|Coaching goaltenders requires a sublime mix of |
empathy, encouragement, and tough love.
With high school playoffs in full gear, I thought it was a good time to revisit this column I wrote last year for the New England Hockey Journal.
Somewhat coincidentally, I coached the young goalie mentiond in the opening scene this past summer, and learned that she was leaving her public school program and an abusive coach for a spot on a private school roster. Things must have changed sometime between summer and the beginning of the past season, because she was back at her public school by November. I'm guessing she realized she wasn't going to see as much playing time, knowing the other private-school goalie (who is very good).
I'm also guessing she wasn't thrilled about the decision, given the type of coach she was returning to. But playing time is playing time. It's just a shame that some kids have to make uncomfortable choices like this.
Let me know what you think. Thanks!
Improvement closely tied to trust and communication
The story was enough to make my goalie coaching head spin. Another parent and I were sitting at our daughters' hockey game. He was telling me how he had stopped by another high school girls' game earlier that night, out of curiosity. The game was a match between a traditional Massachusetts private powerhouse and a public school that was trying to break into the state's upper echelons. It quickly proved to be a mismatch.
The game didn't start well for the public school, and the red-faced coach started screaming at his goaltender. Screaming, across the ice, loud enough for the entire audience to hear. Things like "Wake up! Get your head in the game!" A grown man, screaming at a 16-year-old girl. Brilliant.
Predictably, the public school lost, 6-1. More than that, the public school coach had embarrassed himself, not only in front of his team but also in front of all the parents in the stands. If you're among the minority that thinks this type of "tough love" approach is good, I'm telling you, plain and simply, you're wrong. Listening to this story, I didn't know whether to be angry, or disappointed. Probably both.
There's no "love" involved in this approach. It's harassment. And it's humiliating. The coach lost his cool, which I'm sure contributed to his team losing the game. More than that, he called out a teenage goalie, in a very public way, which almost ensures a level of distrust that will last well beyond that one game.
Before we go any further, I must stress that I'm not advocating pampering any player, especially goalies. Ask any of the goaltenders I work with, and every single one will tell you that I don't cut them any slack. None. Excuses are for losers. The goalie has one job, and that's to stop the puck. It's an incredibly difficult job, admittedly, but no one is holding a gun to the goalie's head. Stopping the puck is the job that goalies sign up for, and excuses prevent improvement.
Trust, on the other hand, is essential, and that starts with good communication.
Nowhere is that more important than the pressure-packed postseason. In the playoffs, coaches need to build their goalies, up, not tear them down. In goaltending, more than any other position, confidence is king. Without it, a goalie is going to struggle. That's why coaches – not goalie coaches, but head coaches – absolutely need to develop a relationship with their netminders.
My good friend and employer, Brian Daccord of Stop It Goaltending, addressed this dynamic in a recent post of his Monday Morning Goalie Coach blog.
"I recently read an article online about marriage, and something really struck me," said Daccord. "Marriages that last are not because the couple agrees on issues, but they have the ability to communicate about the issues. Naturally, I had to immediately apply this to goaltending and the relationship between the head coach and the goalie."
Daccord has witnessed a consistent disconnect between coaches and the team's goaltenders at every level of the game, from Mites to the National Hockey League. It's a baffling situation.
"You would think that a coach who's good fortune rides on his goaltending staff would make it a point to communicate with them and make sure they have a clear head," wrote Daccord. "Far too many goalies are left hanging and spending way too much mental energy trying to figure out where they stand. There are even still coaches that do not notify their starting goalie a day in advance of a start.
"Goalies don't need coaches to blow smoke, but they do need to know where they stand and what role they have on a team," he said. "It is on the coach to do his part by communicating with his goalies and therefore earning their respect and trust. If a coach is straight up with a goalie, there is a greater probability that he will be able to perform at a higher level, in which case everyone wins."
Daccord ran this blog post with a photograph of John Tortorella. The implication was clear. Like another former Ranger coach, "Iron Mike" Keenan, Tortorella (now with the Columbus Blue Jackets) is well known for not only having a hair trigger when pulling his goaltender, but also has a history of throwing his goalies under the bus when things aren't going well. The most famous example of this ploy, of course, is the Canadien coach Mario Tremblay embarrassing future Hall of Famer Patrick Roy, who then forced a trade to Colorado, where he won two more Stanley Cups. Montreal? The Canadiens haven't been back to the finals since saying "au revoir" to Roy.
Now, to some extent, I understand a coach's frustration. The less you know about a position, the less likely you're going to make educated decisions about which goalie to play, and how to approach the goalies before and during the game. But the onus is on the head coach to get up to speed on the nuances of the position. The goaltenders are not only part of their team, but also a vital part of the team's success. That doesn't mean coddling the goalies. It means understanding the position.
I've never babied my goaltenders. Honest assessment is an essential part of the position. But productive communication between the coaching staff and their goaltenders can make an enormous difference in not only the success of the goalies, but the team in general.
Here's an example. For two seasons, I worked with a high school team as a part-time goalie coach. I'd stop by once, maybe twice a week. The coaching staff treated me like some kind of witch doctor, specializing in the dark arts of goaltending. "Take the goalies, we'll work with the rest of the team," was the typical instruction.
The coaches were almost dismissive, to be honest. "Fix our goalies" appeared to be their mantra, without any understanding in their own role in breaking their netminders in the first place (and if you watched a "normal" practice, there was little doubt that their shooting drills weren't helping to develop the goalies).
Now, compare that to my experience this year, where one of the teams I'm helping has two freshmen netminders. Both girls are only 15, with precious little experience. One was a backup last year, as an 8th grader, and never saw any game time. The second is an absolute beginner trying to make the switch from lacrosse goaltending. Needless to say, it's a precarious situation.
But, to their credit, the team's coaches have actively solicited advice. I've heard comments like "We want to make sure we're not contradicting what you're telling them," or "We want an idea of the skating and shooting drills they should be doing when you're not here."
The difference between the two approaches is startling. The latter is far more enlightened, and ensures that the goalies are getting a consistent message. The coaches and I discuss our goalie situation often. We're not always on the same page. They want both girls to get better quicker. I counsel patience. Young goalies will make mistakes. So do the other young players on the team, all of whom have been playing hockey much longer.
That's why keeping those lines of communication open between coaches and goaltenders are so important. For every team. I wish more coaches would understand just how crucial it is to encourage, and not simply critique.