The Goalie Guild

Eliminating Cognitive Dissonance

The biggest force a goaltender must manage during a game is their own mind. The brain doesn’t only act as your own private commander in battle, cheering you on and boosting your morale, but it can also be a vicious traitor and turn against you at any given moment. Because of this, a goalie must carefully process every single internal thought during a hockey game in a positive manner.

Over the past few weeks, much of my subject matter has discussed the importance of “read and react” goaltending. Thinking less usually equals a better performance because you play the game free of distractions. There’s no visible paralysis, nerves or hesitation when you just react, so how you play simply comes down to how your body and muscles have been trained to stop the puck.

Just a few days ago, I went through something that has only happened a few times in my life. With this season mostly spent scouting, playing drop-in and high-level scrimmages, I didn’t play a game for about six months. That was until Wednesday night rolled around and I was asked by a friend the night before to join his team for their playoff run. I agreed before he could even finish his request.

With less than 24 hours to mentally prepare for the first round of the playoffs, I had to undergo an internal self-medicating process. Although I wasn’t rusty by any means due to a bunch of drop-ins, I just wasn’t comfortable or used to playing games. So in order to feel like I was adequately prepared, I created a surge of confidence (in part by listening to some good Finnish metal) and then recognized that, despite the fact I hadn’t played a game since October, I was more than capable of coming in “cold” and playing well.

But mentally preparing was only half the battle. The other half was stepping up and executing well enough to win the game. Beyond just playing up to my ability and managing the puck, I had to work extra hard to eliminate any and all negative messages that could have turned my mind against me. And no matter how confident I might have felt before the game, I knew negative thoughts lurked around every corner of my mind.

With some good early saves and decent goal support in the third period, the external forces were in my favor and I went on to make 28 saves in a 4-2 victory. Aside from the win, I was way more excited about the success I created within my mind…and I was able to reinforce a valuable lesson regarding mental toughness that I will gladly pass along to you at this time.

— [ THE DANGER OF NEGATIVE THOUGHTS ] —

Negative thoughts during a game, or any kind of substantial thought that distracts you from focusing on the puck and the play, is goaltending suicide. A mentally sound and successful goalie trusts their ability to stop the puck, regardless of the situation. They don’t think - they just react.

If I’m killing a penalty, I trust my ability to find the puck through traffic and absorb shots from the point. If I’m facing a breakaway, I trust my ability to challenge, match the shooter’s speed and make the appropriate save selection. This list is endless, and totally trusting your skills does not happen overnight.

If I had to choose one area where this trust is most important, it would be the feet. Footwork is the foundation of balance, positioning and lateral movement. And in today’s game, stopping most quality scoring chances stems from having skill in those three areas.

Once you reach the point where you can fully trust your skills, only then will you be able to eliminate any negative thoughts that might turn your mind against you. This is one of the most important aspects of gaining and sustaining confidence, and it’s crucial to the continued and consistent success of a goaltender at any age or skill level.

As many of you have learned, goalies often end up fighting themselves internally. It takes tremendous mental strength to fully control what goes through your mind. When bad things happen, it’s even tougher to destroy the negative vibes and stay positive. When good things happen, it can also be difficult to stay even-keeled and not get too high, otherwise you’re susceptible to being overly-confident and not having the same level of focus or intensity. You can also become over-amplified and lose your net or over-react to certain plays and shots.

Not much else needs to be said about the danger of negative thoughts. You know what it can do to your game. Negativity doesn’t just erode your focus, but it can also seep into your mind at any given time and ultimately ruin an otherwise great performance. It’s a volatile force, so a goalie must be 100% aware, and in control, of what thoughts they are processing at all times.

— [ CONTROLLING YOUR THOUGHTS ]—

In order to control your mind during the game, you first have to “listen” for messages. What does your mind say to you in the crease? Are they positive messages, or is your mind worried about what might happen next? Are you hoping a certain skilled player doesn’t get any time and space with the puck? Are you worried about what you look like when executing certain saves? Are you praying that you make the first save of the game? Are you over-thinking shots that might find your weak spot? Do you simply lack faith in certain areas of the position?

