June 23, 2014

The Goalie Guru: Growth mindset can cultivate a champion

By Brion O’Connor

While the Stanley Cup is the be-all and end-all for many hockey players and most fans, I still think of April as championship season. I suppose that reveals my fondness for the college game, and the NCAA’s Frozen Four.

This April, the Dutchmen of Union College provided a breath of fresh air for college hockey enthusiasts, emerging from a Frozen Four featuring traditional powers Boston College, Minnesota and North Dakota to win the school’s first NCAA championship. If you couldn’t find something to enjoy in the three games of the Frozen Four, you’ve got to ask yourself if you’re a real hockey fan. But it wasn’t all attractive hockey, which might have been the best part of all.

The Dutchmen’s defense was far from airtight. They gave up four goals to Boston College in the semifinal, but won 5-4 when Union junior goaltender Colin Stevens blocked Johnny Gaudreau’s last-second bid. Two nights later, Stevens gave up another 4-pack in the title game against the Minnesota Golden Gophers. But the Dutchmen tallied seven, and won 7-4.

My first thought was, “Well, I guess defense doesn’t always win championships.” And it was encouraging — and entertaining — to watch a couple of freewheeling games. But in reality, Stevens did put his stamp on the Dutchmen’s championship season. He made key saves when he needed to, which any coach will tell you is essential to winning big games.

Stevens and the Dutchmen closed out the 2013-14 season on a 17-game unbeaten streak (16-0-1). After Union erased a two-goal deficit to tie Colgate, 4-4, on Feb. 15, they didn’t surrender more than two goals in a game leading up to the Frozen Four. When the red lights started flashing in Philadelphia, Stevens could have crumbled. He didn’t. And that might well be because he’d been through worse.

“Colin has faced a lot of adversity through his three years, and I think through that adversity he’s really learned from that,” said Union coach Rick Bennett. “He’s matured. He’s gotten bigger, gotten stronger, throughout his time here. He came in very young, and it just takes time … I think the time he has spent on getting bigger and stronger, and he just had to go through a season of games.

“More importantly, Colin’s been willing to work hard and get better,” said Bennett. “The guys see the work he puts in, so when they’re out there playing, they’re playing so hard for him because they know how hard he works. And I think there’s something to that.”

There is unquestionably “something to that.” I’ve had the good fortune to work with Stevens at Stop It Goaltending during our summer sessions, and I can vouch for the young man’s work ethic. He’s quiet, respectful, but has an intensity about him that drives that willingness to dig deep. That’s what is needed to be a champion.

Which got me thinking about a fascinating article on the topic by Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck, titled “The Mindset of a Champion.”

“There are things that distinguish great athletes — champions — from others,” writes Dweck. “Most of the sports world thinks it’s their talent, but I will argue that it’s their mindset. This idea is brought to life by the story of Billy Beane, told so well by Michael Lewis in the book Moneyball. When Beane was in high school, he was in fact a huge talent — what they call a ‘natural.’ He was the star of the basketball team, the football team, and the baseball team — and he was all of these things without much effort. People thought he was the new Babe Ruth.

“However, as soon as anything went wrong, Beane lost it,” she writes. “He didn’t know how to learn from his mistakes, nor did he know how to practice to improve. Why? Because naturals shouldn’t make mistakes or need practice. When Beane moved up to baseball’s major leagues, things got progressively worse. Every at-bat was a do-or-die situation and with every out he fell apart yet again. If you’re a natural, you believe that you shouldn’t have deficiencies, so you can’t face them and coach or practice them away.”

Dweck’s research has identified two different types of “mindsets.” Some athletes, she writes, have a “fixed mindset,” in which “they see abilities as fixed traits. In this view, talents are gifts — you either have them or you don’t.”

Others, according to Dweck, have a “growth mindset” regarding ability. “They believe that people can cultivate their abilities,” she wrote.

Dweck goes on to state that either mindset can achieve great things. But for my money, based on decades of coaching, I’ll put my money on the “growth” mindset. The fixed mindset doesn’t allow people the leeway to expose themselves “and remedy their weaknesses, because any weakness can indicate a permanent lack of ability,” according to Dweck.

“In contrast, the growth mindset, in which you can develop your ability, leads people to want to do just that,” she writes. “It leads them to put a premium on learning.”

I’ve seen this time and again, even with high-level goalies. During the summer, the Stop It Goaltending staff spends considerable time with outstanding goalie coaches from around the world. Our colleagues from Sweden, and Magnus Olsson of Blue Crease Goaltending in particular, are developing and employing some cutting-edge skating and blocking techniques that continue to revolutionize the position. But many of our top-flight collegiate goalies are hesitant to even try them.

Others are always willing to experiment, guys like Northeastern’s Clay Witt, U.S. Olympian Molly Schaus (Natick, Mass.), and Union’s Stevens. I always tell my goalies that they can never have too many arrows in their quivers. If you have the chance to try something new, take advantage of that opportunity. And don’t give it a half-hearted effort, either. Give it everything you’ve got. You just might find it works for you, and you’ll be able to use it.

“People in the growth mindset understand that effort is the way that ability is brought to life, and allowed to reach fruition,” writes Dweck. “Far from indicating a lack of talent, they believe that even geniuses need great effort to fulfill their promise. People with a growth mindset not only believe in the power of effort, they hold effort as a value.”

Colin Stevens is always willing to learn and always puts in the effort. And now, he has an NCAA championship to validate all the time he’s spent perfecting his craft.

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.

This article originally appeared in the June edition of the New England Hockey Journal. Click here to access the FREE digital edition.

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