I have often heard it said that at the highest levels of athletic competition, the determining factor in winning or losing is not always superior skills. Of course, skill is very important and in many ways skill levels can be observed and measured. We have all seen competitions during the All Star break that attempt to break the game down into specific components. These competitions are entertaining but more often than not, they are rarely won by the athletes who are considered to be the best “players”. So, what is it that differentiates the best players from those who are simply very skillful?
There are many different answers to this question. Some will say that the best players have that indefinable quality called “heart” or the will to win. We have all seen the determination in the faces of players like Steve Yzerman and Joe Sakic. Their eyes tell us and their opponents that they don’t know the meaning of the word quit; it is simply not part of their consciousness. This quality of character forces the athlete to demand the best of himself in the most difficult circumstances. This will to win is not only courageous but it is contagious; it can be caught by the entire team. When this happens, teams can achieve beyond all expectations except their own.
This will to win is absolutely critical for goaltenders; however, the focus on winning can sometimes become a distraction and be counter productive. Ultimately, the goalie must understand that winning is a byproduct of many factors that are beyond his control and relatively few that are under his control. Obviously, the goaltender cannot score goals or set up plays or call penalties. All a goalie can do is stop pucks and even this is sometimes determined by a lucky or unlucky break. Pucks can be deflected at the last instant or his defense might not pick up the open man and suddenly the puck is in the net. On the other side of the equation, goalies can be completely beaten on a play when the shooter misses the open net or a pass hits an ice chip and skips over the opponents stick. Often, the difference between a great game and getting pulled is how these random intangibles play out. The only thing a goalie can do is “stay in the moment” and focus on stopping pucks. This is easier said than done and it is the greatest goalies who consistently find their path to the moment when they are one with the game.
This lack of control over these game determining intangibles can sometimes be so overwhelming that the goalie freezes under pressure and loses touch with the moment. They can drain the goalie of the confidence needed to react with the play rather than after it. These intangibles plant seeds of doubt that can prevent the goalie from finding that level of consciousness that allow him to consistently make that “unconscious” save. Often, the attempt to exercise some control over these nagging factors is too much for a goaltender to handle alone. In an attempt to silence the “thinking mind” where these doubts reside, some goalies resort to superstitions and idiosyncratic behaviors. Perhaps the best known of these is Patrick Roy’s refusal to step on lines and his pre-game dialogue with his goalposts. These are not unlike the various religious rituals used by ancient communities to prevent natural disasters or achieve victory on the field of battle. More to the point, I suspect that these “superstitions” were used by Roy to maintain the level of concentration that was necessary for his considerable goaltending skills to emerge. Not to perform them would have contributed to the uncertainty of every play. Knowing that each ritual was performed properly contributed to his sense of confidence and this allowed him to play in the moment.
Just last night I watched the pre-game telecast of the game between the Flyers and the Canadians. The dressing room camera showed Martin Biron sitting in his stall staring down at his gloves and mask that were neatly aligned at his feet. His focus on them was steady and almost meditative. His attentive state was reminiscent of that achieved by students of Zen as they empty themselves of every unessential and enter the mental state called Satori or no-mind. Those who caught this moment were privileged to witness an almost sacred pre-game ritual; any deviation from it would disturb Biron’s journey to his optimal mental state. One can only speculate as to what other focusing techniques this outstanding goaltender uses throughout the day prior to arriving at the rink.
In closing, I don’t make any claims of expertise in the field of psychology. However, I vaguely remember what it was like to play the game and what it was like to find that empty moment when I and the opponent were one. I only wish I could have found it more consistently. What is it that they say about those who can’t end up teaching?