Between the Pipes: Mental Toughness Tips for Goalies

For Podium Sports Journal by Stephen Walker, PhD, CC-AASP and Alec Baker, PsyD

What happens when you combine the speed of five great athletes in helmets and pads sprinting on ice skates straight at you? Oh yeah, they’re also bearing weapons. A simple collision, of which there are many, often sends metal blades and long sticks every which way. Their real target is you—the one thing keeping them from their objective—the one guarding the net. You are a goalie—and you must learn to thrive on stress.

The goalie has one of the most mentally demanding positions in any sport. When you combine the speed and mental skills required of a goalie with the danger of the sport, ice hockey is tops. Each goaltender has different strengths and triggers for both optimum and lackluster performance. Here are six mental conditioning skills that distinguish big time goalies….

Coaches can really help or hinder a goalie and there is no substitute for a coach knowing the right buttons to push. The problem is that many coaches rarely interact with their goalies because they don’t know how to coach them. Few coaches have actually played the position. With the emphasis on scoring and offensive play, some coaches minimize drills that emphasize defensive support. Goaltending is a solitary enterprise. When the team’s success is measured against your performance between the pipes, the stakes are undeniably high.

Many factors contribute to a goalie’s abilities and competence. Physical conditioning, preparation, nutrition and fueling, stretching, warm-ups, skating ability, shooting, passing, stick handling, rebound control, net location sequences, etc., are all important to the making of a great goalie. Every goalie at every level has great days and off days, but consistency is the hallmark of greatness in this endeavor.

Here are six mental conditioning skills that distinguish big time goalies. They are studied, practiced, and rehearsed on and off the ice, and instinctively integrated into the arsenal and mindsets that define greatness in goaltending.

Tip #1: Goaltenders must learn to be mentally alert, yet physically relaxed to enhance their speed, quickness, focus, accuracy and rebound control.

Arousal control is the key to developing optimal physical relaxation and mental alertness. This type of stress control involves the use of controlled breathing patterns that self-regulate the autonomic nervous system (see this article on controlling arousal and use of the centering breath). Neuromuscular bracing responses to stress often contribute to poor performance because they contribute to chronically tense muscles, fatigue, slow reaction time, lost precision and an inability to focus.

The centering breath, specifically, and breath control in general, is highly underrated. These skills are not easily mastered. Multiple practice sessions on a daily basis contribute to enhanced breath control in a variety of situations both on and off the ice.

Many mind/body practitioners are familiar with biofeedback and various monitoring systems for physiological functioning. Sometimes biofeedback can be used to improve the goalie’s awareness of both subtle physical sensations and different levels of arousal. Techniques like progressive muscular relaxation (PMR), threshold relaxation, autogenic training, yoga, tai chi movement, somatics and other disciplines can help an athlete relax and acquire expert arousal and motor control.

Speed and quickness can also be developed through certain neuromuscular mental preparation techniques designed to maximize fast-twitch motor unit recruitment. These mental skills are practiced and rehearsed daily if they are to be performed instinctively. (See: Ross, C, Journal of Sports Medicine 2001;31(15):1063- 82).

Tip #2: Goaltenders must learn, practice and employ routines for
pre-game preparation, net location sequences, focusing drills, and refocusing progressions that enhance consistency in performance.

Spatial ability and multitasking are crucial to the goalie’s performance. The ability to focus on and integrate several factors simultaneously separates the great goalies from the good ones. Positioning and efficiency are key at all times. Goalies must systematically develop the ability to keep track of where the men are off-the-puck. They must integrate how well their teammates are reacting to the attacks and positioning of the opposing team. Goalies are ultimately responsible for managing the efficiency of defensive play. Threat awareness is but one part of the many factors processed and accounted for by a competent goalie.

No one questions the role of a quarterback in directing play for a football team, but people often misunderstand the importance of a goalie directing traffic in and around the crease. Coaches with varying experience regarding goalie play can either facilitate or impair how each goalie prepares and practices the drills, routines and communication patterns that help establish their team’s cohesiveness and overall success.

