February 15, 2011

The Goalie Guru: Are you sure your child wants to be a goalie?

By Brion O'Connor

“How do I know my kid will like playing goalie?” 

This is one of the most common questions I get from parents of prospective young netminders. It’s a fair question, especially given the costs associated with outfitting a young keeper (as we addressed in January’s column). My standard reply is simple: “Oh, don’t worry. They’ll let you know.”

It’s a concise answer, but one with broad implications. I’m not trying to be clever or coy or sarcastic. I honestly believe that kids, especially really young kids, are the best judges of whether they like the position. And the ones who don’t will be the first to tell Mom and Dad that they’d rather not play between the pipes, once they find out how hard it is.

Today’s top-notch goaltenders, whether high school, juniors, college or pro, make the position seem so effortless that kids who watch them, and are enamored with all the cool gear, think it’s going to be a snap for them as well. What they can’t comprehend, at least initially, is the hundreds (if not thousands) of hours of training required to make those movements appear so “effortless.”

And that’s when coaches, and often parents, get a hint of what a young goalie’s true motivations are. In essence, we learn why they’ve elected to play the position, and if they have the requisite courage (not to be underestimated), determination and desire to put in the effort to improve.

In short, there are really two types of motivation. The first speaks to why they want to play the position in the first place. The second is how badly they want to play well (which I’ll address in next month’s column).

I can’t blame kids for wanting to play goalie nowadays. There’s no question that it’s become a glamour position. In Boston, if you turn on NESN, the Bruins’ local TV channel, you’re bound to see highlights of Tim Thomas (the 2008-09 Vezina Trophy winner, who is playing like a man possessed these days) and Tuukka Rask (the B’s anointed one). Goalies are superstars, the center of attention. And that’s bound to catch any kid’s eye.

Suffice to say, that wasn’t always the case. Forty years ago, I was one of a handful of kids with the kinked DNA strand who actually wanted to play goalie. The fashionable positions were the forwards, the goal scorers. Then Bobby Orr, with his preternatural skill set, came along and gave defensemen added panache. Overall, it was the stars who skated out who sparked the dreams of my school-age buddies.

Goalies, on the other hand, were stereotypically some sad-sack grommet who was short on talent and, more often than not, long on girth (or someone’s kid brother who would play any position just to be part of the game). The idea was to take the worst skater and stick him in the nets. After all, the thinking went, they didn’t have to move very far. And even if they got pummeled, they’d stick around because they didn’t really have any choice.

Today, gear improvements have made the position much safer, which makes it more attractive for first-timers. Plus, the gear looks really neat, and that adds an allure to playing goal. But there’s also an undeniable athleticism that modern goaltenders bring to the game that makes the position look like such a blast to play.

As a coach, I realize that the skills on display in pro- and college-level games are the result of years and years of hard work, but kids don’t know that. They just see these fabulous acrobats, coiled like jungle cats in front of their cages, making life miserable for the world’s best shooters on a nightly basis.

If only it were so simple. I would never discourage anyone from trying, but the PlayStation generation doesn’t always grasp the effort required to play a position as physically demanding as hockey goaltender. And once they find out for themselves, their first reaction is often to dump the “tools of ignorance” and pick up their skinny sticks (or worse, their PlayStation remotes).

So it’s critical to make sure novice goalies are given the correct set of expectations, designed to give them the best chance of success.
There are several caveats to consider before you put your youngster (or any youngster) in the nets. Most importantly, remember that children under the age of 10 are still getting their skating legs under them. The added obstacle of trying to move around with cumbersome goalie gear is a rude wake-up call. Chances are, they’ll flail, desperately trying to find a balance point on their edges without the natural advantage that momentum provides.

Goalie-specific skating is much different than the longer, looping strides of regular skaters, and regular hockey skates aren’t designed for the quick, compact movements a netminder makes. So the very act of staying on their feet becomes a daunting challenge for many young goalies.

During an early season clinic for my Agawam Youth Hockey goalies, I had one little shaver who couldn’t have been more than 7. He couldn’t stay upright. Every time he moved, the poor kid fell. He simply wasn’t willing, or couldn’t, bend his knees, and he kept losing his balance. Once he fell — either on his backside, or on all fours — he could not get back up.

After about 10 minutes of flopping around, he burst into tears. I helped him off the ice, delivering him to his dad, but it was clear that his goaltending days were numbered. He found out the hard way that goaltending was a whole lot more difficult than it looks on TV.

One very effective method to prevent these awkward on-ice moments is to have the young netminder bring the gear home, and try it on without skates. Most equipment for Mite and Squirt goalies is relatively light but still feels stiff and bulky. Play street hockey, fire tennis balls at him, laugh. Give him a chance to get used to moving with all that added bulk, without the added tribulations of slipping around on the ice. Be patient.

The realization of how tough it is to play goal is akin to “sticker shock” for many youngsters; too many quit without really giving the position an honest effort.

The good news is that the learning curve is fairly sharp, provided they stick with it. Make it fun, and don’t worry about the results of the first few skates.

The only goal you want to focus on initially is that they want to get back in the nets. If they do, then Mom and Dad have a decision to make.

Those are the kids who will let their folks know that they are raising a goalie, like it or not. And the parents won’t have any doubts.

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