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Stop pucks or prevent goals? Top Sports Psychologists Answer

Do you like to stop pucks or prevent goals?

That was the question one team asked goalies during the annual NHL Scouting Combine this week in Buffalo, and it admittedly perplexed the consensus No. 1 goaltending prospect.

“I’m not sure what to think,” Knight told reporters after relaying the question in several interviews. “I like stopping pucks, but I think the whole point of goaltending is to prevent goals. So, I’m still going back and forth on that one. I’m still thinking about it.”

Others were happy to answer for him on social media, where the question created a buzz in the online goaltending community, as well as a mixed bag of answers and reasons for them.

John Stevenson didn’t need any time to think about his response and reasons. As a sports psychologist with a goalie coaching background and client list that includes Braden Holtby of the Washington Capitals and Carter Hart of the Philadelphia Flyers, Stevenson had a quick and definitive answer.

“As a sports psychologist, language is everything to me,” Stevenson said over the phone from Washington, where he’d just spent four hours with Holtby, “Because it’s not the words that we say, but it’s the picture that we put in our mind. For example, if I say ‘don’t back in so soon,’ or ‘don’t go down so early,’ as opposed to ‘hold your ground, be patient, outwait the shooter,’ it sounds like the same thing but it’s not because your subconscious can’t tell the difference between what is real and what is imagined. So, for me personally, I love to stop pucks because that to me means I am in control, I love it, it’s my job, it’s my passion. For me, ‘I like to prevent goals’ sounds like you are panicking. Like, why are we talking about goals? We don’t talk about goals. We talk about stopping pucks. That’s our job, just stop the puck.”

Stevenson said talking about goals automatically plants goals in our subconscious.

“The key thing – and this is why mental rehearsal works – is the brain can’t tell the difference,” he said. “Whatever the conscious mind tells it, the subconscious mind runs the program, whether it’s true or not, it runs the program. That’s why it’s so important to make sure you are always telling your brain what you want to do on the ice, not what you don’t want to do.”

It’s an important lesson on the role that language can play in training a goaltender’s mindset, one that can also be applied to goalie coaches and how they speak to students.

Stevenson is teaming up with Pete Fry, an ex-goalie now focused on the position as a sports psychologist, to bring those lessons to the public with one-day seminars at locations across the country this summer. PLAY OUT OF YOUR MIND, a full-day goalie mindset seminar and workshop, kicks off in Vancouver on the same weekend as the 2019 NHL Draft, with Atom and Pee Wee goalies Saturday, June 22, and Bantam through Pro goaltenders on Sunday, June 23, the day after the draft. (Given some of the responses to the “stop pucks or prevent goals” question, some draft-eligible goalies might want to sign up).

Why are we talking about goals? We don’t talk about goals. We talk about stopping pucks. That’s our job, just stop the puck.

John Stevenson

Sports Psychologist for Braden Holtby, Carter Hart and other top goaltenders

Given that partnership, it shouldn’t be surprising Fry echoed Stevenson in his response to the Scouting Combine question that stumped Knight ahead of the NHL Draft at the end of this month.

“Why should goalies be concerned with the language they use? Because when you talk, your brain forms pictures in your head,” said Fry, whose client list includes pro Jeff Glass and drafted prospects like Dylan Ferguson (Vegas Golden Knights) and Stuart Skinner (Edmonton Oilers). “For example, if I say the word ‘goalie,’ you picture an actual goalie in your head and not the letters ‘g. o. a. l. i. e.’ This is how your brain thinks. In pictures.  Why should you be concerned with the pictures in your head? Because your brain is the most powerful computer on the planet and you will walk into the picture you hold of yourself.

“Why are athletes told to visualize before a game? Because of the rule that you will walk into the picture you hold of yourself, so you need to consistently fill your head with great pictures. This is impossible to do if you are using language that puts negative pictures in your head.”

That includes how goaltenders talk about their past performances, whether it’s with a coach, parent or teammate in youth hockey, or when talking to the media as a pro. Fry teaches his goalies to replace “I got scored on” or “I let in a goal” with “I didn’t come up with the save” because the latter creates a picture in the goalie’s brain of a save. It’s a lot more positive than creating a picture of a goal.

“The other important factor here is your brain does not recognize the word don’t,” Fry said. “For example, if I say ‘don’t think of getting scored on,’ what do you picture? Getting scored on, of course. Your brain doesn’t recognize the word don’t and you still end up picturing getting scored on.”

All of which brings us back to the question Knight faced at the NHL Scouting Combine: Do you like to stop pucks or prevent goals? On the surface, they may seem like the same thing. How a goalie thinks about it, however, creates a very different picture in their mind. One involves a save. The other includes a goal.

If you ask Stevenson and Fry, two of the top position-specific sports psychologists in hockey, the correct answer is obvious: Stop pucks.


More about Stevenson and Fry’s Play out of your Mind Full-Day Goalie Mindset Seminar and Workshop

The one-day seminars promise to teach goalies (or goalie parents or coaches):

  • How to Create Complete Confidence in a moment
  • Gain Absolute Belief in yourself
  • Reset from mistakes with Total Certainty that you will make the next save, and teach the 3 R’s of re-grouping after not making a save
  • Create the anchors used by pros to bring back the Exact Feeling you want in a game.
  • Same Game and Career Impacting Visualizations that Fry teaches to pros like Glass.
  • Master the 7 C’s of Total Mental Toughness that John taught Holtby, Hart, Laurent Brossoit and others to develop mental skills of concentration, composure, confidence, consistency, commitment, coach-ability and compassion
  • The same Pre-Game Routines used by Hart, Holtby and others at highest levels
  • Become crystal clear on your Future Self and strategies to get there
  • Practical mental toughness skills that you can use on a daily basis in the summer to prepare for fall tryouts and to dominate your competition

About The Author

Kevin Woodley

Kevin Woodley is a rec-league target and former contributing editor of the Goalie News magazine. He has written about the Vancouver Canucks and NHL for The Associated Press, USA Today, Sports Illustrated and The Hockey News for the last decade, and covered the 2010 Olympics for The AP.


  1. Jason

    I totally agree, a goaltender should be thinking about stopping pucks not preventing goals. One of the things I ask young goalies who are struggling is, “What are you thinking about when a play is developing in your zone?” Uniformly a goaltender who is struggling responds, “I’m worrying about being scored on.” While goaltenders who are being successful are thinking, “I have an opportunity to make a save and play the puck.” Fear is debilitating, it freezes us. Thus, the fear of being scored on makes it more likely that the puck will go in the net. Opportunity is enabling. Thus if we see an opportunity to stop the puck we actually make it more likely that that’s what will happen.

    A friend of mine equated this to being, “on top of the water, or under the water.” The boundary is at the same place, but which side of it you’re looking from makes all the difference in the world.



  2. Steve Schut

    So I don’t really think there’s a right or wrong answer. As a goalie my number one job is to stop the puck And also prevent the other team from scoring on our net. So as a goalie I want to prevent goals by making saves. I understand that by saying goals there’s a negative connotation. It puts that image of a ‘goal’ in your head. I want to make the saves but I want to put the puck in areas where the other team is less likely to have another scoring opportunity