The Goalie Guru blog, and all its linked materials, is offered as a one-stop resource to assist ice hockey goaltenders, their coaches and parents (realizing that the latter two are often one and the same) in gaining a better understanding of this truly unique position. Comments, questions, and suggestions welcomed! Reach me at 978-609-7224, or brionoc@verizon.net.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Coaches can never forget they're teachers first

Clear communication is a key to good coaching.
Hi gang,

Happy Tax Day! Nothing like the thought of Uncle Sam reaching deep into my wallet to motivate me to find a healthy distraction. So, instead, I thought I'd concentrate on something I can feel good about, which often brings me back to hockey.

For the most part, hockey has always been a great outlet for me, whether I'm playing, coaching, or simply watching. It's a sport that I can literally immerse myself in, which allows me an escape from life's little day-to-day headaches. For me, the best part of a team sport is sharing experiences, that interaction with the other players. And that's all about communication. On the coaching side, it means teaching. Which brings me to this month's topic. Let me know what you think ...

##

Coaches can never forget they're teachers, first and foremost

Mom always used to say, "There's a right way and a wrong way to do things." Pretty simple advice, which is often the best advice. There's definitely a right way, and a wrong way, to coach young hockey players, and especially goalies. For the most part, it boils down to communication.

With the explosion of youth hockey, there are more and more teams, and subsequently the need for more and more coaches. Many are qualified. Many aren't. To some degree, it's a numbers game. But I've seen a raft of former players filling these spots, with mixed results. Just because you could play, doesn't automatically mean you can coach.

The best case I can recall comes from the National Basketball League, with Larry Bird. Even though Bird was successful, it was painfully obvious that he didn't always have the patience necessary to deal with players who didn't grasp the game as quickly as he did. The same disconnect frustrated Wayne Gretzky during his tenure in Phoenix.

Obviously, it's one thing to be able to do something, and another thing altogether to be able to convey how to do that particular something to someone else. The key is being able to communicate. Sadly, though, communication has become something of a lost art. I've seen it repeatedly, observing countless youth hockey and high school games. Coaches, arms crossed, exhorting their players without actually taking the time (and effort) to teach them. It makes me wonder why they're coaching.

Remember why you took the job (realizing, for most of us, it's not a "job" as much as a calling). Was it all about wins and losses, or was it about helping kids improve? That's what you need to focus on. If you do that, the wins and losses will take care of themselves. But player development has to be your No. 1 priority.

Think about this scenario. I've watched a coach leave the rink following a loss without saying a word to a team of 13- and 14-year-olds. This is not coaching. It's pouting. What does this "teach" your players? Instead, you run the risk of a bunch of boys or girls looking around at each other and thinking, "Well, I guess coach doesn't care." Now, I understand, and even appreciate, that the coach might be upset, but the coach also has to remember who the adult is in this equation.

Likewise, screaming at your players from the bench to "work harder" has a limited application. Even if you're right, there's usually more at issue than just effort. Often at the Squirt, Pee Wee and Bantam levels, the players need instruction. You need to be able to explain, in the moment, what happened, what a player did wrong, and what that player should have done instead. You need to teach. And you need to do it right then and there, when the play is still fresh in the player's mind. In many ways, it's the coach who has to "work harder."

In the same vein, telling the goalie to "stop the puck" is meaningless. I mean, d'uh! Every goalie I've ever worked with, over nearly two decades of coaching, knows that's the job. Stop the puck. But as young goalies develop, they're going to make mistakes, and it's the coaches job to catalog those mistakes and help them correct them.

This is the teaching component. Firing a ton of pucks at your goalies isn't going to improve their technique. In fact, it's likely to increase the number of flaws in their game. If you don't have a goaltending background, learn the basics, and be able to demonstrate. There are a number of first-rate instructional books on the market (the more current, the better) that will provide this working knowledge.

If you juggle the line-up, or replace the starting goalie, explain to your players about why you made that decision. Don't make them guess. Whether your team is playing at the squirt level, high school, or above, players deserve to know. Asking a child to interpret why they were demoted is just unfair. That's when a lot of wayward notions can come into play, things like, "The coach doesn't like me," or "The coach is playing favorites." That's not cultivating team chemistry.

Finally, some coaches implement a "No parents" rule, meaning any communication has to come from the kids. I understand why, especially in this day and age of helicopter parents. But I don't agree. First, the coach/player dynamic is completely skewed against the child. Second, coaches ought to be able to discuss the rationale behind their decisions with another adult.

Coaches who are unwilling to talk to a parent are shirking their duty. Period. Whether a paid position or volunteer, coaching is a privilege, and carries certain responsibilities. And if your players are high school age or younger, you need to engage the parents.

How do you make your players better? You need to teach.

# # #

MAIL BAG

One of the best parts of my work, as a coach and columnist, is being able to help out parents, coaches, and their goalies. Here's a recent letter that depicts a classic dilemma for many goalie parents.

