superstitions are in no way helpful to our performance. The absolute best outcome that can result from adhering to a superstition is that we feel normal. I view superstition like I view an addiction to cigarettes. Nicotine addiction is different from almost all other addictions because the addict is perpetually eliminating the withdrawal symptoms. Smokers don’t attain the same high as when they first started smoking.

Mentally, superstitions are the same. Superstitions only relieve the anxiety of not adhering to the superstition — a self-perpetuating cycle. We’ll never be better goalies because of a superstition; we’ll only trick ourselves into thinking that we’re not worse.

No matter how dependent we are upon superstition, we either have the skill or we don’t. If you can play, you can play.

(I’ve written for a few hours already and haven’t even talked about actually playing a game. Superstitions are an epidemic, a scourge on our position and athletes in general, but I digress.)

Many young goalies, and often their advisors, judge their success based on wins, losses and goals-against. When a goalie recognizes that she’s not going to get a shutout every game — and that the outcome of the game has less to do with her than she’s been led to believe — a weight is lifted off her shoulders, which actually allows her to play and develop. I’ve played some amazing games and lost. I’ve also played some horrific games and won.

The mental approach I’ve found that is the most levelheaded and consistent is not a pressure packed, “I have to steal this game for the team.” Rather, it’s an approach that recognizes that the goalie is one part of a larger machine. Our job is to stop the shots we’re expected to stop, and to try our damnedest to stop a couple more. We should put pressure on ourselves only to give our team a chance to win. We can’t control how many goals our teammates will score. We can’t control how many chances we will face. All we can control is what we do to try to stop each chance that does come our way (with the understanding that we probably won’t stop them all, but that we’re going to try as hard as we can to stop them all.) These are some of concepts that I keep in mind on the day of a game:

I probably won’t get a shutout, but I’m going to try my hardest anyway.

What can I control? What can’t I control? Only worry about the answers to the first question.

Give the team a chance to win.

The things we tell ourselves — and how we tell ourselves — are important to address, as well. (I’m talking about in our own heads, not to the posts. Sorry, Patrick.) My approach — which isn’t right or wrong — is to take three things that I can control that will help me stop a puck and run through a little mental checklist before periods and during TV timeouts. It’s similar to what most people do before a tee shot in golf. I limit my list to three points so that it’s easy and manageable. I keep all of my points worded in an affirmative way, e.g., “Watch the puck,” not, “Don’t lose sight of the puck.” (Plus, I don’t think our subconscious can tell the difference between “don’t lose sight of the puck” and “lose sight of the puck.”) I also make sure that my list includes things that will, verifiably, help me stop the puck. In Montreal, my checklist (which was always being revisited and revised) was:

  1. Red line, blue line. Shorthand for, I need to be out of my net at an appropriate distance when the puck crosses the red line then be in my stance when it crosses the blue line
  2. Top of the crease. A reminder not to fade backward into my net, creating space for the shooter to aim at
  3. Watch the puck. A catchall phrase that encompasses all my visual and puck-tracking cues

Again, these work for me. I created these points for me. They are not for you to use. These points will not help you guys like they help me. It’s up to you to figure out what’s consistent in your game to help you win. Your points should be affirmatively worded, they should be about things that you can control and should only have to do with things that happen before a play is developing. By the time the puck is dropped, we should no longer be thinking because our brains are busy taking in information, and anticipating and reacting accordingly.

Once the play is live, the real fun begins.

If I were to design the perfect mental skill-set for a goalie to have, it would be a mix of the talents of an All-Star hitter in baseball and a safety in football.

The best goalies in the world read shots like the best hitters in baseball read pitches. Even before the ball has left the pitcher’s hand, a great hitter recognizes the nuances of the windup and delivery, allowing him to transfer his weight and coil his body to explode through the ball. Goalies need to have that same ability when facing a shot.

Reaction time commonly refers to how much time a goalie has to move to stop a shot, starting with when the puck leaves the shooter’s stick until it gets to the goalie. If that’s the definition we’re using, then reaction time is a useless term to me. If you’re “reacting” after the puck leaves the shooter’s stick, you’re toast. The best goalies at reading releases are “reacting” as the shot is leaving the blade of the stick based on the tiny bits of information they have gleaned from the shooter’s setup, motions and the overall play.

Reading a release is the hardest part of a our job. We’re trying to gather as much information about the final destination of the shot based only on what we see from the shooter before he shoots. Is he a righty or a lefty? Is he on his front foot or back foot? Are his hands together or is his bottom hand lower down the stick? Are his shoulders and hips opened up or closed? What kind of shot is coming: wristshot, snapshot, slapshot or backhand? Is the puck in front of the shooter or to the side?

You can tell when a goalie has gotten a good read on a release because the save is usually followed by, “Oh man, she shot it right into her glove!” While technically true, the shooter didn’t have a choice about shooting into the glove or not. The shooter had already decided where her target was. She had a mental spark when she saw some room above the pad on the goalie’s glove side. That idea turned from a chemical reaction in the brain to a physical action. But the physical action takes time, coordination and movement — all things that are read by the goalie. By the time the puck has left the shooter’s stick, the goalie has already read low glove and is either in position or on her way to being in position. All this happens in only a couple hundred milliseconds — far too quick for any conscious thoughts to happen. The save feels like an automatic or instinctive response, like pulling your hand away from a hot surface or swatting at a mosquito that buzzes in ear.

(If any shooters out there are looking for a scoring edge, deception is the key. Look glove and shoot blocker. Look high and roll your wrists over to shoot low. Minimize the movements you need to make in order to get your shot off. Goalies are reacting to what you’re showing them. A big windup won’t help you blow one by the goalie if you’re telegraphing where you’re shooting. A quick, deceitful shot beats a long, heavy shot all day long. Think Joe Sakic, not Al Iafrate.)

