April 13, 2011

The Goalie Guru: Summer goals change for goalies

By Brion O'Connor

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

Ah, spring. When Old Man Winter loosens his grip on the Northeast, baseball pitchers and catchers report to Florida or Arizona, and the interminable hockey season finally winds down. Let’s not kid ourselves — it is a long season. My daughter’s Pee Wee hockey team had its first hockey game before her first soccer game last September. How crazy is that?

Still, it’s during April, with all its showers and trappings of spring, that my thoughts invariably turn to summer camps. Am I a fan? Absolutely. Are there caveats? Without question.

Now, if you’re a parent, I bet I can guess what you’re thinking: “A goalie coach stumping for summer camps … What a shock!” So, before you jump to any conclusions, let me set the record straight. I’m a big advocate of down time and taking a break from the game. I believe in playing different sports and developing different skill sets. That gives your body a chance to recover by working different muscles and helps keep your mind fresh as well.

I’ve seen too many youngsters — talented young goaltenders — lose their passion for the game because they simply play too much and see too many pucks. It just wears them down and can suck the joy right out of the game. It makes me think Shep Messing. In the 1970s, Messing was a terrific if irreverent soccer goalkeeper from Harvard who went on to play for the U.S. Olympic team and professionally for the New York Cosmos and Boston Minutemen.

Messing was a competitor, but not the hardest worker in practice. He clashed with his Harvard coach about his training regimen (or lack thereof). Messing’s argument was both cheeky and clever: “I only have so many saves in this body. Do you want me to waste them all in practice, or would you like me to have a few left for the games?”

Now, I don’t buy into Messing’s philosophy completely (he was, after all, a product of the counter-culture of the 1960s and ’70s), but there’s a ring of truth to it. You want to have all your players — and especially your goaltenders — as sharp as possible before a game. After seven or eight months, that’s not easy.

The September-to-April season can be a grind, and the mental and physical wear and tear on the players is something every coach needs to be cognizant of. I appreciate that pushing through those obstacles can help build character, but only to a point. Too often, goalies are hitting the wall just when the games mean the most — the playoffs — and that’s a recipe for disaster. After the season, give them a break. Trust me, your son or daughter won’t “fall behind” by taking time off. In reality, it can recharge their batteries.

Conversely, summer goalie camps, after a brief vacation away from the rink, are a chance to jump back into the game with a renewed sense of purpose. The rink, for me, has always been a welcome respite from summer’s sweltering temperatures. You get to hang out with a bunch of other goalies, and you can participate without the added pressure of winning that comes during the regular season and playoffs.

Interestingly enough, Brian Daccord, owner of Stop It Goaltending, sees a distinct difference between “in season” and “off season” approaches to goalie coaching, especially at the higher levels of competition.

“The goalie coaching position is now defined two ways,” Daccord said. “You have a performance coach, and then you have a development coach. All the kids now have two coaches. In the summer, they’ll have a development coach, and during the season, they’ll have a performance coach. How you handle and train the players during the season compared to the summer is apples and oranges.

“In season, it’s about results,” Daccord continued. “In the summer, you’re working on improving technique, improving quickness, working on your strategies and your technical game, so you know how you want to play every situation. You want to work on your weaknesses, try new things, try to implement new facets to your game, new techniques.

“You can’t do that during the season,” he said. “In-season, it’s about getting that goalie ready for that next game. That means physically and mentally. The mental part of the game for the performance coach is far greater than the development coach.”

In a similar vein, Joe Bertagna (Arlington, Mass.), who has run Bertagna Goaltending for 38 years, says camps give young goaltenders the special attention that the position demands these days, but is typically lacking from most in-season programs.

“With youngsters, we’re educating, and giving them the basic skills they need,” Bertagna said. “With older goalies, at the Division 1 college level, we assume they have the tools. That doesn’t mean they can’t adapt and adjust and they don’t need someone monitoring their development.”

Bruce Irving, the goalie coach for Harvard who works with both Bertagna and Daccord, agrees.

“For the most part, the goalies end up on teams playing for coaches who have never been a goalie,” he said. “I don’t think they get the necessary attention in most standard team environments.”

Another potential problem with in-season coaching that can be avoided during the summer is an over-reliance on the goalie coach.

“The kids are used to having coaches now,” Bertagna said. “But at certain levels, the goalie coach has become a crutch. The kid has to go to his weekly goalie coach, and I think they’re overcoached in some instances.”

Conversely, during the summer, we assume that there’s less stress weighing on the minds of our campers, particularly school pressures. That’s why camp instructors, though they expect hard work, also put a premium on fun. It’s all about learning in a nurturing environment. The camps I work for feature shooters, but those players understand that the on-ice sessions are designed for the goaltenders, not them.

In short, the summer is a great time to experiment, and tweak your game, in a more relaxed environment, without worrying about the next game or your place in the team hierarchy. As camp coaches, we’re not assessing whether you’re going to be the starter or not. Our primary focus is to make you a better goaltender. Period.

Last, there’s also a question of overnight versus day camps. That’s a much more personal decision. I always recommend that parents contact the camp director so they can develop a comfort level. Ask for references. That’s doubly true for overnight camps.

In general, I’m a fan of day camps, which allow my young goalies to concentrate during our sessions inside the rink without any distractions of adjusting to a new environment outside the rink. In other words, they can sleep in their own beds. However, older kids might really thrive in that overnight setting. Again, it’s a personal decision. Just take time to do your homework beforehand. It will pay dividends for your young netminder.

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