The letter: My 11-year-old son is a strong AAA goalie on a mediocre team. He averages approximately 20-25 shots a game, and over 30 shots when he plays against the two top teams. He is currently a difference maker in his games but they tend to lose more than win and can’t really compete with top teams in the area. Lately he has been receiving a lot of serious interest from these top teams who think he could be the missing piece to their already power house organizations. These teams are claiming he will develop into a better goaltender through practice, training and competing against the other top-level teams. However, these teams don't allow many shots in a game as they are so structured defensively. My question is, should I leave him where he is or take him to one of these top teams? Where will he develop the most?

My reply: This is a great question. Your son is lucky that you're advocating on his behalf. The answer, though, is complicated. Many teams just want a better goalie because they want to win, and aren't genuinely concerned about goalie "development." I'm not saying that's the case here, but you want to be aware of the possibility. Getting more shots in a game is a good thing, provided your son isn't getting discouraged. Here are a few things to consider:

1) What is the quality of practice/coaching he's getting now? Will it improve with another team? It's been my experience that select teams don't automatically mean better coaching, though many select teams will bring in goalie coaches, which is a plus.

2) What is the quality of shots he's seeing now? Will he see better shots with a select team? Better shots, not necessarily more, make a better goalie.

3) A better team will arguably provide better shots in practice. And practice is really where ALL players, including the goalies, improve.

Bottom line, it's not just the number of shots in a game. It's the quality of shots in games and practices, and the quality of coaching. I'd take all of those into account before making your decision. Good luck!

FINIS


Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Toughen up!

Trash talk, anyone? Blackhawks goalie Nikolai Khabibulin,
right, has a pregame chat with Lightning goalie Sean
Burke a few years back at the St. Pete Times Forum.
Hi gang,

Apologies for the delay in getting a new post up. Shoveling eight feet of snow will definitely throw a wrench into the weekly schedule. The following is one of my more "controversial" columns, because it really ticked off a colleague. And I guess that's the point of the column.

It wasn't my intention to upset or needle anyone. Honest. Instead, the idea of the column was to explain how, after a lifetime of playing between the pipes, I've learned to ignore trash talk. Usually, anyway. We all have bad days when the wrong comment sets us off. But, for the most part, I let trash talk slide off me like I was Teflon. Because, in hockey, trash talk is part of the game. At almost every level. If you let it get the better of you, your oponents get an advantage. And I wasn't going to give them that satisfaction.

##

Toughen up – Goalies need to develop a thick skin

During the holiday break, I found myself in the midst of a fun little Facebook exchange that somehow went off the rails. Well, I thought it was fun. Apparently, the sometimes colleague I was bantering with – I'll call him Barney, to protect the guilty and innocent alike – didn't take kindly to my comments.

So I'll let you decide (not that there's any "right" or "wrong"). A second colleague posted a terrific photo of himself and Barney enjoying an outdoor game at Boston's Fenway Park. Here are the pertinent comments, edited only for brevity:

Me: "That's great, guys! I'll be there next time. And tell Barney to get a bigger jersey! Ha ha!"

Barney: "Brion, I asked for a bigger one, but since your ego wasn't going to be attending, they didn't order any XXLs."

Me: "Ho ho, Barney ... I believe they had goalie jerseys. Those should have done the job (maybe)!"

Barney: "They didn't. But hey, this has been a delightful reminder of why we're not actually friends on here anymore. Always glad to get a refresher."

Me: "Barney, how did you ever survive in a hockey locker room? It's all in good fun, my friend. Really ... try not to let your own ego get in the way. You'll laugh more!"

Barney: "Don't you have a cloying column to write about how kids should be nice to each other and respect the game? Been a while since I 'read' one of those."

Me: "Nice try, Barney. Really, you need to lighten up. Good-natured ribbing is a great hockey tradition ... Anyone who actually played the game knows that."

And that was pretty much it; nothing worthy of Don Rickles (or, for younger readers, Bill Burr or Kevin Hart). I hardly gave it a second thought.

The exchange ended with my sometimes colleague sending me a private message, saying I was the exit point of the gastrointestinal tract. I laughed. I've been called worse by better. Plus, I just didn't see the big deal (which, I suppose, was his point). Barney's major complaint was that Facebook was a "public" venue, and that his family and friends could see my posts. Um, OK. My personal approach to Facebook is to avoid taking anything on it too personally, and I didn't find anything remotely hurtful in my comments (or Barney's), and still can't. Sophomoric? Probably. But mean-spirited? Not at all. Maybe that's just me.

But the exchange got me thinking about why I could shrug off Barney's comments, while others might take similar comments personally. That brought me back to his comment, "Don't you have a cloying column to write about how kids should be nice to each other and respect the game?" So that's what I'm doing, since there's a lesson here.

I do advocate respect. Like hard work and accountability, respect is one of the game's founding principles. So is having fun. There's a certain amount of good-natured teasing and trash talk that makes the game so entertaining. Why do we love "Slapshot," hockey's seminal movie? Because playwright Nancy Dowd absolutely nailed the sarcastic and often edgy wordplay between teammates, and opponents.

