The Goalie Guild

Goalie Psychology and Fancy Stats

*Editor’s Note: After publishing this article on Monday, Dec. 10, I was invited to appear on Sportsnet Fan590 in Toronto on Monday night to discuss some topics of goalie psychology with show host Norm Rumack. We also discussed aspects of the lockout, and whether or not Roberto Luongo would be successful in a Maple Leafs uniform. If the podcast link doesn’t work above, a direct link is available here.

The more goalies I scout, the more I realize that today’s goaltender, even compared to 4-5 years ago, is very refined and standardized. With advanced teaching methods, fancy new gear enhancements, better video analysis tools, and a bigger reliance on the economy of movement, every goalie is essentially learning — and turning into — the same thing.

There will always be style variances due to coaching influences and a goalie’s physiological attributes, but generally speaking, we have entered an age where we all play the butterfly style, or we label ourselves as “hybrid” goalies because we try to be patient on our skates and drop only when absolutely necessary.

In fact, I don’t even define the “butterfly” as a style anymore. To me, it’s merely a save selection — one of many types of saves — and one that’s widely being over-used.

Photo Copyright: Tom Turk – Piratical Photography

Even the model for developing goalies in different parts of the world is meshing together at a faster rate. The constant use of social media networks like Youtube, Facebook, and Twitter brings the growing population of pro and amateur goalie coaches under the same roof, and now we’re all sharing the same drills, skills, concepts, and methods.

This certainly wasn’t the case even two or three years ago.

The position as a whole is clearly advancing, it’s just not as unique as before. Goalies in the 90′s and early 2000′s were so different. Dominik Hasek looked nothing like Patrick Roy who looked nothing like Arturs Irbe who looked nothing like Eddy Belfour…and so on.

Today, like survival of the fittest, the goaltending kingdom is evolving and advancing, but the number of species is being reduced. We’re refining, but at the same time, we’re assimilating and “templating” ourselves to look like a select few elite NHL goalies.

Over time, I won’t be surprised if some European goalies start to look like North American goalies, and North American goalies start to play even more like European goalies. In fact, I’ve already seen it happening in some places.

As goalies continue to evolve into more mechanical and economical athletes, the technical side of the position remains fairly straightforward. The save sequence is a simple series of steps, and things like angles and positioning are based in mathematical and geometric realms that can be taught to young goalies, and transformed into muscle memory over time.

It’s not hard to learn these things, and in some instances, it doesn’t even take a good athlete to be a good goalie anymore.

LEARNING ABOUT “GOALIE PSYCHOLOGY”

As a result, I’ve come to learn that what separates a great goalie from a good one is their ability to be mentally and emotionally tough. Through my own personal playing experiences, plus the experiences I’ve had communicating and working with elite goalies and goalie coaches, having strong mental and emotional skills is a vital key to success.

Because of this, “goalie psychology” is a topic I love to learn about, and the same goes for anything that falls in the spectrum of the “mind-body” connection, including kinesiology and the anatomy of human movement.

Why, you ask? Because those are biomechanical and non-technical aspects of goaltending that you can’t really teach. It’s stuff we never learned in goalie camps or private lessons. I learned them through my own experiences, and the older I get, the more I realize how important “goalie psychology” is to understanding and scouting the position.

Since I am by no means a psychologist, I spend a lot of time learning as much as I can about it. I read up on these topics, and then I talk to psychologists, pro goalies, and pro goalie coaches about them. Then I take what I learn and apply it to scouting goalies, because as the old adage goes, goaltending is 90-percent mental.

GOALIE SCOUTING AND CONFIDENCE

One example of the mental aspect of goaltending applied to scouting is found in this article on confidence by Kent Wilson. From my perspective, whether confidence is the cause or the effect of a performance, something is happening in a goalie’s mind that influences the way they move, react, and perform.

As a scout, I notice it. As a goalie, I’ve been feeling it for years.

I still have my own issues with confidence. I go through my own peaks and valleys. I’ve struggled with emotions and self-doubt, and I have also experienced enlightenment due to a variety of personal motivations. Sometimes I hesitate, forget to breathe, tense up, get intimidated, and suffer from distractions. That causes me to have technical issues; not tracking the puck well, or lacking precise control with my shuffles and slides.

News flash: So has every goalie in the history of the universe.

Because of this, it’s only human to wonder about the cause and effect of such issues, and to wonder how confidence influences our ability to perform at a higher level.

For example, I’m sure every goalie will agree that nothing feels better than pitching a shutout with your girlfriend or family in attendance. Once you make those early saves, that sense of pride can fuel the ego to make a few saves you’d never normally make.

But like Wilson explains, it may just be your sheer mastery of skills that fuels the swelling of pride, and confidence is just the residue that results from skill being properly and effectively applied for a full 60 minutes.

