The Goalie Guild

Do You Suffer from Muscle Armoring?

The more I study goaltending, the more I realize the position is deeply rooted in a rich and nutritious somatic soil. This integral connection of body and mind is the foundation for a goalie’s physical and mental evolution. It reflects the true essence of their character not only as an athlete, but also as a human being.

When it comes to somatic (meaning the body-mind connection) goaltending, one of my “golden rules” is simple; Stress is a performance killer. A goalie under stress is tense, anxious, and unable to react cleanly. Their muscles and movements become rigid, they’re inefficient, and as a result, everything from their timing to rebound control may suffer.

But what exactly makes stress “somatic” for a goaltender? Well, there’s mental stress, which can stem from things like an exhausting day at school or work, or the pressure that comes from a “must-win” game.  There’s also physical stress, which stems from dehydration, poor nutrition, a lack of proper stretching, or improper breathing patterns.

Beyond these obvious examples, however, many sub-levels of athletic stress and tension exist, and they all prove just how corrosive it can be to a goalie’s performance and development.

In this School of Block text, I want to explain one of these variants — it’s a very important concept for goaltenders to understand. Defined by the legendary psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, Muscle Armoring is something every goalie has experienced or battled at some point in time, regardless of their age or talent level.

Photo Courtesy of Tom Turk: Piratical Photography

Muscle Armoring, in the psychoanalytical form, is tied to both the physical and emotional realms of stress. But for this post, I’ll focus on mainly the physical side, since I’ve seen, felt, and evaluated it for years as a goalie and a scout.

Reich’s definition of Muscle Armoring occurs when a person wants to avoid physical fear or pain by “armoring” themselves with tense and contracted muscles. It can transpire in many different ways, but it always includes an impulse that is “halted” at the muscular level.

Reich also wrote that a person will “cease the muscle inhibition” once the threat passes, but when they repeatedly experience the same type of threat, Muscle Armoring becomes “learned and integrated” into the person’s daily life. It begins as a conscious reaction, but over time, it slowly becomes unconscious.

Naturally, when I applied Reich’s concept to goaltending, I had to write about it. This stuff matters.

When facing “high and heavy” shots, or shots that could cause pain, many goalies tense or freeze up, brace themselves, hold their breath, close their eyes, hesitate, and possibly even shy away from the puck in fear. Eye and face muscles are strained (which inhibits vision), as are the shoulders, the back, the chest, and the hips/waist/core.

It can also cause goalies to suddenly hold their breath…and some might not exhale for a few seconds.

Goalies can surely remember situations where this has negatively affected their confidence, performance, rhythm, and/or timing. In fact, I don’t think any goalie evolves without experiencing some type of Muscle Armoring. It’s inescapable.

Even more disconcerting is the fact that Muscle Armoring can slowly become muscle memory; it can transform into a bad habit and seep into the subconscious. Furthermore, some goalies can reach a point where they no longer even notice they’re tensing up at all.

Photo Courtesy of Tom Turk: Piratical Photography

True to the term, Muscle Armoring is a natural defense mechanism a goalie exhibits to protect themselves from a perceived threat. But unfortunately it diminishes (even if only for a moment) their ability to move fluidly and to track pucks.

For most goalies, Muscle Armoring starts at an early age. Beginner and intermediate goalies will hear their parents and coaches say, “Don’t be afraid of the puck!” But that’s easier said than done when you’re eight or nine, and even at an older age, there are times where goalies simply can’t escape that fear.

That’s the nature of the position, and that is one of the parts of the game goalies must overcome with their mental toughness. They have to be gritty, they have to be willing to take the bruises and the cracks off the mask. Sucking it up and moving on is easier for some goalies, and tougher for others. It is very much a mental thing.

MUSCLE ARMORING PROBLEMS AND SOLUTIONS

Here are a few (not all) main instances where I see Muscle Armoring negatively affecting a goalie:

  • Bracing or locking up on heavy or high shots
  • Dropping down into the V-H Stance (VHS)
  • Building a wall in tight & some blocking saves
  • Tensing muscles when losing sight of the puck
  • Allowing screens in front to restrict movement

- Bracing or locking up on heavy or high shots is the toughest kind of Muscle Armoring to avoid. It takes tons of confidence, focus, and assertiveness to keep your eyes locked on the puck, especially if a heavy shot is rising fast. It’s also tough to stay fully relaxed when pucks are buzzing by your ears, or if they’re suddenly tipped and heading for your face. If a heavy shot goes wide and banks off the boards, Muscle Armoring can eliminate that vital moment of time you need to push or dive across  the crease to make a desperation save. You can also lose sight of the puck and start scrambling when it otherwise wouldn’t be needed, or you simply “fall behind” the play.