Now, in some circles, this might be called bullying. I get it. I'm a parent, and my daughter played co-ed hockey through 8th grade. Believe me, she's heard some pretty nasty stuff. Last year, when one young man called my daughter something particularly egregious during a goal-mouth scrum, she yelled: "Go ahead, tell the ref what you called me." It was brilliant. The ref inquired, the kid confessed, and sat for a 5-minute unsportsmanlike penalty. Then he had to explain it to his coach.

For the most part, though, wisecracking repartee is gamesmanship. As long as that banter stays within socially acceptable bounds, I'm perfectly fine with it. There's a big difference between bullying and agitating.

What's more, goalies have to deal with it. Opponents will try to get under your skin any way they can, and that part of the game isn't going away. They might bump you, snow you, or say nasty things about you. This happens to every player, and it happens in almost every sporting competition (including such "gentlemanly" pursuits as golf and tennis).

Take NFL cornerbacks, those tough-but-undersized defenders with oversized egos compressed into smaller frames. Trash talk is their stock in trade. It might unnerve rookies or untested players, but the response I really enjoy seeing is when a veteran receiver simply smiles at them.

That's a goalie's best option, too. Laugh it off. It's not always easy, and I'm not suggesting it comes naturally. You might have to work at developing that bulletproof veneer. But it's your best defense. When an opponent gets in your grill, and starts woofing, just smile, and remind him (or her) that you're not going anywhere. You can't go crying to your teammates, your coaches, or your parents. You need to be tough. Mentally tough.

Sports psychologist Saul Miller also talks about being emotionally tough. With a position as demanding as goaltending, "you either love the challenge, or fear the challenge," says Miller. Opponents will prey on those fears, using trash talk to drive an emotional wedge between you and the task at hand. Ignore them, so you can focus on stopping the puck.

Of course, you can always chirp back, but you better be ready to back it up. I personally believe it's in a goalie's best interests to keep trash talk to a minimum, since our job is tough enough. The last thing a goalie needs to do is start yapping at other players, especially in a game. It's the quickest way I know of to get a puck fired at your melon.

I recall an opposing goalie in high school, from a top-ranked team, making disparaging remarks about my gear during warm-ups (there was nothing wrong with my pads, but they admittedly weren't the latest and greatest). I told him to come talk to me afterward. But my teammates heard him, and got fired up. Our squad – which wasn't very good that year – battled to a 2-2 tie, knocking Mr. Wise Guy and his team out of first place. I'll never forget it, because the guy didn’t have anything to say after the game. Not … one … word.

Neither did I, as much as I wanted to, other than "nice game" in the handshake line. That's the respect part of the game. We stole a point, and I was happy with that. But my teammates were happy to taunt me afterward, reminding me of the two shots that hit the posts, and another bound for an open net that my defense blocked.

I laughed along with them. They were right. It was a game we had no right being in, but we had Lady Luck on our side. I told my teammates it was karma, and the hockey gods were scolding a derisive opponent. They told me I was full of it, and they were right. That year, like I said, was a long one, with few highlights. But it made me tough, and taught me to laugh at myself. That's served me well, not only as a hockey player but also in life, as a coach, a journalist, and even as a parent.

Hope that doesn't sound too cloying.

FINIS

Thursday, January 22, 2015

You team jersey, and what it really represents


Whether you win a title or not, always
take pride in the jersey you wear.
Hi gang,

This month's column was inspired by an incident with my younger daughter,and it features an interesting back story. Brynne plays for a co-operative hockey team hosted by a neighboring school district. What makes that arrangement particularly compelling is that the host school -- Masconomet -- is the archrival of our district in most sports. "Beat Masco" is a common battle cry in the halls of Hamilton-Wenham Regional High School.

But in girls hockey, girls from Masconomet, Hamilton-Wenham, Newburyport, Georgetown, Amesbury and Triton all join hands to form a single team under the red & white colors of the Chieftains. And the jersey these girls wear represent this impressive collection of individuals. As a result, that jersey is a vitally important symbol, a symbol that unifies six school districts and 13 communities. Pretty impressive, and something I hope the girls always keep in mind every time they hit the ice.

##

You team jersey, and what it really represents

Sometimes I really feel sorry for my hockey-playing daughter, Brynne, because she has to deal with me. I'm the poster child (grown-up?) for Old School, and that goes for every aspect of the game. I believe in sportsmanship – "Yes, act like you've been there before." – and respecting the game, your opponents, your teammates, and your uniform. Just the other day, I got upset because my daughter left her game jerseys on the basement floor. That's a big no-no in my book.

At the risk of getting all crusty on my daughter (I promise, there were no tall tales of "hiking 10 miles to and from school, uphill both ways"), I told her that a game jersey is something you take care of, because it's more than just a jersey. It's a symbol. It represents the ideal that you've "earned" your place on a team, instead of just a uniform that you got because your mom and I shelled out the coin to get you placed on a team.

This means a great deal to me. In New Jersey in the late 1960 and early 1970s, there weren't enough rinks to accommodate the demand. That meant most league teams had tryouts. And kids got cut. Period. There were no apologies, no lengthy explanations. It was pure hockey Darwinism. You went to the try out, played, and then waited for the teams to get posted. If you didn’t make it, tough. Try harder next time. But if you did make a team, that jersey represented the effort, and the accomplishment.

