June 14, 2011

From NEHJ: Get in goalie shape with these exercises

By Brion O'Connor

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the June 2011 issue of New England Hockey Journal. 

Perhaps the most enduring, and erroneous, misconception about goaltenders is this: Goalies don’t need to be in shape. In reality, this notion was never true and is no doubt a holdover from the time-honored practice of sticking some unfortunate overweight, slow kid in the nets during neighborhood street hockey or shinny games.

Today, with the emphasis on the butterfly technique and proper recovery, it’s essential that goaltenders be among the fittest players on the ice. There’s really no way around it. Athleticism is a bonus, but even goalies with less-than-exceptional reflexes can close that gap significantly if they dedicate themselves to getting in shape.

That fact really hit home recently, in two distinctly different settings. The first was a youth hockey practice, where I had a number of Squirt and Pee-Wee goalies.

The second was a Stinky Socks adult goalie clinic, with netminders ranging in age from 22 to 62. In both groups, the common denominator separating the solid goalies from those who struggled was fitness. For many of the huffing and puffing netminders, young and old alike, it was a rude wake-up call. This is not an easy position to play, if you want to play it correctly.

The techniques we teach now put a premium on dynamic, athletic moves — butterfly slide, butterfly push, recovery — that require not only power but also endurance. If you think you can “play your way into shape,” using only your time on ice to get fit, you won’t stand a chance.

Time was, hockey coaches would shout to their young netminders, “Stay on your feet!” Now, more often than not, the refrain is “Get up!” Which makes sense. The “stand-up” goaltender is, for all intents and purposes, an anachronism. Instead, youngsters today, enamored with the style they typically see on display at the collegiate and NHL level, are inclined to drop too early too often (which reveals a lack of discipline that the butterfly technique requires). Still, even coaches without much goaltending experience or expertise can see the benefits of the butterfly style on the first shot (provided, of course, that it’s employed correctly).

What drives these coaches (and me) crazy, though, is the young goalie who hits the ice, and then gets stuck there like a beached whale. They’re quick to flop, but far too slow to recover. And typically the reason comes down to a lack of fitness.

With youngsters, fitness — the combination of strength, power and stamina — comes quickly, provided they apply themselves. Members of the PlayStation Generation may not be as active as their parents were, but they’ll soon learn that strong thumbs won’t get them very far on the ice. As I mentioned last month, I’m a big proponent of active sports off ice, such as soccer, lacrosse, roller hockey and tennis. The more often kids can get outside and play, the better.

On this score, I’m going to cut the older guys (and gals) with work and family responsibilities some slack. The position has changed dramatically in the past 10-15 years, so they’re not only adapting to new techniques but also trying to regain lost fitness. For the plus-30 goalie, it’s a question of putting it all together.

Most are strong (resistance) but not necessarily powerful (motion). Plus, stamina (or lack thereof) is also a serious issue. Be patient and take the time necessary off-ice to prepare yourself for the rigors of play.

With the idea of getting fitter quicker in mind, here are a handful of easy exercises that will help any goaltender, regardless of age, better handle the demands of the position. I purposely steered clear of “weight-training” regimens (we can delve into that topic in a later column). For now, I’m focusing on developing a foundation, using simple plyometrics (or exercises that take advantage of your own body weight).

Strong middle ground

Your core, or mid-section, is key to overall performance. A former soccer coach once told me, “When your core is strong, everything else follows.” And he was right. A sturdy middle will help you maintain balance, and move with a quiet upper body, allowing your lower body to do the hard work. Excellent exercises include planks, side bends, and twists and sit-ups. Just be careful not to strain your lower back; keep those knees bent.

Explosive power

Both forward and side lunges help strengthen the quadriceps, gluteus and hip muscles. These are the big muscles that drive you in those short, dynamic movements that goalies need. If they’re weak, you’ll overcompensate with your arms, and rather than having a compact blocking surface, you’ll be flailing about the crease. A series of simple squats and lunges (side-to-side and forward) will help jog your muscle memory. Wall sits will work your quads, and elastic exercise bands are great for working those big, stabilizing hip muscles.

In good hands

The ability to control your stick is an underappreciated skill. You need hand and forearm strength to be able to control your stick on initial shots and when playing the puck (another vastly underrated talent). Improve your grip strength by squeezing a chunk of thera-putty or a tennis ball, and whip your forearms into shape with wrist curls (tie a piece of rope around an old stick shaft, and attach any size weight, to give you a perfectly functional wrist curl tool).

Rolling into shape

Perhaps the single best off-ice training regimen I can recommend comes with knobby tires, handlebars and a saddle. Road cycling is fun, but for flat-out fitness, you can’t do better than mountain biking. Plus, it’s a blast. Riding off-road, especially on a tight, twisty singletrack with lots of short, steep hills, helps you develop the explosive power and balance goaltending requires.

Stretching it out

Last, a quick word to my adult goalies. Flexibility is inherent in young bodies but typically AWOL in those of us past 30. Don’t forget to stretch. Often. Stretch lightly before and after exercise. Stretch in the morning and evening for good measure.

The operate word here is “lightly.” Don’t overdo it, or you’ll risk muscle and ligament strains. Yoga (especially Bikram, or “hot yoga”) is another excellent option to regain flexibility.

Brion O’Connor is a Boston-based writer and owner of Inspired Ink Communications. He is also a long-time hockey coach and player, specializing in goaltending instruction at every age level. Learn more at TheGoalieGuru.com. He can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com