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Learning Mental Toughness: The Stoplight Metaphor

Learning Mental Toughness: The Stoplight Metaphor

Mental toughness is an area that often gets neglected by goaltenders. It’s a specific skill that is very hard to develop, and doesn’t get enough attention as a result.

The majority of practice time is spent working on technical moves, especially at goaltending-specific camps. More of it needs to be devoted on and off the ice to developing a goaltender’s mental strength and strategy, in order to succeed.

Untitled-2Most goalies will try to keep their minds as blank as possible while playing, but that isn’t always the best strategy. There needs to be a plan in place for when things start to go badly, because distractions will occur in every single game.

Some goaltenders are naturally better at it than others, but mental strength is a skill that can be learned, improved, and taught.

Donna Perry, a mental performance specialist and professor at Capilano University in North Vancouver, agrees that more emphasis needs to be placed on the development of a goaltender’s mental game.

“It’s like any technical skill. It’s not a matter of having a personality that will hold you back, it’s about learning the skill of rebound ability.”

If a goaltender is not able to rebound properly, it can derail not only a single game, but an entire season.

Different personality traits lead to many different challenges for coaches. There is a broad spectrum when it comes to goaltenders. One year a coach may have a player that is extremely relaxed, and gets labelled as having a ‘low compete level’ by scouts and evaluators. The next year a coach may have a player that is so tightly wound and hard on him or herself, that it becomes detrimental.

Both types are equally challenging and frustrating to correct.

“It’s usually one extreme or the other.” Perry explained, “Goalies can either be over-aroused or under-aroused. You have to identify what your optimal arousal state is, and how to get back there consistently.”

For a goaltender that is under-aroused, Perry believes that it is important to have clearly identified goals. The player needs to have a measurable purpose for every game and every practice session. Don’t think of it as something specific like ‘do this drill in under 10 seconds by the end of practice’ but rather something that relates to the process, like fully understanding which situations to use a particular move.

It can be challenging for a coach to come up with something for every practice, but coaching is never easy, and this is something that you need to try to help the goaltender that is under-aroused on the ice.

StoplightFor goalies that are over-aroused, it can be a bit trickier. There are a few simple mental strategies that all goalies can learn to help their game and remain at the proper focus level. The different focus levels can be clearly defined.

Perry likes to teach it as a stoplight metaphor.

In the “green light zone” the player is in their optimal arousal state, 100 percent focused, attentive, and ready for anything.

In the “yellow light zone” the player is roughly 50 percent focused. Resting, but still thinking about the game.

In the “red light zone” the player is not focused at all. Something has taken the player away from the game. Distractors can be anything from allowing a poor goal, to something the coach said in the dressing room, or something that happened earlier in the day. It’s anything that keeps the player from being able to focus on the moment. Once a player is in the red light zone, it becomes a spiral effect and is nearly impossible to get out of.

The key is not to always be in the green light zone, but to simply be aware of the yellow light zone. As long as the player is aware, it becomes easier to get back into the green light zone.

It’s an interesting challenge for goaltenders, since they are on the ice for the entire game, but action comes very sporadically. Being able to properly and quickly transition from the yellow light zone back into the green light zone can be difficult.

“[Over-aroused] goalies think that they have to be focused for the entire game, and end up mentally exhausting themselves.” said Perry, “Goalies need to have a time where they are able to relax, and they have to know where that relaxed place is. Is that when they cross the far blue line? You have to know your ‘on’ and ‘off’ switches. There is no way a goalie can focus for the entire length of a game.”

The distractors that come into play while in the yellow light zone need to be identified by the goaltender in order to be properly understood.

What is the best way to identify them? Perry thinks all goalies should create a post-game journal, something that has been addressed before in InGoal Magazine, to write their thoughts down immediately after they get off the ice.

“Analyze what happened during the game mentally. Not physically, not technically – mentally. Where did you break down? Where did you start to lose focus? Try to identify what your distractors are.”

After identifying what gets the goalie off their game, create a plan that involves visualization and self-talk to stop it from ever happening again. A routine is also important, as it helps avoid falling into the red light zone. It can be anything from telling a goalie to picture the best save they’ve ever made, to repeating a word or mantra. Use anything that helps transition back into the green light zone.

With the journals, it doesn’t always have to be something negative.

Coaches should also ask the player what they were thinking when they played well. Identifying what gets the player back into the green light zone can be just as important as identifying distractors. Ask them what was going through their mind right before they made their best save, or during a time in which they felt focused. The results can only be positive.

It’s important to stop ignoring the things that go through a goalie’s mind while the game is being played. Every goaltender is a complex individual, and every goaltender has a different way of mentally preparing.

Be aware of the green, yellow, and red light zones, keep a journal of thoughts for after a game, and set clearly identifiable goals.  There’s always room for improvement in a goaltender’s mental game.

Special thanks to Donna Perry for helping create this article with her insight and expertise. Please check out her website here for more information.

About The Author

Greg Balloch

Greg Balloch is a Vancouver-based writer for InGoal Magazine, broadcaster for Sportsnet 650, and goaltending coach. His career began in Hamilton, Ontario with the Junior 'A' Hamilton Red Wings, before moving to Vancouver to cover the Canucks on the radio and work with the Surrey Eagles of the BCHL. A lifelong goaltender, he has been teaching the position for over a decade.


  1. John Alexander

    I have used the traffic light analogy in the past, but in a slightly different context. Puck in opposition end – light is green (relax & observe); puck in the neutral zone – light is yellow (preparation & focus); puck in my zone – light is red (complete focus & heightened alertness)

    • Tracy

      That’s actually a good way to mentally break the game down. Thanks for the good idea. I will put it to use this weekend!

  2. Paul Ipolito

    Great article on a topic that is critical to teenage goalies. By this point in their journey most of them have mastered the mechanical skills but they have difficulty with the mental side of the game. This is also an area a young goalie has to learn and master on his/her own. Fortunately there are many good resources covering this topic. Thanks for the article and for your attention to this topic.

  3. Bob Woodhouse

    Like Jacque Plante once said….”Goaltending, 1/2 of it is mental, 1/2 of it is being mental.”

  4. Varian Kirst

    Thanks for the article. There is no doubt that goaltending is mostly mental and if you are out of tune with it you are going to struggle at higher levels. Not that it matters (because i don’t believe you have to be a former goalie or play at a high level to be a great coach, what truly matters is passion for the position) but at what level did this professor play?