The hockey goaltender waits, uniquely poised for split-second action, in almost zen repose.
His muscles and nerves hang tensed inside 40 pounds of protective gear, balanced on slick ice atop 2-millimeter steel blades, ready for the puck.
His mind hovers in near-serenity between the goal’s bright-red steel pipes. His awareness expands, mapping all the chaotic possible paths the black rubber disk could seek to zip past him and score.
He tunes out the noise – the screaming crowd, the blaring PA, the coaches’ intent stares – and squints into the ice-chip fog thrown up by the gnashing surge of oncoming players’ skates.
He draws a deep breath – just in time to spot the 100-mph puck flying off the left-wing’s stick towards a gap at the low corner of his goal.
He lunges: Slamming his kneepads to the ice, he twitches stick and glove to deflect the flip-shot – and carves a swift, brutally fine line between a goal and a save that carries his entire team to victory.
The Mental Game
Veebit announced the launch of the “Masters of the Mental Game” – a groundbreaking research project on the minds of elite professional athletes and esports pros – at the second annual Global Goaltending Retreat in Breckenridge, Colorado.
The Retreat is unique in the world of sport, and brought together 75 hockey goalies and goalie coaches from around the world to explore, support and illuminate the extraordinary role goaltenders play for their teams.
Behind the mystique and the mask of a hockey goalie lies a deeply stressful, undervalued, and cerebral job; Yet the body-centric realm of sports science has yet to fully identify and understand precisely how a goalie’s mind helps him – and his team – win games.
Goalies at the retreat muscled through drills on ice and turf and heard from innovators in the fields of biomechanics, VR and AI-powered training techniques and play-based analytics capabilities. (Pictured at top, L to R: Paul Drew [CAN], Jack Hartigan [CAN], Ben Meisner [GER], demonstrating the “always ready” goalie mentality between sessions.)
They also heard from with sports psychologists, explored the growing adoption of meditation and other wellness techniques in elite sports, and shared stories of their own psychological battles in off-ice wellness panels.
A Hero’s Journey
This profound exploration of the bruising complexity of goaltending has come a long way from Texas, where it began.
Playing youth hockey in nearly-iceless Parker, Texas while growing up, conference founder Justin Goldman dreamt only of being a knight.
He loved the notion that goaltending – strapping on armor to protect your team from attackers in the critical moments of long and violent battles – let him live out that “hero’s journey.”
“No matter how talented your team is and how many goals they score, you know if you can’t stop the puck, you’re not going to win,” Goldman says matter-of-factly. “It’s all about flow and movement and a clear mind.”
Yet as he sharpened his own game on the ice and behind the mask, evolved to coaching other goalies, and even began scouting goalies for USA Hockey, Goldman began to see a huge gap between goaltending’s daunting mental and physical workload and the scant resources and specialized training available for goalies.
In 2009, he founded the nonprofit The Goalie Guild (and last year launched the conference) to rally training specialists, sports psychologies, movement and technology experts, and the community itself to provide that support, and has co-written several books on goaltending, including this year’s “The Hero in You.”
It turns out that unlike any other role in sports, hockey goaltending is uniquely solitary, physically and mentally taxing, almost existential work.
Offense and defense carve up the ice battling each other for the puck (and rotate onto the bench every few minutes for a rest and a word with the coach), but the two goalies must stand alone, alert and primed for a precise burst of physicality.
For the full 60-minute game they must stand vigilant at either end of the rink unable to interact with coaches, drop responsibility for pucks in their grasp, or even relax their attention for a second.
“You’re alone with your thoughts,” says Goldman. “There are no coaches talking to you during the game, your teammates don’t have the opportunity to talk to you except briefly as they skate by,” he says. “There are so many things you feel responsible for as a goalie that nobody else is thinking about.”
No Excuses, No Mistakes
A lost goal is always your fault.
Even if a penalty robbed your team of a defenseman or the puck took a bad hop, suck it up. Reacting is seen as a weakness because the entire team’s performance actually hinges on the goalie’s apparent mood, says Goldman:
“I consider the goalie to be like a big ball of energy in the crease,” says Goldman, who has seen entire games pivot on the goalie’s mood in the first few minutes, time and again. “If the goalie has a sense of confidence about him or he’s playing with bravado or he’s got that swagger about him, usually that radiates out to the rest of the team and you feel it on the bench.
“But if a goalie is really struggling – he’s giving up rebounds and soft goals – the team will feel that. Everyone wants a confident goalie because if you have a confident goalie, a team’s defensive flaws suddenly disappear.”
So: The last goal scored on you? Trouble at home? Contract problems?
Put it all aside. Be calm and ready; Here comes the puck – again, and again, and again – in the barrage of slapshots, screens, and power plays and random bounces beyond your control that could make or break your career.
This forced mindset – mental discipline, constant vigilance, and emotional aloofness – also paints goalies as mysterious weirdos on and off the ice, isolating them even farther from teammates and others who might support them.
