July 31, 2014

The Goalie Guru: Lacrosse lends a lesson in goalie management

By Brion O’Connor

Not every hockey lesson is learned between the boards, on the ice. We can learn from other sports. A terrific case in point is a local high school girls lacrosse program that I’m familiar with. There’s no reason to name the school, because based on my experiences, the problems I witnessed this past spring aren’t limited to this single program.

The season got off to a rocky start, because neither the varsity nor the JV had a goaltender. After an upperclassman goalie declined to return to the program, both teams recruited freshmen to fill those vacancies. The varsity had a “dedicated” goaltender, while the JV team began with a “rotation,” but one girl agreed to play the position full time by the fourth game.

By season’s end, both goalies were toast. Too many shots, and not enough support. Reportedly, neither wants to play next year. So when next spring rolls around, this  program is going to find itself right back at square one, searching for a couple of goaltenders. I have to wonder if either coach has been able to connect the dots.

Here’s the principal lesson: Goaltenders are not piñatas. Not in lacrosse, and not in ice hockey. But that’s exactly how far too many coaches, and teammates, treat them. Hit them often enough, and eventually they will break. And when they do break, they don’t spill candy. They spill tears, and sometimes their guts. It’s devastating to watch, and I’ve seen it up close.

My daughter Maddi played lacrosse goalie for a number of years. She has good size, and nice hand-eye coordination. Couple those attributes with the fact that she’s not a gifted runner but loves team sports, and Maddi settled in quickly between the pipes. Her first year went well, and Maddi relished having an important role on a team. That sense of “belonging” is one of the best elements of sports. Maddi thrived that first year, and the following season she was recruited to play in the New England Select Lacrosse League (apparently, female lacrosse goalies are even in more demand than hockey goalies).

But a funny thing happened over the course of two seasons with NESLL and our town program. Maddi got beat up. Not so much by opponents, but by her own teammates. Practices were absurd, with Maddi getting pelted with shot after shot after shot. And when her team lost a game, she rarely got any encouragement from her teammates or coaches. It was a painful experience, for her and for me.

The last straw came when Maddi was asked to play in a tournament for a neighboring town program. In two out of the three tournament games, Maddi’s team — the defending champs — jumped out to big leads, and then started coasting. They lost all three games and got knocked out early.

Now, I’m not going to absolve my daughter completely. There were a handful of goals she should have had, no question about it. If she had made those saves, her team had a chance to win at least one of those games. I reminded Maddi that that’s the goalie’s lot. It’s what we sign up for. It might not seem fair, but it’s our reality.

But the other reality of these games was that Maddi’s adopted team simply stopped playing. Maddi and her defense were pretty much under siege. Ultimately, the cracks in the dam gave way, and once the dam broke, Maddi’s team got swamped. Afterward, Maddi, as a “recruited” player, was left alone by the other players. Even the coach (an ex-military guy) treated my daughter like she was radioactive.

Of course, none of this sat well with me. I pride myself on being able to draw a firm line between my role as a father and my role as a coach. But in this instance, the two collided like runaway trains. I knew my daughter was hurting (her refusal to take off her helmet was a dead giveaway that tears were flowing). But the coach in me was upset that Maddi’s coach failed to see the same thing.

Coaches simply can’t be clueless in this instance. A coach’s ignorance is not bliss for a long-suffering goaltender. I will cut kids some slack in this situation. Lack of empathy is a normal trait. But empathy can be taught, and the person driving that lesson has to be the coach.

Maddi walked away from the game shortly afterward. I couldn’t blame her. For six seasons, spanning three years and a handful of tournaments, she had a bull’s-eye on her chest. That’s not just how she “felt”; that’s how she was treated. I put that on her coaches.

Still, just to make sure I wasn’t letting my feelings as a parent cloud my judgment, I reached out to my older brother Sean, a Level 3 lacrosse coach in New Hampshire (and the varsity goalie coach for ISL powerhouse St. Paul’s). Sean is a great resource for several reasons. First, he is dedicated to his athletes, and works to help them grow as people as well as athletes.

Second, Sean is proof that having played a particular sport isn’t a requirement to coach it. This is an excuse I hear constantly from hockey coaches: “Well, I never played goalie.” Doesn’t matter. Sean never played lacrosse. But his kids did, and he immersed himself in the sport.

“As a coach, you need to learn all the positions,” Sean said. “So learn at least the basics of being a goalie. Stance, mechanics, how to make the different saves are all basic. You should also be able to teach a goalie the stick work they need to survive, especially accurate passing. In addition, it’s great if you can teach a goalie how to direct the defense — they really are the ‘quarterback’ of the defense, not to mention the player that starts the offense.”

Sean recommends that coaches find time either during or before/after practice to work with their goalies, for at least 15 minutes. This is obviously more difficult for hockey coaches, given limited ice time, but the idea is sound. “The goalie(s) need to feel that you are working with her as well as the rest of the team,” said Sean.

Finally, coaches need to create a practice plan that helps the offense without punishing the goalie.

“Avoid drills that make your goalie look awful,” he said. “If you have to do a shooting drill, make sure that the goalie knows that the drill is for the benefit of the shooter. If she makes any save in this sort of situation, let her know what a great save it was.”

This is an outstanding point, regardless of whether you’re playing lacrosse or ice hockey. It’s easy to forget that practice goals can add up and discourage your goaltender. But a few words of encouragement can go a long, long way toward keeping your goalie in the right frame of mind, and in the net.

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 TheGoalieGuru.com.

This article originally appeared in the July edition of the New England Hockey Journal. Click here to read the digital edition for free.

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