November 27, 2013

Goalie Guru: Hidden dangers of overt practice celebrations

By Brion O’Connor

The father’s voice on the other end of the line was filled with frustration. For five minutes, I just let him unload, and here’s what he told me:

His son was a 10-year-old goalie who was rostered on the town’s Squirt 2 team. Dad had no problem with the level of team his son was put on, but was troubled by the ongoing antics of a few teammates. To be precise, the young boy’s father said several of his son’s teammates were celebrating every goal in practice. Not just a fist pump or a shout, but a full-blown celebration straight out of the NHL Network’s highlight reels. And the young goaltender was fed up with it. He didn’t want to change in the locker room. He didn’t want to hang out with his teammates. In fact, said his father, the young boy “didn’t feel like part of the team.” He was even thinking of quitting.

I couldn’t blame the youngster for feeling discouraged, and despondent. It’s one thing to be treated like a real-life pincushion during practice (based on the number of shots goalies face in most youth hockey practices, though I’m always hopeful that the tide is turning). It’s another thing to be constantly humiliated because the team has a couple of self-centered goofballs partying like they’ve just won Lord Stanley’s Cup after every practice tally. It’s adding insult to injury. Yet, for some odd reason, this behavior rarely warrants a second look from the coach.

This is one of the great laments of goalie parents. Imagine if your child was a Little League pitcher, and his (or her) teammates started jumping up and down and woofing every time they got a hit. In practice. Or how about if your child was batting, and the pitcher went into an orchestrated touchdown dance every time he got an out. Would you stand for that? I hope not. I know I wouldn’t.

Yet, for some reason, this happens all the time in youth hockey practices, and few parents bat an eye. Even if they do notice it, everyone tends to chalk it up to “kids being kids.” Everyone, that is, except the parents of the goalies. These ill-advised celebrations have a cumulative effect, and the result is rarely good. Coaches need to do a better job policing this behavior, pure and simple.

There’s an insidiousness to this behavior that coaches need to acknowledge and should strive to recognize. It’s fairly easy to shrug off the occasional celebration, but repetitive partying can wear a young goaltender down, quickly sucking the fun out of the game and taking the child’s confidence with it. And once a child’s confidence is gone, it’s exceedingly difficult to recapture. Remember, these are young kids. An older goalkeeper will usually have the presence, and confidence, to tell his (or her) teammates to knock it off. But a child at the Pee Wee or Squirt level (or younger) may not. And that’s where a coach needs to step in and stand up for the netminder.

Now, before you think I’ve gone soft, I want to be really clear on one point. I’m not saying that the kids who are celebrating are being intentionally mean-spirited, and I’m not saying that the coaches who allow this behavior are cold-hearted. A much more likely explanation is that both groups are simply ignorant. They don’t think about the impact that excessive celebrating has on the young netminder. But ignorance is not an excuse.

Furthermore, whether they’re cognizant of it or not, these kids are engaged in demeaning behavior. The idea is to embarrass someone else. Want proof? You rarely, if ever, see these demonstrations after a kid puts the puck past a plastic shooter tutor. It just doesn’t happen. Why? Because the shooter tutor is an inanimate object. It offers no response. But a young kid with pads on is a perfect target.

There’s a reason why the NFL penalizes excessive celebrations. It’s unsportsmanlike, because it’s showing up your opponent. It’s another form of piling on. When a team in a youth hockey game goes up by four or five goals, most youth hockey coaches (though certainly not all) will employ a three-pass rule, or will switch up their lines, to avoid intentionally running up the score. Of course, there’s the scoreboard serving as a big, bright reminder. In practice, these same coaches tend to turn a blind eye to these post-goal histrionics, shrugging it off with an “it’s all in good fun” wave. But it’s not fun for the goalie. I assure you.

This is a classic example of kids emulating their heroes, without the requisite maturity to understand when the behavior is appropriate and when it isn’t. They don’t grasp the idea that every “celly” undermines the confidence of one of their most important teammates, the goaltender. I’ve actually had kids tell me they’re just practicing their celebrations. Really? I mean, really? I tell them to keep practicing their shot instead.

Here’s what I’ve done in the past to deal with these young chuckleheads. I usually start with a warning, explaining to them why over-the-top celebrations are both unnecessary and insulting. Most kids understand. Some don’t (or they understand, but don’t feel they need to change their behavior). For this latter group, I take a blunt, decisive approach. I tell them that they will suit up as goalie for the next practice.

You should hear the howls of protest. From the kids, and from their parents. Which always makes me laugh, because I suspect that, deep down, they know exactly how embarrassed they’d feel if they had to endure the same treatment. That’s the lesson. Give them a taste of their own medicine.

Think about it another way. How about if the goalies hooted and hollered after every single save. Seems silly, right? So why should it be any different for the players shooting the pucks? The answer, obviously, is that it shouldn’t.

One of the most difficult tasks for a goalie coach/advisor is to balance the often-competing concerns between parents and coaches. So I told this particular parent to address his concerns, and the concerns of his son, with the team’s coach. Oftentimes, that’s all it takes. As mentioned earlier, this behavior will often go unnoticed only because the coach (or coaches) already has dozens of issues he’s thinking about, from power plays to breakouts to team defense.

However, if the coach dismisses these concerns, it’s an indication that there’s a disconnect. Don’t be afraid to go to the program’s board, as a concerned parent. You have that right. I never want to see goaltenders pampered. In fact, it’s important to learn how to deal with these shenanigans, because I guarantee that other teams will employ them to unsettle your netminder. On the other hand, teammates ought to be building one another up, not tearing each other down. After all, that is the very essence of “team,” and one of the most important lessons that hockey ought to be teaching our sons and daughters.

Brion O’Connor is a Boston-based writer and owner of Inspired Ink Communications. He is also a longtime hockey coach and player, specializing in goaltending instruction. Learn more at TheGoalieGuru.com.

Email: feedback@hockeyjournal.com