It happens to every goaltender a couple of times a season – a shot from centre ice eludes them, the puck takes a funny hop off the boards and into the net, the puck hits the defenseman in the rear end and ends up behind him in the goal.
Depending on how mentally tough they are, a bad goal can quickly erode their confidence, or it can just be a bad bounce, and they can come back stronger than ever.
For Corey Hirsch, Hockey Canada’s goaltending consultant, mental toughness for a goaltender comes down to one thing.
“You will get scored on,” Hirsch says. “As much as you’d like to, you’re not going to stop every puck. If you can accept that, a lot of the nerves go away and you can focus on the game.”
According to Hirsch, if a goaltender is not mentally tough they are not going to go far in the game. If they cannot find the right way to handle a bad goal, they will lose confidence and be far less effective.
A veteran of 108 NHL games and one Olympic gold medal game shootout, Hirsch knows a little something about mental toughness, as do Tyson Sexsmith and Jacob DeSerres, both of whom have faced big game situations.
Sexsmith, a member of the WHL’s Vancouver Giants, played in double overtime of Game 7 of the WHL championship series and a third period tie in the Memorial Cup championship game within two weeks of each other – about as high pressure a situation as a Junior goaltender can face.
“As far as my thinking goes, it is 90 per cent mental, and 10 per cent everything else,” says Sexsmith. “If you’re not mentally tough, you can’t shake off a bad goal, and if you can’t shake off a bad goal, you’re not going to be successful.”
DeSerres, meanwhile, was between the pipes for the Calgary Buffaloes in their three-overtime classic in last year’s TELUS Cup National Midget Championship gold medal game against the Prince Albert Mintos.
“It’s everything,” the Calgary, AB native says. “You can’t go anywhere in hockey if you’re not mentally tough.”
Both goaltenders say their approach to staying mentally tough is fairly straightforward.
“Just relax,” DeSerres says. “Try to forget about it and move on. If you let it bother you, another one is going to get by. It’s just a game, and you need to treat it like that.”
“You can’t go back and fix what just happened, so you need to put it behind you,” Sexsmith says. “You will have bad games, and you will give up bad goals. Just learn not to think about it.”
Both Hirsch and Sexsmith believe visualization plays a major role in developing mental toughness, although they have different views on when it should happen.
“Take five minutes before a game, go somewhere quiet, and visualize yourself making saves,” Hirsch says.
“Think about game situations, think about being in the proper position, think about stopping the puck.”
“I always start with my visualization the night before,” Sexsmith says. “I just sit somewhere quiet and picture myself making saves. Every save should be routine, nothing flashy. No big glove saves, just being in position.”
Ask any successful goaltender – from Patrick Roy to Jean-Sebastien Giguere – and they will all tell you the same thing: if you’re not mentally tough, you won’t succeed. Go out, play the game, have fun, and as long as you keep your mind clear, the success will come.