I'm not sure that kids who are oblivious to the cost of the game – from the gear to the ice time – have a same appreciation for their jerseys. Now that I'm a parent, I feel the same as most parents. I want to provide for my kids. I want Brynne to have good equipment, not only to protect her, but also to help her get the most of whatever abilities she brings to the game. Good equipment does make a difference. While there's no substitute for god-given talent and a determined work ethic, the right gear helps. And most parents who love their kids, and love the game, are happy to spend the money needed to outfit our players adequately.

So this month, when we see lots of youngsters coming to the rink with the shiny new equipment that Santa brought, I'd like to ask parents a favor. Tell your kids to take care of their stuff. All of it. Require them to carry their own bag, and make them responsible for everything in that bag. This cultivates ownership, and ownership is a critical component of hockey. In hockey terms, "ownership" translates to accountability. That's one of the bedrock principles of the game. Don't make excuses, and don't point fingers. Be accountable.

Second is the literal definition of ownership. I had to buy my own gear. That was the deal I made with my mom (she paid for the leagues, not to mention playing taxi driver to all my practices and games). When you have a little sweat equity invested in your jersey and your equipment, you're more likely to care for them. Every player should take care of his or her own equipment. This is not mom and dad's responsibility. This is your responsibility. Air out your gloves and skates (removing the footbeds to prevent the rivets from rusting out). Hang up your game jerseys. Always.

The same goes for a goaltender's gear. Maybe even more so. For starters, goalies have more equipment. But it's also critical to remember that our ability to stop the puck relies on our gear working correctly. If a particular piece of equipment is faulty, because it's either worn out, doesn't fit correctly, or is put on the wrong way, it will affect your game. I love the old expression, "A good craftsmen never blames his tools." But a good craftsmen also knows the right tools make a difference. He knows how to use them, and makes sure his tools are in good working order.

Goalies, even young goalies, should inspect their gear on a regular basis. Make sure the snaps and buckles aren't broken (or missing), that all padding is in place, all the screws are snug, and the laces are in good shape (if they're frayed, replace them before they break). If you lose a screw on a toe bridge, the leg pad can pull away from the skate, and you can lose control of the pad. Same goes for a toe lace. With today's rotating leg pads, the toe lace (or strap) keeps the pad centered on a goalie's leg, which is critical for both safety and performance.

Here's another reason why goaltenders (young and old) need to be mindful of their gear – if the equipment doesn’t fit correctly because straps and laces aren't maintained properly, a goalie risks injury. The obvious example that jumps to mind is the knee cradle of the leg pads. These days, with the emphasis on the butterfly style, it's critical that the knee is secured in the pad's knee cradle. If the elastic is worn out, or the Velcro doesn't hold, the knee can slip out of the cradle and slam into the ice. Painful at best, a potential injury at worse.

This basic caveat also holds true for body armor like chest protectors, knee/thigh protectors, pants, masks and neck danglers. A loose or lost screw on a goalie mask can leave the cage dangling and your face unprotected (I've seen this happen firsthand). If a padding pocket is torn, Murphy's Law dictates that's exactly where the next shot will hit you. What's worse, it would be an injury that was entirely preventable if the goaltender just took a few extra minutes to properly inspect his or her gear, and got it repaired beforehand.

Granted, many veteran goalies are gear geeks, but that's a good thing. We're always looking to get an edge, and we know that equipment plays a part in that. It's not that we just like the new gear; we also enjoy taking care of it. It's part of our routine, and makes us feel vested in the position (part of that classic "us against the world" mindset).

Here are a few additional tips. Again, unless your child is very young, encourage them to take the time to learn how to put the gear on themselves, from skates to helmets. I understand this takes a little extra effort, but trust me, you'll be glad in the long run. And they can practice while watching whatever game happens to be on TV. What could be easier?

Buy your child a skate stone, and show them how to use it to remove burrs from their skate blades (a common problem for goalies, who often smack their skate blades against the posts). Nurture that sense of pride that a good craftsmen has in maintaining his tools. Make sure your young goaltender keeps a spare set of laces, and a replacement screw set, in a secure pocket of his or her goalie bag.

And don't ever – ever! – allow your child to leave his or her jersey on the basement floor.

FINIS

Monday, December 1, 2014

Shout out! Goalies must take charge in the D zone

If you're going to be a leader on the ice, you have to
make sure that you and your coach are on the same page.
Hi gang,

Another month, another column.

This topic is one of my favorites, probably because I was never very quiet in the net. I felt if I was going to be held responsible for any goals that got by me, I was going to take responsibility for telling my guys what to do in front of me. That trait came naturally to me, but was also drilled home by two of my favorite childhood goalies -- Eddie Giacomin of the Rangers, and Billy Smith of the Islanders.

