February 27, 2012

The Goalie Guru: On skating, rebounds and tempers

By Brion O’Connor

February is the month where coaches and players (but coaches specifically) start looking to round their teams into playoff form. And, as any coach will tell you, a goaltender can make or break a team’s fortunes in the postseason. 

Brion O'Connor, The Goalie Guru, gets in position at the top of the crease at Fenway Park.

Just this past month, Sports Illustrated’s Michael Farber exhumed one of the great adages regarding netminders: “Goaltending is 75 percent of your hockey team, unless you don’t have it. Then it’s 100 percent.”

So, in that vein, I felt it was really important to touch on a few topics that coaches (and parents) ought to keep in mind during the stretch run. Some may sound familiar to my regular readers, but they bear repeating.

Skating

“When do I get to stop some shots?”

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard this from young goalies. I don’t blame them. Stopping shots is what we’re all about, and the reason most kids take up the “tools of ignorance” in the first place. You never want to discourage that attitude.

Plus, skating drills are hard work, and they’re potentially boring (although there is some room for creativity). Because most younger kids have the attention span of a hyperactive flea, keeping them engaged — without the added incentive of stopping some shots — can be tricky.

On the other hand, no one picks up a guitar and starts playing like Eric Clapton in the first sitting. Or dances like Fred Astaire (or even Beyonce) without putting in the requisite practice. In fact, the great ones — musicians, dancers, hockey players — keep practicing, all the time. Expertise, or even competence, isn’t something that is simply attained, but constantly nurtured and refined. It’s the coach’s job to teach goalies that their performance is inextricably tied to their skating ability. Here’s why:

The first rule of goaltending is getting to the right place at the right time, in the right stance. The game is played at such a fast pace that, if you can’t skate, you’ll always be chasing the play. That’s losing hockey.

For most positional players, the turning point in their development comes when they can skate and stickhandle at the same time. It is the proverbial “walking and chewing gum” moment. And it’s easier said than done. The same holds for goaltenders. Until a goalie can get to the right spot without thinking “how” he’s going to get there, he’s going to be too slow.

Skating is the position’s foundation. Unless a goaltender has a sturdy foundation, the rest of his game quickly falls apart. Coaches should make sure that their young netminders work on their goalie-specific skating technique before every practice.

This doesn’t mean the skating drills that everyone else is doing. The old maxim “a goalie has to be one of the best skaters on the team” is true, but it’s a very different type of skating. Coaches owe it to their team to understand those differences, and learn how to run a few basic goalie-specific skating drills (if you need some ideas, send me an email).

Rebounds

Shooting drills should be designed to allow the goalies to follow the rebound. Every. Single. Time. I’m constantly amazed to see high-end “elite” teams relentlessly running old-school shooting drills — a full-length dash followed by an uncontested shot — where the goalies literally are getting drilled. I call it my “One in 20 Rule.” If you’ve got 20 kids lined up on the boards, for every shot that each kid takes, the goalie sees 20. At the end of “warm-ups,” the poor kid has seen enough rubber to start a tire factory.

This makes no sense. Actually, it’s borderline abusive. First, you risk frying the very player who you’re counting on to come up big between the pipes. Chances are, they’re not warmed up — they’re worn down.

Second, players (goalie and shooter alike) don’t learn to instinctively follow their rebounds. This has to be second nature, both if you want your team to score, and if you want your goaltender to keep the puck out of the net (this doesn’t mean just looking at the rebound, but following it). In the shooting drills I run within a team setting, I always stress getting after the rebounds, for every player.

I’m often dumbfounded, when I come into a new coaching situation, by how some players need to actually be told to go for the rebound. That’s a sign of myopic coaching. The mindset to get after rebounds is not a light switch that can be flicked on before a game; it has to be ingrained.

Some coaches avoid emphasizing rebounds because it means the second kid in line actually has to look and make sure the first kid has finished. Coaches see this as inefficient. I see it as discipline (another hallmark of good teams). If you insist on running the “One in 20” drill, get a shooter tutor, and let your goalies work on their skating.

Temper, temper

Teams can be fragile organisms. They consist of 12 to 18 individuals that form a bond over the course of the season, and nothing tests the strength of that bond like playoff hockey. Arguably, the single most important link in that chain is your goalie’s demeanor.

If the youngster throws a tantrum every time a puck gets by him (or her), your team is going to get nervous. And nervous hockey players make more mistakes. Which leads to more goals. See where I’m going with this?

I’ve seen too many talented goaltenders let their teams down because they can’t get their act together from the neck up. If a goalie melts down, either in practice or a game, it should be addressed immediately and firmly (though quietly in the first few instances). I like my goalies to be competitive, but never want them to confuse competitive fire with being undisciplined.

Instead, they have to learn to channel that energy in a positive manner. Even if they are absolutely raging inside, they must present a calm, confident appearance. That, like almost anything else regarding the position, takes practice (which is why tantrums should never be tolerated, even at practice).

Both parents and coaches need to be cognizant of this tendency. I once had a young student — now a starter for a Division 1 program — tell me, after getting completely flustered and quitting during one drill, “I don’t do that in a game, coach.” I had my doubts. Further, even if he didn’t, he’s already sowed similar seeds of doubt in the minds of his teammates. If teammates think their netminder is a hothead, they’re going to be worried about whether that player can keep it together during a high-stakes game.

Again, doubt is a genuine threat to team chemistry. Nip it in the bud early, while helping your goalie to develop that strong outward persona. Your team will be better, and more competitive, for it.

This article originally appeared in the February 2012 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

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. Learn more at TheGoalieGuru.com. He can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com