If you hear these negative messages stemming from the back of your mind, you must realize that even though the brain can be a negative force, you’re the ultimate controller of this inner-body panel. There are many switches located in different areas that allow you to flip from a loud, negative mind to a quiet, positive, read-and-react state of mind. Flipping these switches can happen in different ways and is the true essence of eliminating negative mental messages. It could be a single save, verbal reinforcement from a coach or teammate, or a variety of other things.

It’s also important to realize that sometimes we simply don’t have the power to control what we think. It is only natural that a human being worries about failure or being a victim of circumstance. Bad bounces happen and we’ve all battled the puck, and our minds, many times before. And even though we know that staying positive is essential to winning, the mind is a very sensitive organism prone to external and internal negative vibes.

But we can control when we think.

That being said, one of my missions during a game is to protect my mind. I accomplish this by doing whatever it takes to keep myself from thinking anything at all. By taking a few simple steps to focus on different external elements of a game, I have personally experienced great success “turning off” my mind and eliminating the possibility of any negative messages influencing my confidence.

More specifically, I channel my mental energy into tracking the puck and watching plays that develop all around me. I let my eyes do the thinking, which further helps me shut off my mind so that it can’t talk to me. The only time I allow my mind to speak is when I know it will tell me something positive, like after a big glove save or when I break up a centering pass from behind the net. And I only allow my mind to speak very short messages like, “nice play” or “great save” or “good read” before shutting up again.

I know, I know…that sounds a little weird, right? My mind talking to myself. But what happens when you process a thought? Your mind speaks. And we all know that if you don’t have something nice to say, you shouldn’t say anything at all. The same goes for your mind during a game.

—[ ELIMINATING COGNITIVE DISSONANCE ]—

For the more studious goalies that take an interest in psychology, consider this lesson as a way to eliminate cognitive dissonance from entering your mind. Cognitive dissonance, in the sense of a goaltender, could be described as that unsettling feeling you get when you want to look and play like an elite goalie, but at the same time dwelling or thinking about your weaknesses. This leads to negative thoughts and the hope that you don’t get scored on because of those weaknesses. In essence, you over-think and lose confidence in your own abilities.

This is where the moment of truth comes into play. You’re in the game, you understand the power of your mind, and you embrace that power by recognizing you might be prone to processing a negative message at any given moment. So what steps do you take to turn off your mind so it can’t speak until you’re ready for it to do so? Here’s how I do it:

For one, I clean my crease religiously, almost to an obsessive-compulsive degree. Over the years, I’ve come to hate the look and feel of snow building up in my crease. Why? Probably because I feel like it slows down my butterfly slides and makes me feel cluttered and constricted. I also go crazy when I switch ends and see a ton of snow left behind by the other goalie. I want to scream at them, call them a dirty, dirty goalie and make them clean up their trash.

Whenever the play is dead, I have enough time to make three half-circle passes with my stick (back and forth in front of my body from post to post) in order to clear away any evil debris. I’ll do this only if the faceoff is in the neutral zone or in our offensive zone. Cleaning my crease is more helpful in those zones because there’s more time for my mind to create and send negative or distracting messages. It’s also easier for my eyes to wander, whether stuff happening in the stands or I’m looking at the scoreboard. And that can lead to other distracting or negative thoughts.

If the faceoff is inside my zone, I’ll clean my crease quickly, but spend more time tapping my glove and stick against the post to make sure I’m squared up. It never hurts to check and re-check where you are in the crease, and it also allows me to act without thinking. My mind is focused on angles and positioning, so it doesn’t have a chance to send any kind of negative or distracting messages to myself.

When the faceoff is inside my zone, I’m also paying attention to the enemy and their spots on the ice. Who is on the blue line and which hand is their stick in? Who are the forwards? Is it the dangerous, swift-skating line that generates a lot of speed in the neutral zone, or is it a less-talented line? Who is on the ice for my team? Is it my reliable defensemen, or is it guys I might need to communicate with more? Focusing on these things during breaks in action eliminate the chance for your mind to relay or create any kind of negative messages.

