LaBarbera Ask A Pro: Mental Battle of a Backup
They ranged from technique and pre-game habits, to how he got started between the pipes, to his sharp-looking new CCM gear. But there was one – asked in a couple of slightly different ways by InGoal readers Carl Herring and Jacob Hernandez – that ended up dominating the conversation, and hence this Ask a Pro.
Both readers wondered how hard it was for LaBarbera to deal with the pressure of knowing he may only get a few starts all season behind last year’s breakout NHL puck-stopping star, Mike Smith. They wondered how, given that, he kept himself prepared.
As honest, open and humble as he is likeable, LaBarbera admitted it’s been incredibly hard and remains a work in progress, sparking an interesting back and forth conversation about winning that tough mental battle, and the hazards of trying to impress coaches in practices that don’t always mimic games. It’s a chat that a lot of non-goalie coaches should pay attention to – especially those that favor endless rush drills that aren’t always optimal for their goalies:
Question from Herring: How difficult is the pressure knowing in a short season that you may get only a few starts (all big games) that you need to win for your team. Are these your playoff games, mentally?
LaBarbera: “Yeah, it’s been pretty tough. There’s such a small window for games and you are obviously going to get less opportunity so you can’t get frustrated in practice, you have to keep your head above water and try to keep yourself as ready as possible. The backup job is never easy because you don’t play for a month and then when you do get one game you have to play well. In a shortened season like this I might get to play four, maybe five, games this year, who knows?
LaBarbera: “I would love to get advice from someone on that (smiles). Honestly, you just have to try not to get frustrated, that’s the hardest part. And I’ve definitely gotten frustrated, but you have to come to the rink and work hard and try to enjoy doing what you are doing, even if it’s not what you want to be doing completely. You still have to enjoy it, enjoy being around the guys, enjoy the experience.
“You do get a little jaded as you get older a little bit, obviously. But mentally it’s a grind, it’s real tough, because you just never know and always want to feel like you are ready but you never know when you are going to get a chance. And when you do get that chance, you want to play well and you put a lot of pressure on yourself.”
InGoal: How do you avoid putting that extra pressure on yourself?
LaBarbera: “I haven’t done a very good job of not doing that. I put a lot of stress and pressure on myself. I try to remind myself that this is supposed to be fun and you are supposed to enjoy it.”
InGoal: What are the hardest things to keep sharp between starts, and can you stay ready with more game-situation drills in practice?
LaBarbera: “We do a good job of working on stuff from behind the net, pass outs, point shots with traffic and stuff. There are two things that I think are tough when you don’t play. Traffic is one, fighting through traffic because you know in practice guys aren’t going to come as hard. And tracking the puck through that is big too. Half the time in practice you are just battling trying to get through. You are tired, you have taken a million shots, you are just trying to get to your spot and let the puck hit you half the time, so you kind of lose that tracking, and sometimes you have to go back and just kind of start over a little bit.”
LaBarbera: “I actually like throwing a ball around. That helps, whether it’s a tennis ball or a football or something. I like throwing a football. We always used to throw a football around before a game, just to watch it into your hands and just keep your eye on it all the way. That part of it is tough when you don’t play, the tracking and traffic.”
InGoal: Like Smith, you’ve become more of an inside-out goalie under coach Sean Burke in Phoenix, with shorter, quick movements from Point A to Point B rather than starting aggressive and flowing back to your net. But practice is often a lot of rush drills, so how do you find a balance between needing that backwards flow, and playing a game?
LaBarbera: “In practice it’s tough to be that guy and not a skater because everything is open and off the rush and guys have more time and at this level if they have that much time they are going to pick corners. Game situations they don’t have that time so it’s better to be a little bit back more. But in practice guys have all day and you start to get tired as practice goes on, and I found the last couple of weeks I started to be a little more of the skater guy, take another step out just to give myself a better chance to make myself feel a bit better.”
InGoal: That hardly sounds ideal – feel better by playing different?
LaBarbera: “It’s hard because you don’t want to get away from who you are and how you want to play in a game, but if you play deep in practice you are screwed to a point. Especially in practice, because coaches are looking at you, want to make sure you are making saves, look like you are playing well and if you are always going from point A to point B and always kind of stuck, you get yourself in trouble.”