Monnich’s Mental Game: Turning Goaltending Failure into Success
As a goalie coach and sport psychology consultant I work with athletes, predominantly ice hockey goaltenders, who must constantly deal with failure, being scored on, and the resulting reaction of the crowd (disappointment, scorn, derision), parents (embarrassment, negative criticism, scorn), teammates (disappointment, scorn, derision), coaches (judgementalism, disappointment, scorn, derision), and themselves (disappointment, scorn, derision, low self-efficacy, loss of confidence, and resulting creative mortification). Beghetto, (2013, 2014) states that creative mortification is the loss of one’s willingness to pursue a particular creative aspiration following a negative performance outcome. My role is to teach these athletes how to manage failure, and in the face of it, continue to perform up to their potential.
I explain to each goaltender that they compete in a sport that is predicated upon their failure. Their role is to keep the other team from scoring but the game could not exist if goals were not scored. In fact their position has become so effective, due to specialized coaching, that the National Hockey League continues to alter the rule book to restrict goaltender’s range of movement and size of protective equipment, and has even proposed enlarging the nets in order to facilitate higher scoring across the league.
One of the biggest issues that I encounter as a sport psychology consultant and mental skills coach is the struggle that these athletes, at every level, have with getting scored on, and the resulting stresses. The pressure to succeed, that these athletes place upon themselves, often results in immediate negative emotional response, often anger, which further diminishes their immediate level of performance.
When a coach, parent, or the athlete, themselves, is told after a failure that “you need to be better” or “you are better than that,” they are internalizing the attribution for the negative performance. They are embracing, cultivating, and reinforcing a fixed mindset, whereby every success or failure is a reflection of the fixed immutable nature or skill of the individual. In other words, “if I fail I am a failure.” In light of this they do not believe that anything can really change. They lose their self-efficacy for the sport, and tend to drop out.
When a goalie is scored on they will be embarrassed. They will respond to that embarrassment with anger, at themselves and perhaps their teammates who failed on a play. They might yell at their teammates. They might curse and shrug their shoulders. They might bang their stick on the ice or the net, sometimes even breaking their stick in frustration with a baseball bat swing into the net post. More often they are sincerely emotionally upset. Others feel they must act out in this way to convince the coach or their team that they care enough. However, these emotional outbursts tend to raise their level of arousal beyond their zone of optimal functioning, resulting in diminished performance. With each successive goal the goalie’s performance spirals out of control resulting in a “meltdown” and getting replaced by his goalie partner, resulting in further public humiliation. If his failures were egregious enough this can lower his self-efficacy to the point of experiencing a slump.
My role is to cultivate in these athletes a growth mindset, propelled by intrinsic motivation, in which they view failure as only an opportunity for improvement. In fact I teach these athletes that the game, which their head coach considers of primary importance, is, in the broader consideration of their hockey careers, only a test of their skills. Failure (being scored on) is the revealing of a weak link in their performance that they can take back to their practices in order to resolve and become stronger, and increase their potential.
In fact, every goal against is the illumination of yet another weakness that can be targeted and resolved through hard work at practice, and thus become stronger and stronger, further increasing their potential.
The game is only an indicator, and when the goalie embraces this intrinsic motivation to improve, their success follows.
To identify and reinforce the external attribution of the negative performance outcome I explain to the goalie that the only reason the puck goes into the net is because of a technical breakdown on the goalie’s part.
It has nothing to do with the athlete’s personality, or who he or she is. It is only technical, and sometimes it’s just because of a damn good shot by the opponent (sometimes we have to credit them for their skill). As such we can track our goals against to determine any trends that can reveal weaknesses.
I instruct goalies that when you are scored on do not move from your position. If you feel the need to bang your stick, or say a curse word you may do so, but only once. If you do not feel the need, then don’t. That way we can blow off that emotional pressure.
Then, immediately look around you and try to determine why the puck got past you. Was it your positioning? Did you give up a bad rebound? Did you lose sight of the puck? Make a mental note of this. Make a little adjustment, even right then, to put you in the correct position.
Then take a deep cleansing breath, and say “focus on the next shot.”
In this way the goalie is externalizing the attribution for the negative performance outcome. They respond to their emotional disappointment, without indulging it further and spiraling into a mindset of victimization. They shift or reset their mindset into looking for the cause and means of correction, and then clear their mind and reset for the next shot.
The goaltender is then encouraged to keep a game journal where they record their goals against and share this with their goaltending coach every week. This provides the coach with a guide for targeting weaknesses to resolve through adjusting the goalie’s save response and practice.
It’s not easy to face our failures, and even harder to accept our weaknesses. But everyone has weaknesses. Our culture tends to view weaknesses as negative and to be avoided. As such, we don’t face our weaknesses, and we keep falling to them.
Joseph Campbell said “Where you stumble, there lies your treasure. The very cave you are afraid to enter turns out to be the source of what you are looking for.”
By adopting this growth mindset we are able to accept our negative performance with an external attribution thus avoiding a fixed ability belief and the resulting creative mortification.
~ Ted Monnich is a Sport Psychology Consultant with Breakaway Performance, LLC, a Mental Conditioning Coach with GDI USA, and the author of the upcoming book Mental Conditioning for Goaltending. He has worked with goalies of all levels, from minor hockey to pro.