- Dropping down into the tricky VHS is the most frustrating kind of Muscle Armoring I see. I say this because it’s very avoidable, yet goalies willingly elect to inflict stress upon themselves. The VHS can be utilized properly in some instances, but in many cases, it is forcing the body to lock and tense up. Unless you’re an elite goalie or extremely flexible, you’re probably somewhat uncomfortable in the VHS, so the body is strained, and it takes even more power and energy to recover from that position. You’re “hoping” the puck hits you at times, you can’t see pucks laying at your feet, and that is a slight form of inescapable fear, because you’re not confident in where the puck is at, or what it’s doing.

- Building a wall in tight, or some blocking saves is a form of Muscle Armoring; goalies are contracting muscles in order to seal holes under the arms or between the legs. This is different than a routine half-butterfly save on a low shot because that’s a natural reaction, a kicking motion that originates from the standing position. But as goalies continue to make more saves by sliding or shuffling on their knees in tight, the tension that comes from “building a wall” will always open a small window for potential Muscle Armoring. A goaltender learns over time how to build walls while still keeping their muscles relaxed, but that’s a kinetic component of development that is almost exclusively self-learned.

- Lastly, I see Muscle Armoring when goalies are screened and lose sight of pucks. Instead of fighting for sight lines, goalies will tense up, their bodies constrict, and they feel the mental pressure and fear that comes from not knowing where the puck is going. From there, they either drop early, do nothing at all, or react way too late. Again, this happens very quickly, but it still reveals hesitation, tension, and other forms of Muscle Armoring that affect performance.

It could also be argued that any time when the goalie is not tracking a puck, Muscle Armoring is likely to transpire.

If a goalie struggles with Muscle Armoring and wants to fix it, I have a few tips:

  • Breathe deeply and eliminate any anxiety tied to performance.
  • Reinforce the message of relaxing and having fun. Be assertive.
  • Briefly imagine the puck as soft foam, not vulcanized rubber.
  • Upgrade the chest protector, get a new mask or bigger pants.
  • Become more aware of your muscles by methodically stretching.
  • Visualize yourself not Muscle Armoring on imaginary hard shots.
  • Take hard shots in a controlled environment with a fearless mindset.
  • Take Pilates or Yoga classes to improve your mind-body awareness! 

The third bullet point may seem silly, but in all honesty, imaging (not the same as imagining) is a concept that I plan on shedding a lot of light on in the near future. Imagery and the act of imaging shocks and refreshes the nervous system, and the nervous system is what allows a goaltender to move. Using imagery to better understand not only how to move but what movement is made of is a lost art, which is a bummer, because it is extremely potent and valuable.

But more on that special topic some other time.

I also consider this School of Block lesson “incomplete” until I point out the fact that there are going to be times where goalies simply can’t avoid Muscle Armoring. Players fire pucks right at our faces, and sometimes on purpose. Shots are getting harder, sticks are getting lighter, and players are getting stronger. No matter how protected or confident we feel in the crease, our natural instincts will lead us to duck or avoid getting hit.

You can’t exterminate Muscle Armoring, you can only learn to control it.

MY MUSCLE ARMORING EXPERIENCE

As a scout, I’m very careful when it comes to evaluating Muscle Armoring. Not every instance where a goalie braces for a shot is considered Muscle Armoring, and sometimes there’s simply no way to tell under all of that gear just how much tension or anxiety or stress a goalie is experiencing.

The photo below of Martin Brodeur is a really good example. To me, this is not a display of Muscle Armoring. At the same time, a picture is a frozen moment in time, so in most instances, a scout must watch plays develop with a keen eye in order to evaluate whether or not Muscle Armoring takes place.

That’s one of a million instances that makes scouting goalies so enjoyable; no matter how good my vision is, some things are simply inconclusive. And there’s definitely no way of picking something like this up in a statistic, either. Yet it can play a major role in a goalie’s frame of mind, including their confidence, consistency, and overall performance. Those things influence statistics, but good luck finding that in a sabre-metric.

