Few realize playing guitar can make them a better goalie
The link between NHL goalies and guitars is well established.
From Ryan Miller, Henrik Lundqvist and Jose Theodore playing in their own bands, to NHL goalie turned goaltending coach Sean Burke jamming with Garth Brooks, to Mike Smith and Robert Esche celebrating their love of stringed instruments on their masks, there are plenty of links between goalies and guitars.
Turns out there may be a lot more to it than just another case of jock stars wanting to be rock stars. While these goaltenders may just be avid music lovers – or as Burke once playfully suggested, just want to get girls – their guitar-playing hobby enhances their puck-stopping abilities. It may sound far-fetched, but playing a stringed instrument really can make you a better goaltender.
“I had not heard that,” said new Canucks backup Cory Schneider, who began playing guitar when he first turned pro three years ago to fill winter downtime in Winnipeg with the AHL Manitoba Moose. “But yeah, I suppose it is a lot of wrist flexion and you have to be sturdy with your finger picking and things like that, so I could see how it translates to strong forearm muscles.”
That may also be true, but the real reason the guitar helps goalies has more to do with the brain than the forearms. It all has to do with how our brains work, how we learn skills, and how those skills contribute to and reinforce similar motor functions in a phenomenon called Transfer of Learning.
Ted Monnich, a former minor pro goalie, Assistant Coach for the Columbia Inferno of the ECHL, and musician, began studying the effects in 2003 along with sports psychologist Dr. Eva Monsma of the University of South Carolina. Monnich, who has also coached goalies in Turkey and Slovakia and currently works as a regional assistant manager with GDI goalie schools, started tracking the performance of select senior and minor-pro goaltenders, including himself and his students, after noticing his own increased glove hand agility and performance after practicing the guitar. He set out to determine if this was only coincidence or if there was a cause and effect relationship. It turns out there was.
“Over several seasons the study showed glove response and glove save percentage increased on a game-by-game basis after practicing music – by ear on the guitar – within a few hours prior to playing hockey,” Monnich said, stressing it had to be played by ear and not sight reading sheet music. “Likewise, the agility of musicianship increased after playing hockey. And a more difficult music seemed to produce greater short-term stimulation and enhancement of these functions.”
Monnich introduced the concept to goaltender Todd Ford, a third-round draft pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs, when they were together in Columbia. Not only did Ford try it; he later started a band in Charleston. Monnich sent an email asking Ford, now with Hershey in the AHL, if he still played.
“He said ‘every day, it really works,’” Monnich recalled.
So why does it work? It’s about transfer of learning, said Monnich, or the idea a student will learn faster and develop a deeper understanding of one task if they already have some knowledge or similar skills from another task. This cross-task facilitation is based on similarities between processes involved in the two skills and is at the core of sports cross training. A common example in motor skill transfer is how learning to ride a bicycle facilitates learning to skate, ski, or anything that requires having to maintain balance while moving forward.
“Likewise with goaltending, learning to play a stringed instrument enhances motor functions, particularly of the hands and arms,” Monnich added.
So when a puck-stopping musician learns, practices and plays a song by ear on a guitar, they are stimulating the same right hemisphere area of the brain that memorizes the skills used in goaltending. By stimulating the right hemisphere they are stimulating the same neural pathways established to make a glove or blocker save, resulting in quicker, more adept glove or blocker responses.
“This stimulation is not necessarily greater than that received in regular on-ice practice sessions,” said Monnich. “But the variation in the source of stimulation – guitar playing vs. hockey practice – further reinforces the goalie’s skill. Guitar playing is not a substitute for on-ice practice, but an augmentation to reinforce the skills developed in practice and training.”
These skills of efficiently fretting a guitar’s neck and catching a fast-moving puck (with the left hand) stimulate and reinforce related neural patterns in the brain’s right hemisphere. Correspondingly, the right hand automatically selects the correct strings to pluck or strum as determined by the song, reinforcing neural patterns associated with the right hand response, usually the blocker.
“You are just manipulating your fingers in a controlled way that stimulates your brain in the same places that catching pucks or using your blocker stimulates it,” said Monnich “But you are doing it with things you have memorized, just like you have memorized saves. You memorized how to play guitar, you’ve memorized how to play a song by ear and it stimulates the same part of the brain as making a save and practicing it over and over and over just like a song. And then something stimulates it and that part of the brain fires automatically.”
Breaking it down further, Monnich explains that a song is composed of a series of unique patterns of musical notes, timing and rhythm. The musician learns to play a song by ear by practicing these patterns over and over again, and as each is learned and practiced, a new corresponding neural pattern (or pathway or chain) is constructed in the brain. When a musical phrase is “memorized” the musician can, seemingly automatically, play that phrase or line of notes without thought. In the brain each neural pattern is firing. When an entire song is learned and memorized through repetition, the entire series of neural pathways fire, not just individually, but as one entire pattern.
The same principles apply to goaltending, specifically when it comes to learning save selection, reaction, and appropriate post-save responses. All can be taught, learned, and practiced so the goalie responds automatically to the situation, without thought or seemingly any conscious analysis.
“Through repetition the neural pattern is reinforced so that when called upon it fires automatically,” said Monnich. “When each small movement is linked into the complete save the small pathways are joined into a larger neural pattern that fires sequentially. Through correct and regular repetition of the complete movement in practice situations, the entire new neural pattern is further reinforced and fires, not in stages, but instantly, in one large pattern, to a subconscious stimulus, typically the puck leaving the shooter’s stick and the proximity of other players. No thought is required to respond. The save selection and response is seemingly automatic and subconscious.”
Likewise in music, the memorized elements of a song are stimulated and recalled by the preceding elements, patterns or notes. The guitarist’s top hand moves automatically and efficiently along the length and width of the instrument’s neck, fingering the appropriate notes as memorized and recalled by the simultaneously firing neural patterns. Where the musician’s hand and fingers move is determined by repetitive practice of the learned song and its patterns. Likewise, through repetitive practice and drills, the goaltender’s glove responds automatically to the sight of the puck leaving the shooter’s stick and predetermined trajectory of the puck, also learned through practice.
“Guitar playing will not make a bad goalie into a good goalie,” Monnich said, “It won’t impart new or better skills. But it will stimulate, enhance and reinforce existing skills.”
(Editor’s note: Look for more unique insights from Ted Monnich at InGoal Magazine in the coming months and be sure to check out his website).