Goalies, like athletes in many other sports, can create successful mindsets and pre-game routines. Sometimes these routines are regarded as superstitious. Certain routines that they believe contributed to a great game one time might become incorporated into that athlete’s standard operating system for game preparation. High performing goalies seeking consistency tend to employ refresher drills—on and off the ice. They do them to boost eye-hand-stick coordination, visual tracking exercises, spatial relations and efficient movements centering on the net. Some of these pre-game routines are physically practiced while others employ imagery, written reminders or sound files recorded on MP3 players. These may include:

* Pre-Game study—relaxing the “butterflies,” review of confidence boosters.
* Know Your Net Drills —Ritually performed net location sequence for every rink.
* Focusing Drills—Visual focusing, threat awareness, movement senses
* “Now” Practice —Analyze a mistake—Integrate (correction)—Forget
* Read —Read—React—Recover—Reposition
(From McDonnell’s Technogoaltending Vol. 1 “Cobra in the Crease.”

All athletes experience jitters before a game. Some may characterize this sensation as anxiety and find it unnerving. Some might say they are excited and happy to get on with the game. How an athlete defines that experience may dictate the proper structure of their pre-game preparation. Even if an athlete is jittery, don’t assume that he is mentally alert. Nutrition, blood sugar metabolism, emotional maturity, life balance, the ability to keep things in perspective, and the ability to manage distractions are key factors for readiness to play. Drills, routines, and rituals can be developed to enhance these factors. There is no substitute for daily practice of these mental skills!

Sean McCann, sport psychologist for the USOC states boldly, “Thoughts impact behavior…and consistency of thinking results in consistency of behavior.” If one seeks to perform reliably between the pipes, then his preparation should guide his thinking and game behavior accordingly.

Tip #3: Goaltenders must learn the art of letting go of mistakes. Perfection and shut outs are what we strive for, but they are never expected.

Perfectionism can be a good friend or your worst enemy, depending on how it is used. Any goaltender who expects to win by shutting out the opponent may be remarkably confident or just plain naïve. Shots ricochet off of traffic in the zone, teammates misplay a clear, power plays create position dilemmas, poor defensive support can leave you without backup, rebounds can bounce in any direction. All of these things and a dozen more happen to a goalie in the course of a game. In order to be effective, goalies must learn from their mistakes and disengage from the emotional angst that accompanies failing to protect the goal. A proper sequence for letting go of mistakes and implementing corrective measures will keep the goalie focused in the NOW—which is essential to success.

Coaches and teammates play an important role here, as well. Coaches often simply demand that the goalie keep the puck out of the net. This speaks to how little most coaches know about the position itself. It also illustrates that goals are frequently attributed to the goalie alone. In ice hockey, the goalie is often treated as a scapegoat.

When a head coach approaches goalies in this way, the goalie will have a much harder time shaking goals off. The goalie may be thinking about whether or not he will be pulled after letting in some goals; he will end up playing tentatively. This preoccupation can only impair his performance and increase the likelihood that he will let in goals.

A goalie’s response to giving up a goal reveals a lot about him as an individual and about the team as a whole. What lesson will they take away from the situation? Will it shake the team’s confidence? Will a teammate’s mistake erode the unit’s cohesion? How long will the mistake eat at the goalie, distracting him from his task? Robin Vealey proposed the use of “P3 Thinking” to keep the athlete focused on his purpose, productively engaged and striving for the possibility of success. A goalie schooled in this routine will be able to disengage from a mistake and reorient to competition quickly. Other tools for letting go might include the Thought Pattern Interrupt (see: or Target Thinking where an individual systematically reviews his intention, focus, and chosen attitude (optimistic vs. negative) following a mistake.

Tip #4: Goaltenders must learn how to keep their self-talk productive and positive—and exercise the discipline to keep their internal conversations centered on their performance, confidence and team focus.

Goaltenders have more than their share of surges and flats depending on how efficient their team may be offensively and defensively. Self-talk is a constant for almost every athlete. When productively engaged in the task at hand, and strictly focused in the moment, self-talk is characterized as a key component in the peak performance zone and is routinely helpful.