In order to learn more about Wilson’s article, I exchanged a few e-mails with him, and he had a great quote about scouting goaltenders in terms of their confidence:

“On goalies, I think the primary obstacle facing analysis/prediction is separating their true talent level from variance (randomness) and team effects. When I say ‘talent level’ I consider that a holistic concept; encompassing their physical and mental abilities with the result being the rate at which they can stop pucks. As you say, there certainly is a mental component to goaltending (and to all sports, naturally), but understanding those skills/effects and weighting them appropriately would be a big step in goalie scouting I think.”

I couldn’t agree more, and that’s why goalie psychology, even if you have no formal training in the subject, should be openly discussed in relation to scouting. It’s the only way to learn.

Once I reached a certain level of scouting, evaluating a goalie’s angles and the positioning and the rebound control was fairly obvious. I’ll always learn new technical things, but it can’t be my only focus. It’s only 10-percent of the pie. So from there, the only way to improve your ability to evaluate goalie talent is to willingly embrace the other 90-percent by learning how the mental side is intimately tied to the technical side.

I have done this for a number of years, and I’ve learned a lot along the way.

For example: Rebound control is tied to tension, which could be further tied to a goalie feeling a sense of pressure to win. Angles and positioning are tied to depth, which could be further tied to a goalie feeling hesitant because they didn’t have a good pre-game skate, or maybe they took a stinger off the shoulder and now they’re not as aggressive as usual.

Examples like the ones above are infinite in form and function, proving that the “mind-body connection” of a goaltender exists at all times. If you’re a goalie, you’re nodding your head right now because you’ve experienced it before.

THE MIND-BODY CONNECTION

For those of you that aren’t goalies, I understand why you may not make the mind-body connection right away, or ever. If you’re naturally pessimistic or a skeptic, I almost expect that you’ll negate that this connection exists. You may even be right…maybe it doesn’t exist…but either way, it can’t be ignored.

To dabble in this form of intricate analysis is to live in a world of the unknown. In some cases, I can only rely on the  confidence I have in my own specific perception of reality. What I see is not what you see, and what we see is not what they see. Only the goalie being observed knows what is truly the cause and effect of a situation tied to an emotion, and that’s something I simply have to live with as a scout.

(Side Note: Even when I opt to ask a goalie what happened in a specific situation after a game, what he tells me may not be exactly what he felt at the moment it happened. A lot of goalies know how to say the right things, and while they’re certainly not lying on purpose, in the face of a scout or someone they respect, they will say whatever it is they need to say to be seen as a better or more mentally tough goalie. Brutal honesty is an important trait for goalies to have, but not many have it. But as long as  they are honest with themselves, they have a chance to improve whatever flaws they have.)

It could be this, it could be that. It could be nothing, it could be everything. I only know what I see, and I share it with the world. What do you see? Share it with me. Let’s find out if we’re seeing the same things.

I love trying to unravel the world of unknowns, and that’s why I use Twitter as a scouting tool. I don’t care how little or how much you know about goaltending, I still want you to tell me what you see. It’s more information. It’s another angle. It sheds more light on the situation.

That being said, I believe a successful scout is one who is humble and uses information from anyone and everyone to help improve their own observations…even those that may have never been a goalie before.

Unfortunately, there is no textbook on the subject of goalie psychology. It’s something lodged in the back of our minds, stuck in our subconscious, waiting to be discovered. If there was a course we could take on goalie psychology, everyone who dabbles in goalie analysis would be doing it, and every team in every league in the world would have their own goalie scout.

I’m improving my scouting skills by leaning on goalie coaches, or the goalies themselves, to help me wade through the darkness and shed light on the unknowns. To try and see the unseen is one giant never-ending learning experience, and this is why I always say that the only thing I know, is that I don’t know anything at all.

I am not an expert, and I never will be. That’s the beauty of scouting goalies.

LEARNING ABOUT FANCY STATS

For years, I was pretty skeptic of “fancy stats” and sabremetrics. But recently, I’ve been seeing the value in them in my own personal evaluations.

My general stance on goalie stats is simple; no save percentage, no goals-against average, and no line plot or graph will ever truly reflect what a goalie did, or what they’re capable of doing. Because of uncontrollable aspects like defensive support, strength of opponent, coaching decisions, and of course the mental and emotional elements of the position, goalie stats are like one chapter of a giant novel.

Most goalies have the same mindset. They don’t care about stats — they only care about stopping the next shot and doing whatever it takes to win games. As they get older and their game matures, they learn to care less about stats because they strive to live in the moment.

My personal mindset as a player is the main reason why I often “poo-pooed” articles that presented a collection of advanced statistics to prove certain points about goaltending or goaltenders. That’s just the way I was, that was my inherent bias as a human being, and it’s not something I tried to hide.

