March 4, 2013

The Goalie Guru: Getting the balance right for young goalies

By Brion O'Connor

Sometimes writers choose their column topics, and sometimes the topic chooses the writer. Maybe it’s an editor who “suggests” a particular theme (to which the best responses are typically, “That’s a great idea,” or “I quit”). Other times, it’s simply circumstance. This is one of those times.

Brion O'Connor, the Goalie Guru, gets in position at the top of the crease at Fenway Park.

In the past week, I had two young goalies who were reduced to tears during clinics, not because they got hurt, but because they were embarrassed, overwhelmed or simply distraught. I’m not sure which, because I never found out what was upsetting them. As most parents can attest, when a child decides to clam up, it’s all but impossible to break down that wall. Plus, I had to think of the other kids in those sessions, and it wouldn’t be fair to them to allow one child to distract me from the task at hand.

However, both boys reminded me of another situation, last spring, when I watched a young goaltender sobbing uncontrollably after his pee-wee team was eliminated from a postseason tournament. Then, this week, I got an email from a concerned mom with a son who was struggling with the emotional demands of the position. She talked about how her son “loves playing goal, but when it comes to being scored on, his emotions take the best of him and he has (and does) cry in the net.”

“(Johnny) likes to be a leader and is very confident in himself and outgoing, but he does have quite the temper at times and gets down on himself pretty bad when he lets a puck come through and is scored on,” wrote the mom.

Her son, it should be noted, is a squirt, which means he is only 9 or 10 years old. Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? Normally, I’d simply tell his mom to remind her son that it’s just a game, and not to take it too seriously. But then I thought of my own teary-eyed students (ages 7 and 9, respectively), and the inconsolable pee-wee goalie (who was 13). All were feeling a very real stress that they weren’t able to deal with. Those events, combined, convinced me that I needed to give the subject more thought, and write about it.

If you spend enough time in a rink, it’s easy to forget how young and impressionable these little netminders really are. It happens to me, and I work every week with “kids” from 6 to 56. We all have to be mindful — vigilant, actually — about the emotional well-being of the children we coach.

Of course, that doesn’t mean pampering them, and therein lies the quandary for many coaches. We need to find the right balance, even if that balance point is something of a moving target. Every child, and every team, is different. Just like there’s no “one size fits all” way to play goal, there’s certainly no universal approach to coaching youngsters. They all bring their own set of characteristics, at different ages, and sometimes that includes some emotional baggage. We often don’t know much about their home life, or their school day, or even their afterschool activities with friends.

Therefore, it behooves us to be flexible, and keep an open mind when any of the kids appear to be off their game. So, here are a few thoughts to remember, primarily for coaches, but for parents as well.

In my goalie clinics, I always remind my shooters to keep their shots “age appropriate.” The same goes for coaching. The younger the goaltender, the more important it is to keep the mood light. Again, hockey is a game, and we can’t lose sight of that. Coaches can have expectations, but one of those is to make the game enjoyable. During my first year coaching a local squirt team, my assistant coach asked, “So, what are your expectations for the season?” My reply — “I want to make sure every child has so much fun that they want to play next year.” — was clearly a bit too abstract. He wanted to work on our forecheck and transition game, which was fine. I let him handle the X’s and O’s of our practice and game planning. Meanwhile, I was the mood czar, pushing kids when I thought they could handle it, and backing off when they needed a softer touch.

Coaches, engage your parents. Parents, engage the coaches. It’s critical to have everyone on the same page. That’s doesn’t mean you’ll always agree. I recently had a post-clinic chat with a parent who didn’t like my approach. He wanted more repetition, less instruction. I calmly explained my rationale, and why it was crucial for me to set the agenda, not his son. I also reminded him that repetition without proper technique often leads to bad habits. The distinction, of course, was this was a private lesson, and the father could opt not to have his son participate. A team setting is a bit trickier. Still, the more coaches and parents know about each other’s expectations, the better prepared they are to handle the bumps in the road that inevitably crop up.

Be firm, but be fair. It’s perfectly acceptable to set goals, and have structure. Structure breeds efficiency. But don’t be a slave to it. When you’re on the ice, it’s OK to say “Let’s get to work.” I’ve always told my players that winning makes the game a lot more fun, and hard work greatly improves your chances of winning. That said, it’s just as important to maintain perspective. Be aware. If a child is upset, it’s your responsibility (as a coach) to at least try to figure out why. If you can’t, give the child a break from the action to settle down, and follow up afterward with the parents. There might be external issues that you don’t know about, or have no control over, but will help you gain a better understanding of the situation.

Don’t single out the goaltender. Ever. Even if your young netminder is solely responsible for a bad outing (an extremely rare occurrence, by the way), there is little benefit from publicly chastising the kid. Don’t let parents, or the other kids, do it either. There are usually hundreds of “mistakes” made during the game that either go unnoticed, or don’t lead directly to goals. The difference for goaltenders is that their mishaps often wind up on the scoreboard. That’s a tremendous amount of pressure, especially for a youngster who hasn’t developed the requisite emotional maturity.

During a game, there’s never a good time for the goalie to lose his or her cool. We have an adage in coaching circles: “You never want one bad goal to lead to another bad goal.” As a coach, encourage your goaltender to focus on the next shot. Once a goal is behind him, he has to let it go. There’s nothing he can do about it. If the child loses his temper, he’s far more likely to let in another bad goal. Goalies, even young goalies, need to learn early that an even temperament is best. A temper tantrum works against him, and against his team. That lesson has to be a mantra, repeated over and over again. Be consistent.

Finally, be positive. We’re in the growth business. We want our kids to improve. Routinely, one of my favorite moments during a goalie clinic is when I tell a child, “I don’t care how many goals you give up here. I don’t choose your team, or who the starting goalie is. I just want to see you get better.” The relief that typically follows is often cathartic, and it’s not surprising to see the same youngster play much better once he (or she) relaxes. It’s the ultimate win-win. A happy, relaxed goalie, playing well. What could be better?

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. Learn more at TheGoalieGuru.com.

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