The Stanley Cup Finals takes place on such a massive stage that the goaltending lessons we learn inevitably have the power to influence us forevermore.
Last night, Jonathan Quick became the third American-born player, and the second consecutive American-born goaltender, to win the Conn Smythe. As crazy as that sounds, it was Boston’s Tim Thomas that accomplished this same feat just one season ago.
The similarities between Quick and Thomas are quite striking. Both US-born goalies represented their country in the 2010 Winter Olympics, and they both stand around six feet tall. They’re both NCAA graduates, and aside from their statistical domination in the playoffs, their ability to embrace the aggressive reflex-based butterfly style as excellent scramblers and battlers was clearly comparable.
Furthermore, both Thomas and Quick earned their Stanley Cup rings by dominating the league from the very first day of the regular season until the very last buzzer sounded. Minor hiccups distracted them during the season, but never derailed them from reaching their final destiny.
In fact, those hiccups played a role in proving that they had what it took mentally to shatter records and stifle even the stiffest competition.
I know I mentioned this on Twitter during the post-game celebrations last night, but what really put a smile on my face was the fact that millions of goalies everywhere couldn’t fall asleep without first realizing the importance of playing with an egoless approach.
Quick’s egoless approach really hit me during the post-game press conference. His adorable daughter was a perfect symbol of the importance of family, and his quotes mentioning the ability to “stay out of the spotlight and in the moment” drove home what I had learned, and what I teach.
In terms of the egoless approach, the concept of family is a good place to start.
“Family” puts life in perspective and eliminates the narrow focus of always doing things for one’s self. It places the onus squarely on your shoulders to do things for those you love most, and that onus is often embraced. As a goalie nears their 30’s and “settles down” in life, they come to lean the importance of having a balance, and it ultimately helps them play with less pressure and stress, and with more awareness, confidence, and patience.
MY UNDERSTANDING OF EGOLESS GOALTENDING
The idea of egoless goaltending was introduced to me by one of my mentors, Mike Valley.
Valley, who excels as the goalie coach for the Dallas Stars, consistently reinforces the importance of playing with an egoless approach through his online development system, Elite Goalies.
When Valley hired me in 2010 as an independent contractor to help design and create the latest version of his website, I learned more about a pro goalie’s mindset in one year than I had in the previous 10. As a result, I become more aware of not only the mental side of the position, but how important it really is to play without an ego.
Everyone is different, but my own personal definition of “Egoless Goaltending” is an ability to erase the elements of our psyche that inflate our sense of identity, self-worth, or self-importance. Instead of seeing ourselves as being better than others, we should see ourselves as nothing more than a tool needed for our team to win games.
An egoless goaltender cares not about what he looks like. He does not allow these aspects of the ego to distract him from playing as well as he possibly can. His self-identity, especially while playing a game, is considered a distraction. Instead, the focus is simply on one thing; tracking the puck and playing in the moment.
In today’s society, I feel strongly that way too many young goalies care way too much about how they look in goal, especially in the eyes of others. They care too much about how their gear looks, about everyone loving their new painted mask, their “swag” and their sticks and their followers.
This is only natural as a goalie matures, but far too often, young goalies are way too consumed with the idea of looking cool, rather than doing what it takes to play at the highest level possible.
I always hear the phrase, “Look good, feel good, play good” and I certainly agree with it. But it’s all about perception and timing, and we have to be pretty careful with these things when they cross our minds.
I know plenty of goalies that “feel good and play good” without caring about looking good, and they are usually the ones that out-perform everyone else. You don’t have to look good to play good, and I’ve experienced a million situations (in tryouts and while scouting) where a goalie with old dirty gear out-performs a goalie with fancy new pads.
One guy cares way too much about how they look in the eyes of others, and they’re clearly distracted.
Another guy is just happy to be out there, and his focus gives him a distinct edge on the competition.
My recent School of Block text on the influence of time is another example of the distractions that stem from being too concerned with one’s ego. Any conscious or subconscious thought process that isn’t directly tied to stopping the puck (while a game is happening) is almost always a distraction, and that can take away our ability to stay “locked in” to the rhythm and timing of the game.
How many times do we play with our girlfriends watching, and how many times do we try not to look over at them, or try not to think about what they think of us? We want to impress them — that’s the nature of the position. But that can be a Pandora’s Box if we care too much about it.
For reasons such as this, many goalies seem to struggle in games, but play amazingly well in practices and drop-ins. In fact, I’m willing to guess that every single person that reads this article has experienced that internal struggle at some point in their lives.
Truth be told, if you’re thinking about how you look, or what other people are thinking when watching you play, you’re probably not playing in the moment.
