Over the past decade of coaching summer camps, private lessons, and team practices, I’ve seen hundreds of goaltenders display near-perfect technical skills in their game. Through countless hours of practice, training, and off-ice work, these goalies get better physically year after year. Yet, the one skill that separates the elite goalies from the mediocre isn’t taught to any of these students. Mental toughness is the one skill that cannot be taught and perfected by a goalie coach because it is solely up to the goaltender to develop it. You either learn to have it or you don’t.
Mental toughness can be found as an intangible in many forms. These forms range from playing through injuries (bruises, fatigue, stitches) to overcoming a bad loss by coming back with a solid performance in the next start. You will notice that the top goalies in the NHL will usually have a great game after they were pulled in their previous outing. Mental toughness can also be attributed to how a goalie handles adversity within the game when his team hasn’t shown up and he is called upon to stand on his head. A mentally weak goaltender will have the excuse that his team didn’t play well, so he had no chance to win. A mentally strong goaltender makes some big saves while his team is sleeping and propels them to a victory.
Unlike physical skills (skating, recoveries, puck handling, etc.) that are repetitively practiced and perfected, the skill of mental toughness is only perfected by those that have the will to be one of the few individuals in the elite class. Being mentally tough requires the upmost concentration to overcome past failures, set backs, injuries, doubters, and the burning desire and focus to play at the highest level every time you step on the ice. A prime example of a goalie that is mentally soft is the goalie that looks technically perfect in practice, but is unsuccessful at winning games. They’re the ones that have all the physical tools and seem like an elite goaltender in all of the controlled situations in practice. Then when that same goalie is placed into a real game situation, they can’t pull it together and deliver the same results on a consistent basis. Sometimes their skill will be on full display and other times (mostly in big games) they can’t handle the emotional highs and lows of either making a save or letting up a goal. The goalie cracks under pressure against the tough competition because they can’t manage to slow down the speed of the game in their minds and react accordingly. This type of goalie usually doesn’t get out of minor hockey.
One more example of how a goalie has to be mentally tough in order to be successful is not allowing themselves to use excuses for set backs or failures. I look at my good friend and coworker, Jeff Lerg, as an example. While many know of Jeff’s on-ice success in winning a national championship at Michigan State, many are unaware of his injuries after college in transitioning to pro hockey. In 2009, Jeff endured back-to-back knee surgeries to repair both his ACLs in the same year after college. Most goalies would have given up and used these often career-ending injuries as a crutch as to why they didn’t make it in the pros. Jeff not only used these injuries as fuel and motivation to prove doubters he could come back, but has come back to have success at the elite levels while playing professionally in Europe.