Goalies today are bigger, faster, stronger, more flexible – you name it. And all of these improvements are made with conscious effort. There are detailed goalie-specific training and nutrition programs. There are instructional videos covering everything from how to widen your butterfly flare to developing fast twitch muscles. And there is tons of content available on how to properly stretch, warm-up, and cool down. All of this is great information and offers invaluable advice on how to take care of the physical aspects of the position, something we know goalies spend a lot of time working on.
But, how many goalies take the time to train to become mentally stronger?
An article by Victor Findlay about Canadian university goalie Jordan Cooke sheds light on the most important aspect of the position – the mental game. Cooke credits an old goalie coach of his, John Stevenson, with helping him become mentally stronger. Stevenson, who’s well known as a goalie coach and sports psychologist, discusses how important it is for goalies to get in a mental groove to help with establishing consistency.
“When you're playing well, your focus is good. When you're playing poorly, your focus is even better. The thing is you're focusing on the wrong thing at the wrong time in the wrong way. As soon as guys get really good at recognizing they've lost their focus, then they can bring it back,” said Stevenson.
Why mental toughness is important
While it’s important to train and fuel your body during the season, don’t forget to work on the mental side. Your brain is the key muscle that will help you recognize what you’re focusing on and what you can do to regain control if things get off track. In other words, your mental strength will get you through all of the ups and downs during the season.
I’m not talking about anything physical here. When a goalie struggles during the year, it rarely has anything to do with the physical part of the game. It’s not like all of a sudden they can’t catch a puck or make a save using their stick. Struggles and inconsistencies are rooted in the fact that goalies can’t stop themselves from spending their time and energy focusing on the wrong things at the wrong time for way too long.
If you haven’t already, I would encourage you to take some time this season, just a few hours a week, and reflect on how you handle the mental side of the game. This isn’t a complete list, but it’s a start. Ask yourself these questions and write down your answers:
What’s the first thing that comes to my mind after a goal is scored?
Do I have a consistent approach to reading the play?
When things are going well, what am I thinking/not thinking about?
When I struggle, what am I thinking/not thinking about?
What are things I can control on a consistent basis?
What’s my mindset before practices?
I’ve found this exercise valuable for the simple fact that it shows goalies just how much is within their control. And, of course, how much more is out of their control. Knowing the difference between what is and isn’t within your control is important to understanding where you should be spending your time, energy, and focus.
The difference between good and great
Goalies are going to struggle during the season. That’s a fact. For how long is up to you. Don’t wait to find out. Get ahead of the game and spend some time this season on how you handle the mental side of the game.
Aside from team play (in other words, their environment), the difference between being a great goalie and a good goalie on a consistent basis is determined by what happens in that small space between your ears. Make sure you train to strengthen that part of your body, too.