It is repeatedly noted in hockey circles that one of the most important traits successful goaltenders demonstrate is that of having tough skin. This is a different way of saying that you do not let things bother you. In this brief article I will discuss how the goaltender faces the most amount of criticism of any player on a hockey club at any competitive level of the game. I will try and provide some practical tips to help any interested individual learn coping techniques to deal with the reality of being the man between the pipes.
Being a goaltender is the most exciting position in hockey and arguably in all of sport. It is a position that comes with great rewards and great criticism. The pressure is felt at all levels of the game but it can arguably be most difficult for children playing minor hockey and their parents.
When things are going well for the team the goaltender will get a lot of positive feedback from both coaches, team-mates, fans and parents. You will often here that you played a great game and sometimes that you were the difference between a win or a loss (“you stole the game”). Your statistics will be very good with a solid win-loss record. You may have several shutouts to your credit. If everything is going well, you will also have an excellent GAA and SV%. You feel great and you are confident in your abilities. Everyone is happy.
When things go poorly for the team, comments and emotions are quite different. You winning percentage is not good and your GAA is rising with every start. The coaches may say they need better goaltending. They may say you let in too many soft goals or that you really should have had that one. You will get the proverbial ‘hook’ and ,during the really bad times, sit on the bench. Your teammates may ignore you or even make comments like “ we would have won that game if the other guy was in”. The parents of the other players will not blame their own children for mistakes but, as always, will look for a scapegoat to justify things or compensate for their own weaknesses. The positive pats on the back you got in the arena lobby have become a thing of the past. You are not happy and it becomes less enjoyable to come to the rink. You have a negative outlook towards the next game before the puck is even dropped and you doubt your abilities as a goaltender.
At the junior or professional level, your coach will pull you from the game, he will sit you on the bench, he may humiliate you in front of the team, may call you out in public through television or the newspapers and ultimately you can lose your job on the team.
Here are some suggestions to help stay balanced:
- One of the first things you can do to help yourself is to acknowledge that there will always be pressure when being a goaltender. If you can accept that it is ALWAYS there then hopefully you can move past that and not make any changes in your approach to practices and games. You accept it is there and then you move on and think no more about it for a game against the worst team in the league than for the final game of a championship series. If you think there is pressure in one game but not another you will alter your emotional state and brain biochemistry for that event.
- Remain emotionally balanced and detached. Do not listen to all the positive feedback and get to high and do not listen to all the negative stuff and get too low. Understand that when things are great you are probably getting too much credit and during bad times too much blame is being placed on your shoulders. The reality lies somewhere in the middle and you have to be the most objective person in assessing your performance. If you rely on what other people say you are doing well and poorly you will go insane. If you are objective and critical of yourself then you will become very strong mentally.
- Acknowledge that the criticism also comes with the territory and embrace it, do not run from it. Take it as a challenge and turn it around and make it a positive motivational factor for your training and performances. Like Nietzsche said “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger!”
- Put it all on your own shoulders and NEVER criticize a teammate for a mistake even if he /she was the one that caused the goal.
- Remember that goaltending is an individual position within a team game so although you hope your teammates will be there for you, NEVER trust their judgment completely. Rely only on yourself!
- Acknowledge that part of being a successful coach usually involves emotions and do not take it personally when you are yelled at.
- At the higher levels of the game avoid reading newspapers and watching television if this works best for you.
- Accept that winning and losing are part of competing and do not place yourself worth as a goalie on the outcome of a game. (During 1970s, a game took place between the Montreal Canadiens and the Boston Bruins. The Canadiens won 10-2. Gerry Cheevers was in net for the Bruins. After the game, Hap Holmes, the Bruins GM, came into the dressing room all wired up and asked Cheevers what had happed. Cheevers responded in a relaxed fashion with his now famous poem : “Roses are red, Violets are blue. They got 10, and we got two. See you later”. NOW THAT’S RELAXED !!)
When things go well you win as a team. When things go poorly, more often than not, you lose as a goalie. When I encounter this phenomenon I often reflect on the word ‘FAN’. This is defined in Webster’s dictionary as a “person enthusiastic about a specific sport, past-time or performer”. Furthermore, it is closely associated with the adjective FANATICAL meaning “unreasonably enthusiastic or overly zealous”. In competitive sports, appreciation and past performances are short lived. It is all about what you have done for me today! Hopefully this article makes you realize there are many things you just have to accept as coming with the territory of being a goalie. In takes a lot of psychological training to alter your brain biochemistry to the point that your reaction, and emotional state, to both good and bad outcomes is essentially the same. Just remember that if you are playing well remain humble, and, if going through a rough patch, continue to work hard, believe in yourself and things will eventually turn around.