May 6, 2013

The Goalie Guru: Camps can solve auto-body shop approach

By Brion O'Connor

One of the great frustrations hockey coaches have is when goalies make the same mistake time and again. I often tell my students, “You just got beat to the same spot three straight times. You’ve got to try to figure it out.”

The difference is that I have higher expectations of adult coaches than I do of a 12-year-old goalie. Yet it’s often the coaches who can’t “figure it out.” They keep running practices the same way, day after day after day, and somehow expect the goalie to miraculously make the necessary changes to avoid old mistakes, or break bad habits. Here’s one of my favorite examples.

In practice, Coach Stan wants continuous action. He yells “Play it, play it,” every time the goalie has a chance to cover the puck. The kid is actually being told to bat the puck away, instead of getting the whistle. So in a game, that’s what he does, because that’s what he’s always been told to do, despite the fact that Coach Stan is screaming from the bench, “We need a whistle! Cover the puck!”

What Coach Stan doesn’t realize is that covering rebounds, and getting a whistle, is a learned skill. It doesn’t just “happen.” Most kids will instinctively poke a puck away, instead of covering it up. And when you poke the puck away, it’s live. And that means you’re not getting the whistle you desperately need.

Here’s another. Coach Stan is muttering about how his goalies aren’t following shots and are losing sight of the rebounds. But in practice, Coach Stan has 15 kids lined up, firing pucks at his goalies in rapid-fire succession. So his young goalies don’t dare follow each shot, because they know another shot is coming from the next kid (who, in all likelihood, isn’t even looking to see if the goalie is ready or not).

Now, does Coach Stan make that connection, and change his practices to reflect “real game” scenarios? Rarely, from what I’ve seen over the years. Instead, they think the goalies need some sort of special tutoring, and that’s when they hire us, the professionals.

I call this the “auto body shop” school of goalie coaching. When you get into a fender-bender, that’s the place you look to, right? You bring your prized set of wheels down to the auto body shop, leave it for a few days, and they deliver it back to you, good as new. Essentially, far too many coaches do the same thing with their goalies.

Young goalies often fall back into bad habits in regular practices because the drills aren’t designed for them. The problem is their coaches don’t reinforce lessons taught in private clinics (the auto body shop), because they have no idea what’s being taught.

What’s the solution? Start by taking ownership. The goalie is part of your team, and you owe it to the goalies, and the team to familiarize yourself with the position. The best place to do that is taking in a goalie camp, and the best time to do that is the off-season. Grab an extra jacket, a spot in the stands, and bring a notebook. Consider it a free education.

Look for camps that have a long track record, a solid reputation, and a dedicated curriculum that starts on a solid foundation. Better camps incorporate skating and proper technique during warm-ups. Follow closely, and realize just how different goalie-specific skating technique is compared to positional players, and how different the skating drills are.

Next, keep a close eye on the shooting drills. Rather than trying to understand the entire scene, focus on each individual station. Notice how each station has a specific purpose. Good camps break down the position, and the game, to build the goalie. You should see separate drills that concentrate on different technical aspects, such as steering (with the stick blade, not the paddle), smothers (or body saves), glove and blocker, stickhandling (a vastly underrated skill), crease movement and angle play, behind-the-net play, rebounds, desperation saves, and even “battle” stations where we can judge how competitive each youngster is.

Watch how good camps make the goaltenders follow every rebound. This has to become almost instinctual. I often find myself yelling “Follow it!” or “Cover it!” and explain to my goalies afterward that that voice eventually has to come from between their own ears.

We want out goalies to train their bodies to follow their eyes, and their eyes need to be primarily focused on the puck before, during and after the shot. One puck, as former University of New Hampshire star and NHL goalie coach Cap Raeder (Needham, Mass.) likes to say. Stop It Goaltending’s Brian Daccord calls this “visual attachment,” and it’s critical.

Next, good camps have good shooters. Truth is, the better the shooters, the better the camp. I don’t mean guys who can snipe top-shelf all day. I’m talking about shooters, regardless of age, who don’t have their own agenda, who can follow directions, and who can put the puck where the coaches want it to maximize instruction.

Especially with younger campers, we want our goalies to know where the puck is coming, so they can execute the proper save technique and develop the requisite muscle memory to perform the same save in a “reaction” mode. With older goalies, I’ll incorporate what I call the “70 percent rule,” where shooters are required to hit a predetermined spot only 70 percent of of the time. That keeps goalies on their toes, and prevents them from playing “to the drill.”

These drills will actually help the shooters as well, since they reinforce a level of discipline into their game (something most coaches are looking for in their players) while they learn the shots that goalies have the most trouble with — which is why the player who masters the backhand is so dangerous.

Finally, make sure the kids, and the coaches, are having a good time. Better camps are able to find that all-important balance between hard work and having fun. The two concepts aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact, if a coach can keep the mood light while asking the goalies to give everything they have, you have the best of both worlds.

That’s just what you want in your regular practices. Drills that benefit every player, including the goaltenders, will benefit the team as a whole. So take in a goalie camp, take good notes, learn a little more about the position, and incorporate those drills into your team’s practices next fall. It’s a true win-win scenario.

Brion O’Connor is a Boston-based writer and owner of Inspired Ink Communications. He is also a longtime hockey coach and player, specializing in goaltending instruction. Learn more at