March 8, 2011

The Goalie Guru: Coaching and motivation require balancing act

By Brion O'Connor

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the March 2011 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

The hockey community is a small one. That goes double for goalie coaches. We’re a tight-knit group that epitomizes the classic quote from Frank “Ulcers” McCool: “The only friend a goalie has is the other goalie across the ice. He’s the only one who understands.”

How broad is that disconnect? Here’s an example. Earlier this season, I was watching NHL Network’s “On the Fly” show, which recaps that night’s games along with typically — but not always — astute commentary. In one game, San Jose’s Antti Niemi gives up two goals on cross-crease one-timers (the forward was unmarked both times), and a sizzling screened wrist shot from Jarome Iginla that went top shelf. So how does Hall of Fame defenseman Larry Murphy analyze the game? He calls San Jose’s goaltending “soft.” Sadly, the only thing that is “soft” in this scenario is Larry Murphy’s head.

And Murphy’s not the only one. I’ve lost count of the number of times that coaches, and players, have told goalies: “Just stop the puck.” The statement, though accurate (and ridiculously obvious) on its face, is also rife with ignorance. That’s not coaching — it’s badgering. Goaltenders, and goalie coaches, know there’s a lot more to the position than simply stopping the puck.

That said, goalies don’t need special treatment. They need consistency — from parents, coaches and teammates. I tend to fall into the “tough but compassionate” category of coaching. I expect all my players to care, and to try hard. I’m OK with mistakes, provided the kids are trying and learning (repetitive mistakes are another matter). I hold my forwards and defensemen to the same standard as my goalies.

But I also regularly remind my goalies that they’ve chosen to play that position, and it’s a position that requires developing the mindset of accepting full responsibility. For every goal. You can’t point fingers if you don’t want others pointing at you. The ideal attitude for a goaltender, most coaches agree, is that the sting of a goal is far worse than any bruise a puck might leave. Learn how close your young goaltender comes to that ideal, and you’ll learn plenty about his or her motivation.

The lot of the goalie isn’t as bad as it was back in McCool’s day (the mid-1940s), but it’s a given that goalies are a different breed. Same for goalie coaches. If you were to eavesdrop on a bunch of goalie coaches discussing the position, in excruciating detail, you’d probably think you’d just stumbled into a geek convention.

That’s what the post-practice gab sessions were like at the Prospects Camp this past summer. Run by Brian Daccord, the camp is a remarkable collection of talented young goaltenders, and talented coaches, from throughout North America and even Europe.

The common denominator is that we care. We care about the game, the position, and the kids who play the position. Provided they care as well. That’s crucial. Here’s a cyber-chat I had with my friend Magnus Olsson, a goalie instructor from Sweden. It speaks directly to the topic of motivation, and our role as coaches.

MAGNUS: I have a bit of a problem. I tend to see many young goalies (ages 10-12) not being very passionate in practice. They seem to like being on the ice but they don’t try very hard. They don’t fight for the rebound, go for desperation saves and things like that. Some do, but these guys are rare. I do try to put in some parts of fun stuff and also competition to get the drive and intensity. Still I just find many youngsters not trying hard enough?!

I’m well aware that it’s about having fun at this age and that’s what we try to do, but at the same time you need to put in some technical parts and serious training. … What are your thoughts on this?

BRION: This is a great question, because I think at this age, you quickly find out who really wants to play goal, and who is just pretending. Too many young kids like the gear and the look of being a goalie, but when they find out how difficult it is (and how hard the puck is!), they quickly lose their enthusiasm.

The first question is, how often are they playing? If they’re on the ice year-round, you might be seeing early signs of burnout. But if it’s in-season, and they’re only skating two or three times a week, then they’re just not hungry enough. For these kids, I take the “tough love” approach. I really reward effort, and mildly scold those who mail it in. This works well in a group dynamic, when I can point out other kids who always give their best. “Those are the kids who will get the ice time,” I tell them.

I’ve had some goalies, now 12 and 13, who have never given their best effort, and never gotten close to their potential. Eventually, I let them do what they want, and tell them “good luck,” because they’re not going anywhere. I prefer to reserve my full energy for the kids who really try. That bothered me at first, but I’ve come to accept it, after more than 15 years of coaching. When a parent asks, I tell them politely but firmly: “Your child doesn’t work hard enough. He doesn’t come prepared, or ready to work.”

MAGNUS: I agree with you, Brion. We share similar stories. I have a few kids from a few years back but it feels like I’m wasting my time with them. I have been trying and trying to make them practice hard and change them. But now I’ve had enough. I was very relieved when I read about letting them practice, but putting your energy to the hard-working guys. Earlier I felt bad for not staying with a “soft” kid, but now I realize I kind of have to let them go a little bit.

BRION: The key, I think, is to cut off your emotional commitment before you get angry. I love the game, and the position, so much that I can’t stand to see kids who take it for granted. I would have given my pinky finger to attend a Prospects Camp, and I played every time there was ice available. And I love the kids who have that same passion. But not everyone does. So I allow myself to gravitate to the kids who really want it.

Brion O’Connor is a Boston-based writer and owner of Inspired Ink Communications. He is also a long-time hockey coach and player, specializing in goaltending instruction at every age level. Learn more at TheGoalieGuru.com. He can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com