“There’s this inner battle with every goalie to block away your tendency to react to everything emotionally,” says Goldman, citing a common thread that ran through goalies’ public speeches and private chats at the conference in Colorado. “It’s almost like you’re inhuman, like you’re a robot.”
And even as St. Louis Blues rookie goalie Jordan Binnington deserves the kudos he has earned for superstar moments that helping bring home this year’s Stanley Cup, his high–pressure job is only just now being acknowledged as the hardest in pro sports, says Goldman.
Letting your shots–saved count drop from 93% (a record enjoyed only by NHL greats) to just under 91% can see you benched, traded, even let go from the league and the sport that has consumed your life since childhood.
Growing into a Competitive Mindset
Nearly every pro goalie who straps on a mask today did it first in a youth hockey league. He (or she) began by learning how to skate, then how to handle the puck with a stick – and finally how to strap on the goalie gear and save the game over and over. Their mental game grew alongside their physical skills and passion for the sport.
Now a young pro goalie, Evan Cowley fell in love with hockey when he moved to Colorado at age 5.
Ice hockey in the winter, street hockey in the summer – growing up in the goal was fun, says Cowley. But “The mental grind of trying to be my best in every practice and every game, especially as a 17-year-old – was pretty intense, and it made me grow a ton.”
Cowley says he did not really begin thinking about his own mental game until college when a great coach guided his goalie skills towards success – and helped the University of Denver Pioneers to win their 2017 NCAA championship.
“I’m a pretty thoughtful guy, and it was translating to a little overthinking when I was playing,” says Cowley, 23, who went on to play with the American Hockey League’s Springfield Thunderbirds and leaves in July to join the Odense Bulldogs for the 2019–20 pro season in Denmark.
He remembers Denver coach Joe Clark telling him, “‘Evan, you care too much. You’re working yourself into the ground about things that don’t really matter.’ At that time I don’t think I was ready to hear that. What? I care too much? Of course I care too much, this is my life!
“It took me a few years to sort out what he meant; you’re on a path of growth, and you can only focus on a couple of things at a time, and it took me a while to understand that,” Cowley says. “It’s only in the last two or three seasons since I turned pro that I’ve taken a full step into my own head.”
So Who Coaches the Goalie Coaches?
Coaching goalies requires unique skills – and more than a bit of seat-of-the-pants psychology:
St. Louis Blues goalie coach David Alexander regaled the retreat participants by video call just before Game 4 of the Stanley Cup with private stories about the mental game, and even a bit of humor:
Ask bluntly about a goalie’s mental state, and he’ll just put on his bravest hero’s face; signaling anything less than 100% preparedness tends to be perceived as acknowledging he’s weak. If you really want to know what’s going on, Alexander said, talk to his wife or his girlfriend.
Goalie coaches must wait for non-game time and focus directly on the mental game – unlike regular hockey coaches who give advice directly to forwards and defensemen on the bench during play, says Benjamin Sequens, goalie coach for the Czech Hockey Federation.
A good goalie coach must know his goalie’s taste for bad news, says Sequens: Some want to be hit all at once with post-game analysis on great plays and lost goals; Others need some post-game time alone – to process mentally what happened – before they want to be told what to do next time.
Sequens says he sometimes contracts sports-psychologists to evaluate individual goalies and give him clues on how their minds will work during training. Today, much of his work relies on reading goalies’ moods, and then trying to communicate accordingly:
Given that ice hockey victory pivots so heavily on the mental game, one might expect coaches to focus on sharpening those vital hidden skills for all hockey players.
“Player-coaches don’t do that at all,” says Sequens.
“I think goalie coaches have always focused on that part (of coaching) since they’ve played, themselves. They’ve had closer relations [with players] than regular coaches do. Just standing by yourself for 60 minutes under all that pressure makes you a different person. Since the goalie coaches have been through the same, they feel for their students, so it makes it a strong relationship. It’s definitely different than [with other hockey] players.”
Sequens says he focuses primarily on sharpening a goalie’s mental strengths and his flow state – and helping him maintain that heroic clarity:
“When you are in the zone, it feels like everything is slowing down – in a good way,” he says. “You see pucks coming at you that go full speed, but it feels like they’re going slow, and it’s easier to catch them. You just feel good about yourself. It’s about how well you can shake off misplays or goals, how easy it is to just shake everything off and just go back to the zone, doing that mental recovery.”
“Most of my work is just how I feel about how that guy feels,” says Sequens.
The “Masters of the Mental Game” research project seeks to better understand the mental traits and unique combination of components that lead to top performance on both an individual and team level.
The work will fuel the expansion of the Veebit platfrom to include personalized training modules to improve performance and team dynamics, and drive success for people working in high-performance, high-stakes environments ranging from sports to business to real-world crisis response.
To learn more about our research, please contact us.
Mack Reed is Veebit’s Head of Product and oversees the information architecture, use case strategy and user-experience design for the company’s products.