Problems occur when goalies engage in “could-a, should-a, would-a” self-talk berating themselves on a mistake made in the past. Athletes whose self-talk is focused unproductively in the future, as in “What if this happens?” or “What’s going to happen next?” put themselves at a disadvantage and can actually cause themselves to panic by anticipating the future. Some athletes think too much and engage in self-talk that reviews a thousand and one details on all the things to remember. Athletes who tend toward this type of internal dialogue put themselves at a disadvantage by analysis paralysis.

Overt criticism from teammates and coaches can often undermine positive self-talk. Even well-meaning coaches who don’t understand the role of goalie as quarterback directing defensive traffic in the zone may lose an opportunity to enhance team cohesiveness by ignoring suggestions and input from their goalie when developing defensive schemes.

Tip #5: Less is more: efficiency and positioning are key. Goaltenders must incorporate spatial integration, focus and anticipation in their mental preparation and execution.

Goalies are responsible for filling in the holes in their team’s defensive scheme. This is almost instinctual in goalies that compete at the highest levels. They always seem to be in the right place at the right time. These athletes appear to have a supernatural ability to anticipate the flow of the game. While they are rarely considered to be flashy or acrobatic in net, their success commands respect. Think for a moment about your favorite goalie. What do you notice about his efficiency and positioning? Spatial abilities combined with an ability to control, divide, and prioritize their focus is what sets these individuals apart and makes them masters of anticipation.

Efficient use of practice time is the best way for a goalie to improve in this area. Goalies must use the repetitive nature of practice drills to their advantage. This means observing the tendencies of the other players (e.g. how subtle differences in shooting angle and position of defenders influences an attacker’s decision making) and experimenting with different strategies for reacting to them effectively. It is imperative for coaches to help their goalies work on this skill. This means designing drills that incorporate three main elements. These are:

1) a variety of shot locations and pre-shot puck movement patterns
2) the recreation of a variety of game situations that involve different numbers of skaters
3) progressively increasing drill difficulty.

These elements speak to the power of exposing goalies to as many different and challenging situations as possible. Over time this exposure will help them learn to recognize and focus on what information is most important to their decision making—and use it efficiently to become masters of anticipation.

Tip #6: Develop teammate and coach communication skills: goaltenders must learn how to be a vocal team leader.

Great goalies recognize their role as quarterback in the defensive zone. They have to let defensemen know if they have men on them when they come back to get the puck, tell them to clear a screen in front of the net, and remind everyone when a power-play ends among other things.

Coaches need to encourage these behaviors and also tell their goalies how they want them to do things like handle the puck during breakouts or manage the clock and tempo of the game by covering the puck. Goalies should expect this type of instruction and solicit it if they are unclear about what their coach expects of them. It is also a good idea for coaches to make a habit of checking in with goalies about these things during period breaks and practices so that the goalie can continue to focus on them.

Coaches should look to their goalies to be leaders on the ice and initiate communication with their teammates. Goalies are the only players who have the opportunity to experience every minute of a game from the ice. This gives them a unique perspective on what is happening throughout the course of the game and puts them in the best position to make strategic adjustments on the fly. For goalies, maintaining this sort of communication requires solid knowledge of the team’s strategy and the confidence to be a vocal team leader.

About the authors:


Dr. Stephen Walker is a therapist, coach, athletic and personal performance consultant who has consulted with world record holders, national champion and All-American collegiate athletes, Olympians and professionals in IAAF, USATF track and field, USA Cycling, USATriathlon, UTI triathlon, USA hockey, PGA golf and other team sports. He has done considerable consulting with Mark Sample of GDI Hockey and continues to enjoy the special challenges goalies face. For more information visit his website:

Alec Baker, PsyD is a recent graduate of the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Professional Psychology. In 2005 he earned a B.A. in psychology from the Pennsylvania State University. Since that time he has worked as a goalie coach in the Philadelphia and Denver areas. This work has been with goalies of all youth ages and skill levels from Mite to Midget AA. As a goalie Alec spent 4 years with the Philadelphia Junior Flyers and was a member of the USA Hockey National Championship Tournament quarterfinalist team in 2000. He was also a two time member of the USA Hockey NTDP Select Festival team from the Atlantic/Southeast Region (1998–1999). This team was awarded the bronze medal in the Select Festival in 1999.

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