Photo Courtesy of Tom Turk: Piratical Photography

At the same time, I can say with full confidence that some goalies I analyze display way more Muscle Armoring issues than others. The best example I can think of is Jonas Gustavsson. I think he displayed a lot of tension and hesitation over the past two years, and while it could stem from a variety of somatic elements, the fact remains that he looked very rigid when playing for the Leafs.

A few other goalie that I believe display Muscle Armoring more than others would be Corey Crawford, James Reimer, and Semyon Varlamov. I’m not going to get into details with each one, but rather point them out so that you might be able to pick it up on your own.

In my own personal playing experience, I can admit that avoiding Muscle Armoring was very tough. I’ve never been a big guy, and I’m more bone than muscle. I never committed myself to the weight room, and I’ve always played with a slight subconscious fear of getting hurt by shots. When I’m confident, it doesn’t exist. But when I’m not, it gets in my head and hinders my true skills.

When I moved from Texas to Colorado for college, the talent level around me improved, but I didn’t get any bigger or stronger, so my natural tendency was to sink deeper into my crease. I didn’t have the private coaching to notice or help me fix the issue, and I didn’t have the discipline to self-correct it, either.

Looking back at it now, I was partially unaware of the problem, but partially unwilling to face it.

I also idolized Felix Potvin growing up, so I always thrived by playing deep and giving myself more time to use my reactions and reflexes to make saves. It worked for me in Texas and Colorado, but now that I’m in Minnesota and playing against excellent talent, I’m being forced to shift my mindset and overcome my petty fear by “sucking it up” and being more aggressive than ever before.

It’s already working, but it will take more time, and it might take a new pair of pants and a safer mask, too. I also don’t allow myself to over-think this stuff. I ponder it during the day, but when it comes time to strap on the pads, it’s the last thing on my mind.

In fact, this article is a perfect example of the type of self-reflection and self-analysis I think it takes to truly resolve the issue. If you want my advice, journal your issues with Muscle Armoring, write it down, and learn to fix it yourself.

No matter what type of experience you have, the issue of Muscle Armoring is now clearly defined. Overcoming numerous muscular contractions during a game, a tournament, a season, even a career, isn’t easy. On top of that, consuming the energy required to maintain this state of contraction is clearly detrimental to both the physical and mental side of a goalie’s performance.

MUSCLE ARMORING CAN BE MANAGED

Forever I will stress to goaltenders, readers, and clients another one of my golden rules. If you’re very competitive and want to enhance your game, become more aware of your body, your movements, and your muscles.

Goaltending is so automated and standardized today that we rarely even realize what muscles we’re using, and how we’re using them. So much of today’s training is technically-based, so it’s up to the goalie to implement a better balance in their development.

Spend more time training in areas such as plyometrics, self-reflection, mental toughness, and my personal favorite, body mapping. Keep a journal. Write stuff down. Express yourself. Share your experiences with others. It has helped me immensely, and it will help you too. So much of what you learn about being a goalie has to come from within.

The more aware you are of exactly what your body is doing and how it’s moving, the more you can control things like Muscle Armoring. Awareness improves confidence, consistency, and your ability to make tough saves look easy.

Whatever you do, don’t be afraid of the puck. Don’t be afraid of anything. Don’t be afraid to dive around, to scramble, to flail, to challenge, or to experiment with your style and technique. You won’t get hurt, and if you do, you’re no more a victim than any other goalie out there.

Injuries happen.

Goaltenders can fight off the fear of heavy shots and still win big games in a suit of armor. But when we’re constantly experiencing different types of Muscle Armoring on the ice without even knowing it, or when it’s not really necessary, it becomes impossible to play up to our potential. We’re limiting ourselves, we’re holding ourselves back.

Write us your thoughts about this post. Be kind & Play nice.
  1. John MacLean says:

    Justin, Great article. I coach youth hockey and am now adding this article into the goaltender section of my team playbook (giving you kudo’s and credit of course). It will be especially helpful for me to use while working with my U18 goalies

  2. Olivier says:

    Great stuff Justin, this is something I see all the time with goaltenders of all ages and skill levels. I’ve got a student with a serious case of ‘fear of the puck’ right now, it’s very difficult to work with and I will incorporate some of your thoughts into his next session and see if it helps.

  3. reid kilburn says:

    Very good article. Put in to words what I’ve been battling recently and made me more aware of it so I can fix it. Having a relaxed and loose, but confident and fierce mindset is so, so important.

Express your thoughts