November 29, 2012

The Goalie Guru: Think outside the box for warmups

By Brion O'Connor

Much of what we do in coaching is about repetition. To develop the proper muscle memory and technique, the same maneuver has to be repeated hundreds and hundreds of times — correctly — before it becomes second nature. So I’m going to risk repeating myself to remind coaches that hammering your netminder in practice is a sure-fire way to ruin your young prospect. Consider this my annual appeal, not necessarily for sanity, but awareness. 

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

Here’s the flawed logic that far too many coaches — and I’ve seen this even at the elite levels — employ: The more shots, the better. Even in “warm-ups” (a classic oxymoron in this instance). Little attention is paid to exactly what kind of shots the goalie sees, as long as they’re coming in large quantities. It’s almost as if the coach expects goalies to miraculously or intuitively develop perfect technique by facing a mind-numbing number of pucks. Worse, some coaches don’t even notice how many shots a kid sees.

Just last month, I was sitting with the mom and grandfather of a young goaltender as they watched their son/grandson at practice. Now, the grandfather knew a thing or two about goaltending, having raised a son who played at the prep school, college and even minor league levels (earning himself a cup of coffee in the American Hockey League along the way).  And granddad was obviously frustrated watching his grandson being used as a piñata.

“I think coaches, even good coaches, just don’t get it. My grandson is just sitting there, like a target,” said the gentleman. “The coaches mean well, but they’re oblivious. They don’t know how to coach goalies.”

Bingo! Still, you’d expect that kind of comment from a frustrated parent or grandparent. I felt exactly the same way when my eldest daughter played goalie in lacrosse. The drills, it seemed to me, were set up specifically to discourage anyone from ever wanting to play the position. And my daughter, being a relatively bright kid (and not having a masochistic streak), got the message pretty quick and found a different position to play. To some degree, however, I put the onus of my daughter’s decision on the coach, who clearly lacked an appreciation for what goalies go through.

Frankly, I’m baffled that more coaches don’t see this. Perhaps, like the aforementioned grandfather said, “It’s because they’ve never been goalies.” That’s true, to an extent. It is a unique position, and just like I don’t expect goalies to pick up techniques through osmosis, the same probably applies to coaches. Still, they’re adults, and the issue goes beyond personal experience. Volunteer coaches don’t need to be experts on goalie instruction, but they need to develop a better understanding of what drills work — and, probably more importantly, don’t work — for their young netminders.

I’ve used this example before, but it bears repeating. If you’ve got 20 kids lined up in a shooting drill, the goalie is seeing 20 pucks for every shot each individual kid takes. That means, if one kid takes five shots (over the course of a five-minute drill), the goalie is trying to stop 100 shots. In five minutes. That’s the perfect recipe for burnout.

Moreover, it’s a great way for kids to get hurt. The reality of youth hockey is that the drills that look good on paper often fall apart on the ice. Faster kids start creeping up on top of slower kids, or kids who can’t control the puck, and before you know it, the goalie is seeing two or three shots simultaneously. Essentially, you’re asking kids between the ages of 8 and 14 to use common sense and look up before shooting. Well, forget it. It just doesn’t happen. Heck, it doesn’t even happen at the high school level. Most positional players simply aren’t wired that way. I sometimes suspect they don’t see the goalie at all.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen youngsters hit by shots, often in unprotected areas, while they’re concentrating on the previous shot. This happened to my daughter in lacrosse practice all the time (with the blessings of a clueless coach). It’s like asking a Little League batter trying to hit baseballs being thrown by three different pitchers. Most baseball coaches would say that’s nuts (and they’d be right). But that’s exactly what far too many youth hockey coaches do.

Even if your goalie is fortunate enough to escape getting hurt, the fallout of seeing too many pucks in too little time is another career-killing trait — the yips. We’ve all seen kids (often the bigger, stronger kids) skate between the hash marks, with their heads down, and crank a slap shot not 10 feet from the goalie. I bet most parents would flinch as well. And once a goalie becomes puck shy, you’ve got a real problem.

These machine-gun shooting drills are also a guaranteed way to encourage bad habits. It’s far more difficult to break a young goalie’s bad habits than it is to build good habits in the first place. That’s why I firmly believe that the old school way of incorporating goalies is doing a great disservice to these young men and women. When was the last time you saw a coach hold up a drill to instruct a goalie? It doesn’t happen.

Here’s one last overarching reason you should dispense with repetitive shooting drills. They’re not realistic. They never happen in a game! I’m not trying to be a smart aleck here (honest!). In a game, there is one puck, and the goalie’s chief responsibility, in addition to keep that biscuit out of the net, is to follow it. Everywhere. I tell my goalies that on a 200-by-85 sheet of ice, the only thing they can’t lose sight of measures only 1 inch by 3 inches. If they do lose sight of the puck, they can’t get themselves in the best position to do their first job, which is to make the save.

So what coaches need to do is think outside the box. Create drills that resemble game situations, and emphasize following that single puck, allowing goaltenders to react to the initial shot, and the second and third shots. Have kids come in from a variety of angles (not just a straight-ahead breakaway) so the goalie develops crease awareness. Make the goalie follow the puck as it moves across the ice, and not simply sit in the one spot where they expect the shot to come from. Employ screens and tip drills. Make your goalies, and the rest of your players, get after rebounds (this will help develop the tenacity to win those goalmouth battles). Give you goalies, and players, the required time to recover before seeing a new puck (sometimes just a few seconds is all that’s needed).

Mostly, just be aware of that kid in the pads between the pipes. Put yourself in his or her skates. Your goalie will benefit, and your team will benefit.

This article originally appeared in the November 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.
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