September 27, 2013

The Goalie Guru: An old goaltender and his dog

By Brion O'Connor

The small chapel at Merrimack College in Andover, Mass., was packed with nearly 100 superb goaltending prospects, ages 14 to 24, and some of the best goaltending coaches from North America and Sweden. It was the first full night of a weeklong prospects camp. The day was spent on the physical aspects of the game. The evening would be dedicated to the position’s mental challenges.

The speaker was Dr. Saul Miller, a sports psychologist and performance consultant from Vancouver, British Columbia, and author of “Hockey Tough: A Winning Mental Game” (hockeytough.com), among other books. Miller has impressive credentials, having worked with numerous NFL, CFL and Major League Baseball teams, as well as professional golfers and Olympians. In hockey, Miller has consulted with teams and players ranging from youth and recreational programs up through junior and college programs and the professional ranks, including the NHL. The guy knows his stuff.

For an hour, Miller — a former goaltender himself — entertained his young audience, addressing key ideas such as focus, emotional control, mental toughness, mental preparation, attitude and commitment. I was impressed with how he concentrated on positive reinforcement, being “in the moment,” and embracing the Japanese concept of “kaizen,” or “commitment to continuous improvement.”

At one point during his talk, Miller asked his young listeners what animal embodied the characteristics that they would use to describe their game. I jotted down my own answer, but quickly found out it wasn’t shared by the majority. Typical answers were “cheetah,” “jaguar,” or  “tiger.” In short, big cats. Predators. Miller obviously liked the response.

Miller told his audience that, as athletes, they have a choice. They can be the predator or the prey. I agree with that, in large part. Competition, especially in a game as rugged as hockey, is not kind to the meek. There’s an unmistakable Darwinism that exists in hockey, particularly at the higher levels. As Miller correctly pointed out, when the fear factor gets bigger, the goalie actually gets smaller.

Plus, I loved Miller’s characterization of a short memory, which every goalie knows is critical to success between the pipes. When a lion or cheetah misses a chance to bring down an antelope, for example, there’s no judgment. They don’t get depressed, or sulk, or throw a tantrum. They simply start hunting again. Goalies who beat themselves up over every goal could learn a great deal from that.

But there was a seriousness to Miller’s general message that I couldn’t help but feel was a little over the top. If you want to be melodramatic, the whole predator-prey analogy comes down to “kill or be killed,” and that’s not really hockey. I kept thinking there was a missing element to Miller’s discourse, and it hit me when I looked back to the answer I had scribbled earlier.

The animal I would emulate, if I was still on the upward curve of my hockey career, is my 7-year-old yellow Labrador retriever, True. Yes, our family pet. There is not an ounce of “predator” about True. In fact, she can be a total goofball. Once, when I was berating True for being such a knucklehead, my youngest daughter corrected me: “No, Dad, she’s a knucklehound.” The nickname stuck, for good reason. She can be stubborn to the point of intransigence.

As her narrow head and lean build indicates, True is a full-on American field Lab, bred to retrieve waterfowl, even in the most inhospitable conditions. Her father, Zeb, was one of my father in-law’s prized hunting dogs. In fact, any time he’s back east, my father in-law likes to remind me of “what a waste of a great hunting dog” True is. He’s probably right. True is 65 pounds of quick-twitch muscle, sinew and gray matter hard-wired to catch and retrieve. She is an athlete, in every sense of the word.

But she also personifies all those fabulous qualities that make Labrador retrievers such phenomenal pets. Loyalty, kindness, exuberance. But what really sets the Lab apart, in my eyes, is their boundless capacity for fun. Fun. Such a simple word, but it makes a world of difference in so much of what we do. When True sees me grab my lacrosse stick and tennis ball (our favorite form of exercise), her response is sheer, unadulterated joy. Her ears pick up, her tail wags uncontrollably, her entire body practically shakes with anticipation.

Yet, at that moment, she is absolutely locked in to the ball, a pure athlete waiting to pounce. In that instance, she is the perfect goaltender — coiled, confident, uncluttered by outside emotions or distractions. I’m pretty sure that you’d have to measure the time between when the ball leaves my lacrosse stick and True’s initial response in nanoseconds. She is that quick. And when she catches a ball off the bounce, mid-flight, I swear I can feel her sense of pride as she turns in a big, triumphant arch before running back.

Now, don’t get me wrong. True is a competitive beast. Fun doesn’t change that. If we’re at a local ballfield or beach, playing pitch and retrieve, True doesn’t mind a little bump-and-run with the other dogs. And, most of the time, she’s the first to the ball. But even if she isn’t, her spirit never fades. She doesn’t mope. She simply trots back, tail wagging, ready for the next toss.

Coaches and parents can learn something from my True as well. I praise her, constantly. As a result, she will run through walls for me. If I scolded her for every ball she “missed,” it probably wouldn’t be long before she would lose her enthusiasm for our games of catch. Because they would no longer be fun.

That’s one of the reasons I always tell my goalies to smile. I work them hard, because I want each and every one of them to enjoy that distinct sense of accomplishment that comes with maximizing their potential. But I never want them (or me) to lose sight of the fact that, at the end of the day, this is a game.

My coaching experience tells me this — if you’re having fun, you’re probably going to be a better goaltender, because you won’t be as tense. Tense goaltenders play at a disadvantage, because taut, rigid muscles are slow. Relaxed muscles are quick. The same holds, I believe, for your brain. So stay loose, even while working hard. Be kind to yourself. Have fun. Always have fun. If you need a reminder, stop by my place, and watch my knucklehound in action.

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.

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