So how does a goalie have to be like an NFL safety? Well, to compound the difficulty of reading shot-releases, players do these annoying things called skating and passing. Being able to read a play is imperative for goalies. Safeties in football have to make reads off their teammates and the other team’s offense. Reading a quarterback’s eyes and body language, maintaining a position that is a visual deterrent for the QB, not biting on pump-fakes or play-action, and confidently making tackles once the play is made are the hallmarks of a great safety. When safeties blow coverage, it’s a quick six points on the board. We, as goalies, have a similarly narrow margin for error. A blunder is tough to recover from.

Reading plays in both sports is made harder because of the speed at which plays develop. A defensive-zone turnover in hockey puts us goalies on red alert because of the unpredictability of the turnover and the offence’s urgency to convert the turnover before the defenders can get back into position. An odd-man rush, like a two-on-one, is extremely difficult to handle because we can’t commit to one player without sacrificing any hope of stopping the other player. Only playing a potential shot from the skater with the puck means we have no chance if there’s a pass. Only playing a potential pass leaves us susceptible if the player with the puck opts to snap a shot on net. Add to that the fact that we need to trust and work with the lone defender in an odd-man rush scenario makes for the most dynamic challenge we can face (second only to the unpredictable plays we call broken plays). The more moving parts and the more dynamic and creative an offense can be, the more the odds swing away from us making a save. If you remember from Part I, our goal is to be standing and set for every shot. Dynamic chances limit our ability to do that.

Anticipating a play is the only real way for us to stop shots from a dynamic attack with any consistency. But a major distinction must be made between anticipating and guessing. Everyone has seen a goalkeeper in soccer face a penalty kick. I don’t envy them at all. They essentially have to play a head game with the kicker and take a 50-50 guess on which way the ball is going. They can’t react after the kick. They have to try to read a shooter’s shoulders, hips and plant foot to make an educated guess — but it’s rarely much better than a guess. Goaltenders in hockey cannot take the same approach. A player taking a penalty kick is expected to score; a goalie facing a shot is expected to make a save.

Using our two-on-one example, we have to read all the same things to prepare for a potential shot, but must also maintain an ability to push to the other side of the net — and probably sprawl — in the event of a pass. Challenge the player with the puck too much and the pass is a slam dunk on the back door. Don’t challenge enough and the puck carrier has room to pick a shot short-side. Every goalie has a different depth at which they can play. Johnny Quick can push and come across in a full split with his chest and arms still upright, so he can afford to take more depth on the potential shot. Lundqvist is so exceptional at reading releases that he can stay deeper on a potential shot, which leaves him a shorter distance to push on a potential pass. Neither are right or wrong as long as the puck stays out of the net. A young goalie can’t pick his or her favorite goalie and play exactly like Johnny Quick or Henrik. They need to find out what works best with their strengths and weaknesses.

The bad news is that learning to read plays is difficult for a number of reasons. Two-on-ones in practice usually break down in one of two ways: Either the offensive players try to make plays they would never try in a million years in a game (because they have no one backchecking like they would in a game) or the defenseman doesn’t play it honestly and aggressively like they would in a game (because they don’t want to block a shot or mess up the drill for the forwards). If you’re a goalie trying to develop your reads in a practice setting where neither the offense nor the defense is playing like they would in a game, it’s a waste of everyone’s time. If coaches think goaltending is the most important position on the team (which I’ve heard plenty of coaches say), they should make sure their practices reflect what their goalie will actually see in a game, otherwise they’re setting their players and their team up for failure.

(By the way, don’t even get me started on the ludicrous drills like the one where a player skates a bit, gets a pass at the far blue line and skates full speed to take a shot from the slot. It’s ridiculous for the goalie and the shooter. Either the player has a breakaway or he is facing a defender who is keeping him to the outside. Who is getting better by doing these idiotically conceived drills? No one is.)

I guess I’m simply tired of hearing stories about youth hockey coaches throwing the tallest kid in net because they think big is automatically best. I’m tired of hearing stories about kids being taught that winning means they played well and losing means they played poorly. I’m tired of hearing announcers and columnists deride a goalie for a “soft” goal when (even with slow motion replays) they can’t recognize that the shooter’s release changed at the last second because of a tug on the shooter’s arm by a defender’s stick. I’m tired of goalie’s wasting their hard-earned money and valuable time on things that won’t help them stop pucks consistently. There’s a lot of blather from non-goaltenders out there who don’t understand the position and a lot of hocus-pocus talk from goalies who hurt themselves with silly superstitions.

Please don’t be like those people.

In today’s day and age, we, as goalies, can be at the mercy of the teams we play on. For people who don’t know how to properly assess goaltenders, a hardworking, detail-oriented team will usually have what appears to be a hardworking, detailed-oriented goalie. A lazy team that cheats the game tends to have a goalie that looks lazy and cheats on plays. It’s the chicken-and-egg dilemma. How can goalies read plays with any consistency when they have no consistency in the structure in front of them? How can goalies that face fewer grade-A chances be fairly evaluated when they appear to rarely make a “big save”? What characteristics really matter when evaluating a goalie’s performance? These are the questions that drove me to write my articles.

I hope I’ve helped current goalies hone in on what’s truly important in their game so they can be their own best coaches. I hope I’ve taught youth hockey parents and coaches what to look for when they’re trying to help their sons and daughters develop their skills.

No one out there has all the answers. What I love about goalies is that we’re always looking to shake things up and try something new to gain an edge over the shooter. That’s the healthiest attitude any young goalie can have.


This is Part II of a two-part series in which Ben discusses the nuances and misconceptions associated with being a goaltender. Click below to read Part I of Ben’s series, in which he focuses on the physical aspect of the position.