Beyond cleaning my crease and focusing on matchups, there are many different ways to turn off your mind and simply react (thus eliminating any chance for cognitive dissonance). This could be fidgeting with your gloves and leg pads, skating to the bench to chat with your teammates, taking off the mask and re-adjusting your chest protector, drinking some water, or skating from the crease to the boards and back again.

Essentially, I’m just doing something instead of nothing. When I do nothing, I start thinking. When I start thinking, I open up the chance for negative thoughts to take over. By doing something, I keep my mind occupied and eliminate the chance for any negative thoughts to even exist. I’m not thinking about the score, about prior mistakes, or about how much time is left in the game. I’m simply going through my own unique range of motions that exist in my library of mannerisms.

—[ MAKE YOUR MANNERISMS COUNT ]—

Something that will always amaze and intrigue me about the goaltending position is how we all have our own unique mannerisms. Think about Braden Holtby for a second. His “Holtbyisms” have steadily gained a cult following over the past year, and I’m a proud part of that cult. But what makes it such an interesting thing to witness? It’s completely unique to him, yet it serves a very real purpose. Nobody else does it quite like him and there’s a method to his madness.

What might be one or two reasons why he has stepped up from Hershey and played so well for the Capitals this year? It’s not a coincidence – he’s very mentally tough and has displayed, in many different ways, his ability to shut off negative thoughts from entering his mind or distracting him from doing what he does best - trusting his instincts, reading and reacting to plays.

As a scout, I know full well that this is the sign of a real confident goaltender with tremendous upside and potential as a starter. This is the sign of a goalie who understands the power of the mind. It’s not about what he looks like or being technically perfect, it’s just about preparing to do whatever it takes to play at his best.

Allowing yourself to think should be reserved for practices, video analysis sessions and off-ice training. But learning to shut off your mind when a game begins and only flipping it on when you know a positive message will be sent should be reserved for games and tryouts.

Eliminating negative messages, in my opinion, also stems from recognizing fear. If you’re afraid of negative results, your mind will create negative messages without warning. It has happened to every goaltender at some point in their lives. It’s a weird, nauseating feeling that sweeps over the body and can paralyze your reactions and ability to execute cleanly.

So if you want to eliminate the negative part of your mind, first realize it exists. Then shut it off by making your mannerisms count. These traits simply make you who you are. Embrace them and execute them when your mind might be trying to say negative things. Then try to use your mannerisms as a way to keep you busy during moments of inactivity.

Mannerisms are positive forces that help you fight against your mind’s dark side. Suppress and destroy negative thoughts by not allowing your mind to think. Stop yourself from thinking by doing something during periods of inactivity. React more, think less and have faith in your ability to stop the puck.

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  1. Tom K says:

    Really enjoyed the article, its always tough to purvey the mental
    thoughts that go through a goalies head throughout a game. There’s a
    lot of alone time back there, and it absolutely is a majority mental
    game once you reach a certain extent of physical skill. For me, the
    ISM’s are key, a way to keep the mental flow rolling no matter what is
    happening. Before each play, a series of pad taps (the number depends
    on the faceoff location) gets me from the distant mental area of a game
    pause to right back in where I need to be. Everything is a system, a
    mental game at its best, and I think you really captured that here.

  2. Tom K says:

    Really enjoyed the article, its always tough to purvey the mental thoughts that go through a goalies head throughout a game. There’s a lot of alone time back there, and it absolutely is a majority mental game once you reach a certain extent of physical skill. For me, the ISM’s are key, a way to keep the mental flow rolling no matter what is happening. Before each play, a series of pad taps (the number depends on the faceoff location) gets me from the distant mental area of a game pause to right back in where I need to be. Everything is a system, a mental game at its best, and I think you really captured that here.

  3. Melanie says:

    Good advice – in life as well as in sports.

  4. Antoinebrosseau says:

    Justin.. GREAT ARTICLE!!!!

  5. Connor says:

    Got a tryout coming up and I really needed this. This is my biggest struggle as a goalie. I am about the same size as Tim Thomas and play his unorthodox and being able to read and react is very important if one wants to play that style. Thanks a lot Justin!

  6. JR says:

    Nice write up Justin, going into a game tommorow after 2 weeks off (injury). This is just what I need.

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