February 6, 2013

The Goalie Guru: Overcoming fear a big part of goalie's job

By Brion O'Connor

“Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.”

— Mark Twain

Of course, the temptation was to begin this column with FDR’s famous inauguration quote, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Hockey goaltenders know better. Not only do we have to worry about getting hit with a vulcanized piece of rubber that is only slightly softer than a rock, but we need to deal with all the emotional baggage that comes with being “the last line of defense.” 

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

Sure, hockey is “just a game,” but try telling that to a kid who pours his or her heart and soul into the position, and lives and dies a little bit with every goal that gets scored.

That’s been the burden of goaltenders for as long as hockey players have been able to convince someone to stand between the pipes. It’s an exquisite torture, though, and most of us who don the tools of ignorance gladly accept the responsibility. So, putting aside the psychological pitfalls that goaltending presents, let’s focus on the potential physical trauma. Pain is a pretty good precursor to fear, and once you’ve been hit in a delicate or unprotected area with a puck, that biting sting is going to stick in your memory banks, no matter how mentally tough you are.

Still, better goaltenders excel because they, as Mark Twain said, can master their fears. Playing goal at a high level takes guts — there’s just no way around it. You’ve got to be willing to put yourself in harm’s way because, oftentimes, that’s the difference between allowing a goal and making a save. Better goalies have always preferred the temporary pain of a bruise to the lingering disappointment of surrendering a goal.

All that said, I need to acknowledge the gear evolution, which has helped provide young netminders an extra measure of confidence, and even courage. Goaltending has changed a great deal since I strapped on the leather and felt pads in high school in the mid-1970s (no laughing, please). The position has always required hard work if you want to be a really good goaltender, and that fact is as true today as it was back in my day. There’s simply no substitute for busting your tail, on and off the ice.

But the reality is that the training is better, the coaching is better, the technique is better, and the gear is better. And the latter is probably most important of all. While the fancy leg pads and gloves and masks get the most credit, I’ll wager that the gear that has made the biggest difference on how the position is played today is the body armor. Specifically, I’m talking primarily about the chest and arm protector, the pants, and to a lesser degree, thigh guards and neck danglers.

These essential yet vastly underrated pieces of gear allow goalies to play “big,” or “wide,” by keeping their arms to the side and soaking up shots like Muhammad Ali used to do with his famous rope-a-dope defense. We even teach goalies “smother” saves as part of our basic goalie curriculum. By rolling their shoulders forward, which pushes the chest protector away from the body, goalies can create an air pocket not unlike the airbag in your car. When a shot hits this air pocket, it decelerates almost immediately, and the puck often drops into the goalie’s lap. To the untrained eye, it looks like the puck simply sticks to the goalie, as if he was a giant sponge. But it takes practice, some courage, a really good chest and arm protector and a solid pair of goalie pants to relax enough to give with the shot.

Looking back at my formative years, my chest and arm protectors were actually two pieces, made of quilted cotton, felt and a few thin squares of foam padding. The pants weren’t any different than the ones worn by the rest of the players (which, of course, meant there wasn’t much to them). In reality, these pieces provided little more than token protection. I remember coming home at night after practice with my arms and torso covered with welts. The next morning, I took care to hide the blue and purple bruises from my mom, afraid she might forbid me from playing.

And that’s how I played the game — in constant fear. I used my glove and blocker to protect my body, instead of keeping them at my side. I would move away from high shots, trying to snare them in my trapper or deflect them off my blocker, because that was the safest option. I stayed on my feet as long as possible because dropping too soon left me more susceptible to getting hit in places that weren’t adequately covered. My style was based not only on stopping the puck, but also on preservation.

Now, we teach goalies to drive into the shot, or to absorb the shot. We want them playing big, effectively shrinking the net, leaving the shooters fewer options. The body armor allows them to do that. But that said, it’s just as critical that this gear is adequate and fits properly. This, unfortunately, is where parents can sometimes cut corners.

I understand that not all parents are going to gleefully open the checkbook the first time little Johnny or Jenny says they want to play goal. But I also see too many parents who suit up their goaltending hopefuls with inadequate ill-fitting protective gear, and that’s a bad recipe for the youngster.

Here’s the quandary prospective goalie parents face: If you don’t invest in good gear and make sure it fits, the odds of your child getting injured increase exponentially. That has a domino effect. If Johnny has a normal pain threshold and takes a shot to an unprotected area, his enthusiasm for the position disappears quickly. From a team perspective, a fearful goalie is rarely a reliable goalie. Fear paralyzes. Tight, tense muscles are slow muscles, and slow goalies spend a lot of time pulling pucks out of the net.

The good news is that the converse is also true. When young goalies feel safe, they can concentrate on stopping the puck instead of worrying about getting hurt. They’re more relaxed, and loose muscles are quick muscles. Quick goaltenders tend to be more successful, and that breeds confidence.

That’s why I also mentioned thigh guards and neck danglers. These pieces (the thigh guard covers the area just above the knee that is often exposed when a goaltender drops into the butterfly), combined with a good chest and arm protector and goalie pants, plus a good helmet/mask, ensure that your child will be protected. Young goalies still need to ratchet up their courage, and learn to trust the gear. I’ve never told a goaltender that he or she won’t get hurt. But by and large, the risk of getting seriously injured have been reduced dramatically. And that’s a good thing.

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.

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