I realize now that a big part of my bias was, in all reality, sheer laziness. I didn’t want to take the time to extrapolate and comprehend what was being analyzed, so I just read through it, scoffed or denied it, and moved on.

Statistical analysis on NHL Numbers regarding goalie performance and age

But a few months ago, I started paying closer attention to the community of fancystats writers. I don’t know what triggered it, to be honest. It may have been the move to Minnesota and the growing realization that traditional scouts have to be more receptive to fancy stats. It may have been the move to McKeen’s Hockey. It may have been something I saw online.

Whatever it was, I realized one day that there are a lot of really good writers out there providing advanced statistical analysis of goalies. And like I said above, even if they have never been a goalie before, the qualitative analysis is more information for me to work with, more knowledge for my library, and ultimately, more power in the scouting realms.

Maybe the most well-recognized stats writer/blogger out there is Gabriel Desjardins from Behind The Net. Tyler Dellows from MC79Hockey is another one I’ve followed on Twitter lately, and he’s a must-read if you enjoy legal analytics. Anyone that writes for Hockey Prospectus and NHL Numbers can be added to that list as well, including Jonathan Willis, Cam Charron, Kent Wilson (the same writer from above on confidence), Timo Seppa, and many others.

As I came to realize there’s a lot of good stat websites online, more goalie analysis is becoming available every day.

Graph courtesy and copyright: NHL Numbers

An example of this is tied to the charts above, where NHL Numbers goes into great detail about the dynamic of a goalie’s age, and how it correlates to performance. I never would have taken the time to dissect this four or five months ago, but now I’ve stashed it in my archives, and will try to understand it the best I can.

Does a goalie’s performance naturally decline as they age? Physically, of course…I don’t think that’s even an argument. To me, it’s really only a matter of when it happens, and how gradually that performance declines.

At the same time, the mental and emotional component of experience plays a huge role in successful goaltending at the pro level. Goaltending (as I learned from the great Mitch Korn) is the ability to recognize patterns, and as a goalie ages, the mental skill of recognizing patterns improves. So while the body may slow down and physical skills wither away, the mind (in terms of reading plays and playing relaxed) is sharper than ever.

That brings the world of goalie psychology together with the world of advanced statistics, and lo and behold, we have worlds blissfully colliding in awesome ways. These collisions are happening all over the web, it’s just a matter of locating them, and learning from them.

Simply put, advanced stats teaches me things I didn’t know before, and learning something new is all that matters. Reports like the one above provides me with more information, and more information provides me with more ways to make my own assertions, projections, and opinions.

This does not change my opinion that fancy goalie stats are very fragile, but my perception of how I can benefit from them has changed.

In that regard, I’m excited to see what new types of information becomes available from all the top-notch stats bloggers out there, and how it can help me better understand goaltending from the wide and colorful spectrum of mental, emotional, and technical realms.

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  1. So, with that in mind… Are there any advanced statistics that you do support as reliable metrics for goaltending performance?

    • Justin Goldman says:

      Tons! I think it depends on what you’re looking for specifically…but looking at Even Strength SV% and PP SV%, save % when leading or trailing by a goal, how goalies play on the second night of back-to-back games, you can get into different advanced stats that look at home and road splits as well. I think a lot can be told in terms of how a goalie plays in hostile environments, or under pressure situations. I think where advanced goalie stats falls short is comparing one goalie and his career stats to another goalie’s. There are simply way too many variables, from team defense to opponent strength to development to style to era, etc etc etc. But for me, the best “advanced stats” out there lies with shot-mapping and in-game situational analytics.

  2. Tiago Martins says:

    Great article. Reading this I wonder what goalie scouts, like yourself, can learn from neuroscience. Having some knowledge on the matter, I can see correlation between some of your conclusions and how the human brain operates at neuronal level.

    Neuroscience it’s also the foundation of psychology and is constantly updating our understanding of the human psyche. For example, it’s now an accepted fact that emotion plays a significant role in rational decision-making, what testifies the importance you give to the mental side of a goalie.

    • Justin Goldman says:

      Thanks for reading Tiago! Neuroscience is another topic I would love to learn more about. I have read some basic articles on the subject, and I know it is very much an intimate aspect of how a goalie reads and reacts. Synapses fire from our brain to our muscles … so I think a lot of the influence it has on goaltending comes from our ability to track pucks and decide what muscles to move down to the shortest amount of time … milliseconds. The better our vision is, the quicker we react and the smoother we move. If it takes us longer to process what we’re seeing, we won’t have the fastest reflexes. If we learn that emotion is a major role-player in decision-making, then maybe goalies play at their best when they are happy :)

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