The life of a goaltender is a complicated one. Coaches always teach and stress physical skills. From skating ability to handling the puck, from half butterfly saves to use of the gloves, the goaltender is continuously coached on his or her physical skills.
Don’t forget, though, the mental skills are just as important. In fact, at the pro level, because almost everyone has exceptional physical skills, the difference is made up with one’s mental skills. Reading and reacting, choosing the correct save selection, cutting down angles properly, anticipation, focus, reading the puck off the stick, tracking, mental toughness, etc., are all mental skills that directly effect a goaltender’s performance.
But, all these mental skills are greatly influenced by the goaltender’s “mental state,” specifically his or her confidence. It is amazing how fragile a goaltender’s self confidence can be, and how quickly it can turn. I’ve seen goalies play several solid games in a row, have one bad period, and lose their confidence for a week or more.
Coaches do not realize how they can ruin a goaltender’s confidence with harsh words, bad practice drills, or “yanking” the goaltender to cause an embarrassing moment. That’s not to say that a goalie need not be “mentally tough.” He or she must overcome the negatives (giving up bad goals, being yanked, etc.) and rise above to excel. Self-confidence is critical.
Sometimes a goalie is overly cocky, and that upsets coaches and teammates. That’s OK if the goalie performs well. Teammates need to learn to accept the “cockiness” because it may be a big part of the goaltender’s formula for success.
When a goaltender loses confidence and is playing poorly, a number of defense mechanisms kick in, which should be a dead giveaway to the coach or parents of the goaltender. They are used as an attempt to hide the confidence problem. Here are some very common examples:
1. Equipment Problems: Nothing seems to be right, and the goalie makes sure everyone knows. Whether the stick is wrong, the skates are not sharpened correctly, or the arm pads aren’t comfortable or protective enough, the equipment gets some of the blame. Often, a new piece of gear can snap a goalie out of a slump.
2. The Defense: Placing the blame elsewhere is common. It is somebody else’s fault or there “was no way to stop that one.” Again, it’s an attempt to protect one’s confidence. Goalies should never point the finger. Parents can be of great assistance for the goalie. Don’t let them blame others, and don’t blame others for them.
3. Positioning Changes in the Net: When a goaltender is struggling, he or she changes positioning in one of two ways. First, the goalie may stay very deep in the net, receiving security from being close to the goalposts. Goals will be scored because the goaltender will be too deep. The other extreme is the goaltender comes out way too far, often “running at shooters” – sometimes to the hash marks. This will be very evident in a pre-game warm up. The goalie, having lost confidence believes that if he or she cuts down the angle a lot, a shooter cannot score. What happens in this case is that the goalie gets caught out of position, often moving forward at the attackers, and “loses the net.”
4. “Mood” Change: Again, there are two extremes. Either the goaltender gets real quiet, somewhat “feeling sorry for him or herself” or because overly cocky. This “over cockiness” is very common with goalies in an attempt to convince oneself and everyone around him that he is still good. Sports psychologists say this is very common.
5. Guessing and Flopping Much More Than Normal: When the goaltender is unsure, the first reaction is to leave his or her feet early, guessing and not tracking the puck off the stick or on the way to the net, thus leaving the goaltender very vulnerable. Often the goalie ends up “swimming” on the ice.
Overall, everybody is different with varying degrees of self-confidence and various ways in which they lose, regain, and keep that confidence. One thing is for sure, a goaltender cannot excel without it.
Mitch Korn is the goaltender coach with the Washington Capitals. For more goaltender tips, go to www.mitchkorn.com.