However, it's one of the trickiest traits for me to coach, because goalie coaches are rarely involved in "teaching" game management, or taking a leadership role. In other words, unless we're part of a specific team's staff, we don't won't closely with the goalies about how they ought to quarterback their teammates in the defensive zone.

Instead, that's primarily the job of the head coach. But I've got a few suggestions. Let me know what you think ...

##

Shout out! Goalies must take charge in the D zone

As parents, and coaches, we're often telling kids to "Pipe down!" Usually, it's for a good reason, like before a hockey game, in the locker room, when you're going over a forechecking scheme or a breakout play while all your Squirts are yapping about their latest X-box donnybrook. But, for once, I'm asking coaches to encourage one player in particular – the goaltender – to speak up. Here's why ...

Coaches are usually looking for some kind of an edge. Northeastern coach Jim Madigan, just before the 2013 Beanpot Tournament in February, pulled former Husky and Beanpot MVP Wayne Turner out of his bag of tricks to rally his troops. "He talked about mindset, about mentality," said Madigan after the Huntington Hounds dispatched BU, 3-2, in the opening round. "He talked about how we're not going to get faster in the next two days, we're not going to get smarter the next two days. It's about mindset."

What Turner was saying is that there's no "magic bullet" to improve your game, but you can sharpen your focus in order to make the most of whatever physical gifts you're bringing to the table. In the same vein, I believe that one of the quickest ways for a team to improve is better on-ice communication between the players. That goes double the goaltender.

I always tell my young goalies that the position, by its nature, comes with certain leadership responsibilities. You need to take charge in the defensive zone. Remember, the goaltender is at the center of the action, the proverbial "eye of the hurricane." Even though the action is invariably coming to the goal, it's actually the quietest spot on the ice. Good goaltenders engage their peripheral vision to keep tabs on everything that's swirling around them. They literally have their head on a swivel. It's actually very similar to being a quarterback in the pocket. While the quarterback is surrounded by mayhem, either at the line of scrimmage or dropping back to pass, he has to be able to make smart decisions and guide his team. In other words, be a leader. The same holds for the goaltender. That's why they need to speak up.

How do you, as a coach and/or parent, get youngsters to do that? First, goalies need a big voice, one that can be heard above all the helter-skelter activity that positional players must deal with. I often start most practices by asking my goalies their names. They often look at me as if I'm nuts, because most know that I already know who they are. But what I want to hear is them responding with a big, loud, and clear voice. I usually tell them this in my best imitation of a booming, James Earl Jones baritone (which convinces most of my students that I've lost my marbles, but at least it gets them laughing). But the point is simple – if I can't hear you, standing a few feet away, in a quiet rink, I'm sure as heck not going to understand anything you say in the heat of a game.

Now, I realize some kids are shy or soft-spoken, but that's no excuse for whispering instructions to your teammates. Neither is a mouth guard. If they can't hear you, you're just wasting your breath. You've got to be loud and proud. Positional players – defensemen and forwards – are trying to process a dozen different things in the blink of an eye, while all that blood and adrenaline is rushing between their ears. If goalies want to be heard, they need to pump up the volume, and make sure their voice cuts through all that white noise. The rule of thumb for coaches and parents is whether you can hear your goalie from the bench or stands. If not, they're not loud enough.

Second, goalies must be decisive. Instructions need to be clear, and concise. The game is much too fast for lengthy conversations or complicated explanations. Share the basic instructions you plan to use with your teammates, such as "Screen!" when your defender is blocking your view, "Man on!" when your defender is being pressured, "Time!" when they can take a moment to look up ice, "Reverse it!" when the opposite wing is free, or "Stay home!" when your defender is tempted to leave the slot to go chase the play in the corner. These are just a few examples, and you can use whatever terms you want, but make sure everyone knows the lexicon.

The key here is to make sure you and your teammates are on the same page. Use practices and scrimmages to repeat these verbal instructions often, so your teammates get used to your voice, and understand what each command means. Believe it or not, these commands, when used wisely, are a huge help to your teammates, because it removes the responsibility of decision making. In other words, it's one less thing for them to think about. The goalie, however, needs to make absolutely sure that the instructions are accurate and unambiguous. Precision is critical.

Third, goalies have to encourage. When I say be loud, and be a leader, I'm not talking about yelling for the sake of yelling. Castigating your teammates after a bad play, or a goal, is never a good thing. Hockey is a game of mistakes, and everyone makes them. You don't want your teammates berating you after a soft goal, right? That lesson goes both ways. The best thing you can do after a mishap, or a bad goal, is a tap on the shinpads, and a quick "don't sweat it. Let's get one back." Players love these types of goalies, kids who understand that it's a team game, and everyone needs to contribute to win. Chastising your teammates erodes confidence the same way your own confidence takes a hit when your coach pulls you for goals that aren't your fault. So remember, there's a big difference between barking instructions, and criticizing.

Fourth, coaches need to be inclusive. Here's where coaches need to make sure that the goalies are included in all their chalk talks by the bench during practice, and not sitting in the crease, waiting for the next drill to start. In order for the goalie to be a coach on the ice, he or she has to have a solid understanding of your game plan. What kind of breakout do you want? Where do you want your center to play? Leaving the goalie out of those discussions is not only shortsighted, it's foolhardy.