Furthermore, the ego can inflate as we gain consciousness and awareness about our own identity.
As children, we hit the ice and grow up simply playing the game in a natural manner. But as we age and mature and become more aware of our skills, the ego can be inflated, and we can start to spend too much energy thinking about how we look in the eyes of others.
Sometimes it happens to a point where we don’t even notice it.
QUICK AND THE EGOLESS APPROACH
Constantly “playing in the moment” thanks to an egoless approach, Quick reflected a purely focused goaltender all season long. Even with his well-earned All-Star Game appearance and a brightening spotlight around him, he stayed “locked in” almost every single night.
Not only was his swelling stardom a potential threat to his ego, but the lack of goal support was as well. When you know you’re the only reason a team is winning games, it can definitely lead you down a path where you think you’re better than everyone else, and you’re “owed” something.
But Quick didn’t care about any of that stuff at all.
In fact, I will always remember his hoodie as a perfect symbol of this focus, an archetype for the ages. He did his job quietly, he didn’t get consumed by a rising celebrity status in Los Angeles, and he just worked hard every single day. He blocked out the potentially negative influence of the media and fans, and always said the right things at the right time.
Along with Bill Ranford and Kim Dillabaugh (these guys simply will never get the credit they truly deserve) guiding him along the way, Quick had the support he needed to stay focused, and to mature on the fly. All of these things were apparent to me with how he played in March and April, and then right into the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Mental wear and tear (some of which is caused by an inflated ego) leads to physical wear and tear, but Quick played Games 5 and 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals like the first two games of the regular season.
It was amazing to witness, and an important ideal of goaltending that I’ll forever try to live by.
TYING EGOLESSNESS INTO GOALTENDING
Do a simple Google search of “egoless approach” and you’ll find numerous spiritually-oriented websites that discuss the importance of eradicating the ego by living an unselfish and selfless lifestyle. They write of ignoring fantasies of personal delights, and they write of not being consumed with things such as sex, power, money and fame.
For a goaltender, this idea of caring more about your team’s success and less about personal success is vital to develop a winning attitude. For myself, the paragraphs below reflect how I’ve personally come to tie the spiritual aspect of the egoless approach into the art of goaltending.
No goaltender, regardless of their age, experience, or talent level, is able to escape the victimization of wretched bad bounces, bad timing, bad goals, or tough losses. These things are what make us human. Mistakes make us human.
Every goalie to ever play the game is prone to making these unforced errors, and we are all prone to succumbing to the natural tendencies that lead us to inevitably fail (pressure, lack of focus or preparation). Even Quick gave up an “unforced error” goal to Zach Parise in Game 5.
Not only do unfortunate bounces make us human, but most importantly, they prove that we are no greater or better than anyone else.
Therefore, if we realize that we are never truly greater than anyone else, this egoless approach puts us in a position to think and care less about ourselves, and more on stopping pucks and assisting the team.
Coaches love that, players love that, and fans love that.
I personally think Quick learned a lot about egoless goaltending by watching his idol Mike Richter. When you grow up watching a goalie, you don’t just mimic their style, you take a piece of their aura with you, and it becomes a part of who you are. So just like Quick and many other goalies were influenced by Richter, millions of goalies will learn this same lesson from watching Quick.
It’s the Science of Shadowing at it’s absolute finest.
By creating this type of atmosphere where you are playing for the sake of your teammates, you’re opening the door for them to work harder. By helping your teammates, they’ll inevitably help you in return.
If you always play for yourself, or if you care too much about your teammates possibly screwing up your save percentages and shutouts, you may lose the support of those around you. That destroys the fabric of teamwork, and that can usually be the difference between winning and losing.
But being an egoless goaltender is so much more than how you see yourself in the eyes of others. It’s also how you act, both in subtle and more recognizable ways.
WAYS TO BE AN EGOLESS GOALTENDER
When I first wrote out some of my thoughts on the egoless approach way back in January, I started compiling a list of ways in which I considered a goaltender to be egoless.
Growing up on a farm in Texas with strong levels of discipline and work ethic, it was relatively easy for me to be an egoless goaltender. I knew I wasn’t much of a talent compared to all of the Canadian goalies out there, and I knew full well that learning to skate at the age of 12 put me well behind the curve of those goalies that had legit opportunities to turn pro.
In the scope of the whole world of goaltending, I was nothing, really. But at least I could skate, and at least I had the means to play my favorite sport. That was enough for me, and where I ended up or how I looked mattered not.
Regardless, I still strive to push myself to the limits, and to reflect the same type of mindset and body language that I grew up watching in my NHL idols. So even though I didn’t even know it at the time, my ability to embrace this egoless approach has played a major role in my success, both on and off the ice.