Again, think of the quarterback in football. He has to know the passing routes, the audibles, the blocking schemes, the snap count, all of it. As a football coach, you want your quarterback thinking just like you. That only happens when the player is fully engaged. It's no different for hockey coaches and their goaltender. Give your goalies the tools to orchestrate your game plan, combined with the freedom to instruct, and the entire team benefits.

FINIS



Monday, November 3, 2014

The hidden dangers of overt practice celebrations

If you want to celebrate a goal in a game,
that's fine! Go ahead. But think twice about
doing it in practice, over and over again.
Hi gang,

The second day of November brought the season's first snowfall. Crazy! Fortunately, it didn't last long, and by today  the white stuff had melted away. But it got me thinking about this column. A good snowfall every now and then is fun. But after a while, if the snow continues to fall, the accumulation can wear on you (especially if you're the one doing all the shoveling).

Similarly, scoring a goal and celebrating, spontaneously, is one of the great joys of hockey. But when it's done repeatedly, or starts to become orchestrated, those celebrations lose their luster. When you celebrate every goal in practice like you've just scored the overtime winner in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup, it can have the same effect as that driving snowstorm. When you find a ton of snow dumped on your driveway day after day after day, you can suddenly lose your appreciation for all that fine white fluff.

That's how your goaltender feels when you and your teammates go overboard with each puck that crosses the goal line. It's tiresome. Worse, it can drive some kids from the position, and from the game. And that's a shame ...

##

The hidden dangers of overt practice celebrations

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 get chalk up to "kids being kids." Everyone, that is, except the parents of the goalies. These ill-advised celebrations have a cumulative effect, and the end 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 he 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 line-ups, 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 particularly 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 a 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.

FINIS

Friday, October 10, 2014

Wanderlust is not the best trait of a quality goalkeeper

You can't always get what you want, and even some
of the world's best goalies (Montreal's Carey Price,
in this instance) spend some time riding the pine.
Hi gang,

Early fall is ice hockey's second "silly season." The first is in the spring, immediately following the end of the actual hockey season. This is when parents start scrambling like mad to find the "right" select team for their young hockey player.

What they don't always understand is that nothing is guaranteed, even in youth hockey. The composition of the team you thought you were joining might well change - and change dramatically - by the time your child suits up in the fall. That can mean the addition of another goalie who will challenge your child for ice time. (Trust me, anyone who takes a "club" or "select" hockey official at his or her "word" is begging to be disappointed.)

And the fallout is all too predictable. Johnny (or Janey) isn't getting as much ice time and Mommy and Daddy think is appropriate. So they start playing "musical teams" with their child, looking for a better situation. I saw one glaring example of this in youth hockey, when a father (I'll call him  "Joey") moved his son ("Billy") to four different teams over two years. Billy was a good kid, always cheerful and smiling, but he wasn't a very good goaltender. Pucks just found their way through him, constantly, regardless of how much additional instruction he got. But Joey kept insisting his child ought to be a starting goalie, which meant he had to keep changing jerseys.

And Billy went along with it, primarily (I'm guessing) because he didn't have a choice. Along the way, I'm convinced Billy actually started to believe what his father was preaching. Billy thought he was better than he was. Which, of course, almost always leads to disappointment. Which got me writing about the topic. Let me know what you think ...

##

Wanderlust is not the best trait of a quality keeper

The youth sports landscape has become increasingly complicated these days. Spring and summer have transformed into bizarre migration seasons for young athletes, where players and their parents move to a new school, a new team, or a new program in the hopes of finding a "better fit."

A better fit, of course, is parent-speak for "a place where my kid will get a fair shake, because he hasn't gotten one yet." I've seen this phenomenon happen at all ages. Many coaches have.

"Yeah, kids are jumping everywhere. If they don't like what's going on, they go somewhere else," Boston University legend Jack Parker told me once. "I will give you an example. When I was recruiting Tony Amonte (in 1987), he was a terrific player at Thayer Academy. He was 17 years old at the time, trying out for the Junior Olympic team. Now, they let him try out, because he was such a talent and they knew he was going to be on the junior team in the future. But there was no way he was going to make the junior team as a 17-year-old kid.

"But they let him try out, and there was a game on the South Shore, and they were playing a junior all-star team," said Parker. "Tony came out after the game with a long face on. His father said, 'What's wrong with you?' And Tony says 'What's wrong with me? I didn't play much. Didn't you watch the game?'

"And his father says, 'That's what's bothering you, Tony?'

"'Yeah, I didn't play enough.'

"'Well, Tony, let me ask you something. Do you want to play more?' And Tony says, 'Yeah, of course I want to play more.'

"And his father says, 'Then play better, Tony.' He didn't say 'The coaches are screwing you,' or 'You're way better than those other kids.' He just said 'Play better.' And that was it."