That being said, I hope the list below is of value to goaltenders out there. And if I had to wrap the entire list in one all-consuming paragraph, it would be:
“If you’re a starter, practice like you’re a backup. Play like nothing will be given to you. Force yourself to truly earn everything you want in life. Bleed for it. Demand nothing from your teammates to aid your performance, and demand more from yourself in order to help your teammates succeed. Always strive to bail them out, but never rely on them to bail you out.”
On top of this, remember how far good character can take you. Character is defined by what you do when nobody is looking, but even when the whole world is watching, accomplishing some of these things will help you understand what it truly means to play with an egoless mindset.
— NEVER stare down a teammate when a puck goes off his leg or skate or body and past you. No teammate ever has the intention of scoring on you on purpose. Bad bounces happen, and you are not above those bad bounces. If you don’t blame your teammates in unfair situations, they won’t blame you in future situations.
— ALWAYS say “my bad” or “I should’ve had it” when giving up a goal, even if you know you had no chance, or did nothing wrong with your execution. Blame nobody but yourself. Have the confidence to take blind accountability. Being culpable regardless of the situation helps eliminate the mental pressure your defensemen or teammates may feel if they screwed you over. The pressure should fall squarely on your shoulders anyways; that’s what being a goalie is all about. You’re the last line of defense, so act like it.
— Fill up a water bottle for a teammate from time to time.
— Respect the coach by being ultra-attentive during practice. Skate to the coach as hard as you can. Show everyone else on the team that you are paying 100% attention to what he’s saying. If you take it seriously, so will others.
— Include teammates in one or two of your pre-game rituals. This may seem weird, but I always had a player sit on my glove when they were getting geared up. It helped loosen up my glove (closing it easier), and the player always liked the fact he was a part of my “superstitious” routine. It helped with team bonding, and I’d always choose a different player each game. Let guys tap your pads with their stick as you’re heading out onto the ice. Players enjoy these moments of motivational interaction, and it builds team chemistry.
— Leave any type of negative attitude at home. Show your teammates you’re having fun by being engaged and working hard. Share in their positive attitudes. If a guy has a great practice and is having a great day, share it with him, and others will as well. Feed off of it. Help it radiate through the locker room.
— Never wear jersey #1. You are not first, you are not the best. To wear jersey #1 is not a bad thing per se, but don’t wear it for the sake of trying to boost your ego. Nobody cares about your jersey number, and being first on a roster means absolutely nothing.
— Always be the last player off the ice and try to acknowledge your hard-working teammates with a tap on the shins or shoulders as they come off the ice.
— Consider the other goalie on your team as a confidant AND a competitor. Learn from him, and help him. Don’t consider him as a negative threat, and don’t consider yourself as being so much better than him that he can’t teach you anything. Even the greatest goalies in the world learn from watching and talking to others, many of which are lesser-skilled or younger backups.
— Throw away tape balls and other trash in the locker room from time to time. I always seem to dress in a corner, and sometimes that’s by a trash can. After playing, guys always toss away their tape balls and miss. For as long as I’ve played, I’ve subconsciously picked them up and disposed of them. It could be a “weird” OCD thing, but I also feel it is a little thing that makes a difference and can go a long way. It’s simply leading by example.
Realize that you don’t have to do all of these things all the time, and this is by no means a concrete hierarchy in terms of the egoless approach. But let these become habits that naturally form over time. Don’t do them if they aren’t done for the right reasons. Always be true to who you are, and who you are will naturally change if you have the right intent.
I look for these things in goalies that I scout, and yes, they do make a difference in terms of how I rank or project a goalie’s upside.
CONCLUDING THOUGHTS ON EGOLESS GOALTENDING
In the words of the great motivator Deepak Chopra, “The world is as we are, and we become what we see.”
In that regard, our minds influence our actions, and our actions influence our teammates, and how our teammates react to our actions will come back and affect our own minds. So lead by example, and play for the betterment of your team, not for yourself.
Ultimately, I think it’s really important to realize that you’re only as good as others think you are, and that is something you simply can’t control.
But you can control what you think, and if you always think you can play better and work harder, that insatiable work ethic will drive you to continually play at a higher level, and you will eventually become what you have always dreamed of becoming.
Quick said after last night’s victory that he never expected to one day hoist the Conn Smythe and the Stanley Cup in the same night. But because he played with a truly egoless approach this season, his work ethic powered him to a level of success that goes well beyond the scope of almost every man to every play the position.
And now he has transformed into a sports icon, an American hero, a goaltending legend, and an athlete worth idolizing.