Youth hockey could use more parents like Mr. Amonte. Jump ahead 22 years, to June 2010, when a 39-year-old Tony Amonte was named the head coach at Thayer Academy. His athletic director, Matt McGuirk (Thayer, class of '92) knew things were going to be different when Amonte returned. Very different.

"When you and I were playing, there was one all-star team in town, and if you didn't make it, you played for your youth team," McGuirk told me three years ago. "Now, there's 55 all-star teams, a lot of for-profit organizations that will, quite frankly, tell you anything you want to hear if you're going to give them $5,000.

"What Tony represents is not so much a complete 180, but the bottom line is, there's no politics involved with his gig," said McGuirk. "You come out, you try out for the team. If you make the team, you're going to be an integral part of the team, whether you're a first-liner or a fourth-liner.

"Tony is all about the Old School meets the New School, and I think that's really important. In this age of enablement, this age that there's always another option, this age of materialism, Tony is all about getting to the core of it. You show up, you go to work, and you go home. The message is so important now, especially with kids today. If you want something bad enough, you can get it. Tony is of the school that you have to earn it. You've got to earn everything you get."

Amonte agreed with his former teammate, noting that the landscape, and its inherent wanderlust, has irrevocably changed, "not only high school hockey, but hockey in general. There are different forces pulling these kids everywhere. Keeping these kids in school is going to be a task, and I think it's going to be a task for every coach."

"It's tough," said Amonte, parsing his words carefully. "There's a lot of competition (for players) out there. There are tons of teams, and everyone wants to win."

As a result, the hockey landscape is filled with bedouin players, nomadic tribesmen roaming from rink to rink, program to program. And the situation is particularly applicable for goaltenders, for one obvious reason. While there can be 12 to 18 positional players per team getting ice time in any given game, there is usually just one goaltender. Most teams carry two or three goaltenders, but too many coaches, with their blinders firmly fastened on in their relentless drive for wins, will ride their No. 1 netminder upwards of 80-90 percent of the time. Sometimes every minute. Which, of course, can lead to disappointment and bruised feelings for the kids who aren't playing. And for Mom and Dad.

"Parents are part of the picture now," said McGuirk. "Being able to solve a problem by moving laterally rather than actually solving he problem through work ethic and determination, is more of the trend now. "

I've seen it firsthand. One glaring example comes to mind, a young man who I've coached since he first strapped on the pads at age six or seven. I've watched him grow, and become a very solid young netminder. Not spectacular, but solid. His freshman year, he attended a nearby prep school, but transferred to another for his sophomore year because his prospects of varsity playing time looked dim. After his junior year, a season in which he was the clear-cut starter, the young man was on the move again, leaving his prep school squad for a junior team. "We felt it was in his best interests," I heard, admittedly second-hand, from a "family adviser."

Really? I'd like to know just what those "best interests" are. I know it's a subjective term, but being the starting goaltender at a prep school with a good academic reputation seems like a pretty sweet arrangement to me. But junior teams offer more games, and supposedly more exposure, which supposedly equates to a better chance for a college scholarship or other opportunities. Clearly, going the prep school route didn't hurt Cory Schneider (Phillips Andover) and Rick DiPietro (St. Sebastian's School), but I recognize that they were exceptional talents. It has to be tougher for the middle-of-the-pack goaltender.

This is where character comes in. Developing character means learning to deal with adversity. And the best way to deal with adversity is to work harder. A determined work ethic is the gritty sandpaper needed to create an exquisite piece of furniture. It is the resolve that will sustain you as you get older, and life throws you curve ball after curve ball.

"That's the big dilemma. Do you take the kid with the heart, or the kid with the skill," said Amonte, when asked what is the greatest character trait he looks for in recruits. "I go for the heart every time. You can teach the skill, you can teach the systems, you can tell them where to be, but if they don't have the work ethnic, it's never going to be there.

"It's a learned skill too," he said. "Every day on the ice is a day you can get better. That's the way I look at it. You can try something new, you can try to get better, and do something you didn't do the day before."

Amen. You don't measure heart or work ethic by the miles that you've logged transferring between programs, or the number of teams you've played for. You measure it in effort you put in during practice and games, and in the weight room, off-season and in-season. As you start your season this fall, recommit yourself to that work ethic, and to your team.

FINIS

Thursday, August 28, 2014

An old goalie and his dog


My knucklehound, True, on full alert.
Hi gang,

You've all heard the adage, "You can't teach an old dog new tricks." But that doesn't mean we can't learn a thing or two from our canine companions.

This month's blog post is dedicated to my wonderfully wacky Labrador retriever, True. She is about as pure an athlete as I've ever met. If she comes back in her next life as a human being, with her laser-sharp focus and quick-twitch muscles intact, she could make one heck of a goaltender!

##

An old goalie and his dog

The small chapel at Merrimack College in Andover, Mass., was packed with nearly 100 superb goaltending prospects, ages 14 to 24, and some of the best goaltending coaches from North America and Sweden. It was the first full night of the week-long Prospects Camp, hosted annually by the Goaltending Consultant Group. The day was spent on the physical aspects of the game. The evening would be dedicated to the position's mental challenges.

The speaker was Dr. Saul Miller, a sports psychologist and performance consultant from Vancouver, British Columbia, and author of "Hockey Tough: A Winning Mental Game," among other books. Miller has impressive credentials, having worked with numerous NFL, CFL and Major League Baseball teams, as well as professional golfers and Olympians. In hockey, Miller has consulted with teams and players ranging from youth and recreational programs up through junior and college programs and the professional ranks, including the NHL. The guy knows his stuff.

For an hour, Miller (a former goaltender himself) entertained his young audience, addressing key ideas such as focus, emotional control, mental toughness, mental preparation, attitude, and commitment. I was impressed with how he concentrated on positive reinforcement, being "in the moment," and embracing the Japanese concept of "kaizen," or "commitment to continuous improvement."

At one point during his talk, Miller asked his young listeners what animal embodied the characteristics that they would use to describe their game. I jotted down my own answer, but quickly found out it wasn't shared by the majority. Typical answers were "cheetah," "jaguar," or '"tiger." In short, big cats. Predators. Miller obviously liked the response.

Miller told his audience that, as athletes, they have a choice. They can be the predator or the prey. I agree with that, in large part. Competition, especially in a game as rugged as hockey, is not kind to the meek. There's an unmistakable Darwinism that exists in hockey, particularly at the higher levels. As Miller correctly pointed out, when the fear factor gets bigger, the goalie actually gets smaller.

Plus, I loved Miller's characterization of a short memory, which every goalie knows is critical to success between the pipes. When a lion or cheetah misses a chance to bring down an antelope, for example, there's no judgment. They don't get depressed, or sulk, or throw a tantrum. They simply start hunting again. Goalies who beat themselves up over every goal could learn a great deal from that.

But there was a seriousness to Miller's general message that I couldn't help but feel was a little over the top. If you want to be melodramatic, the whole predator-prey analogy comes down to "kill or be killed," and that's not really hockey. I kept thinking there was a missing element to Miller's discourse, and it hit me when I looked back to the answer I had scribbled earlier.

The animal I would emulate, if I was still on the upward curve of my hockey career, is my 7-year-old yellow Labrador retriever, True. Yes, our family pet. There is not an ounce of "predator" about True. In fact, she can be a total goofball. Once, when I was berating True for being such a knucklehead, my youngest daughter corrected me: "No, Dad, she's a knucklehound." The nickname stuck, for good reason. True can be stubborn to the point of intransigence.

As her narrow head and lean build indicates, True is a full-on American field Lab, bred to retrieve waterfowl, even in the most inhospitable conditions. Her father, Zeb, was one of my father in-law's prized hunting dogs. In fact, anytime he's back east, my father in-law likes to remind me of "what a waste of a great hunting dog" True is. He's probably right. True is 65 pounds of quick-twitch muscle, sinew, and gray matter hard-wired to catch and retrieve. She is an athlete, in every sense of the word.

But she also personifies all those fabulous qualities that make Labrador retrievers such phenomenal pets. Loyalty, kindness, exuberance. But what really sets the Lab apart, in my eyes, is their boundless capacity for fun. Fun. Such a simple word, but it makes a world of difference in so much of what we do. When True sees me grab my lacrosse stick and tennis ball (our favorite form of exercise), her response is sheer, unadulterated joy. Her ears pick up, her tail wags uncontrollably, her entire body practically shakes with anticipation.

Yet, at that moment, she is absolutely locked  onto the ball, a pure athlete waiting to pounce. In that instance, she is the perfect goaltender – coiled, confident, uncluttered by outside emotions or distractions. I'm pretty sure that you'd have to measure the time between when the ball leaves my lacrosse stick and True's initial response in nanoseconds. She is that quick. And when she catches a ball off the bounce, mid-flight, I swear I can feel her sense of pride as she turns in a big, triumphant arch before running back.

Now, don't get me wrong. True is a competitive beast. Fun doesn't change that. If we're at a local ballfield or beach, playing pitch and retrieve, True doesn't mind a little bump-and-run with the other dogs. And, most of the time, she's the first to the ball. But even if she isn't, her spirit never fades. She doesn't mope. She simply trots back, tail wagging, ready for the next toss.

Coaches and parents can learn something from my True as well. I praise her, constantly. As a result, she will run through walls for me. If I scolded her for every ball she "missed," it probably wouldn't be long before she would lose her enthusiasm for our games of catch. Because they would no longer be fun.

That's one of the reasons I always tell my goalies to smile. I work them hard, because I want each and every one of them to enjoy that distinct sense of accomplishment that comes with maximizing their potential. But I never want them (or me) to lose sight of the fact that, at the end of the day, this is a game.

My coaching experience tells me this – if you're having fun, you're probably going to be a better goaltender, because you won't be as tense. Tense goaltenders play at a disadvantage, because taut, rigid muscles are slow. Relaxed muscles are quick. The same holds, I believe, for your brain. So stay loose, even while working hard. Be kind to yourself. Have fun. Always have fun. If you need a reminder, stop by my place, and watch my knucklehound in action.

FINIS