Toughest Position in Team Sports
by Mike McPartlin, Headmaster, Bridgedale Academy
Nothing compares physically, mentally and emotionally
I've never been a goalie.
In fact, I don't think I've ever even put on the pads.
Nonetheless, I believe that hockey goalie is the toughest position in all of team sports. So here's my very unscientific analysis of why it's so hard to be a goalie.
Value to the team is only a part of it
I've coached hockey for many years and understand the value that an elite goaltender brings to a team.
Put simply: You can't win a championship without a championship-caliber goaltender.
But other sports have positions that will have a similar value to a team. No team wins in football without an exceptional quarterback. Championship baseball teams need world-class pitching.
So it has to be more than just that.
The uniqueness of the physical, mental and emotional challenges
To me, goaltender in hockey is the most challenging position to play in all of team sports because of the uniqueness of the position.
All sports present physical, mental and emotional challenges to those who participate. In individual sports like tennis, boxing and golf, these challenges are magnified because there is no one else the competitor can rely on when "the game" is on.
At least in team sports there are teammates who can "bail you out" if you make a mistake or are beaten on a play.
In hockey, the goalie IS that teammate.
He's the guy everyone else on his team relies on ... on EVERY play. Only rarely does a situation occur where a goalie truly gets bailed out by a teammate. The other 99% of the time, it's the goalie doing the bailing out.
So for me, what sets the hockey goaltender apart is the uniqueness of the physical, mental and emotional demands they are placed under.
Let's look at these three factors separately.
- Goaltending's unique physical challenges
Generally speaking, all of hockey's skills are pretty unique. Start with the fact that the game is played on an ice surface by competitors wearing skates. Then there's the fact that the puck is controlled at the end of a curved stick. There are a myriad of puck handling and passing skills. And then there are the checking skills.
But the skills a goaltender must master are even more diabolical.
Virtually none of the various skills a goaltender must master are "natural."
It is not natural to use heavily padded, unbendable boots with relatively flat blades when skating, as goalies must. It's not natural to move your foot (or hand, or body, or head) into the path of a hard rubber projective coming at you at 100mph. And a goalie must master any number of "save techniques" that require these unnatural movements.
- Goaltending's unique mental challenges
An almost surreal mental focus is required of a hockey goalie. In order to "stay in the game," he must keep track of the puck while simultaneously "reading" the lightning-quick game as it unfolds in front of him.
Every time the puck is in his half of the rink he must have the concentration of a golfer in the middle of a putting stroke. And, like a boxer, he must be ready for a punch (or a combination of punches) to come his way at any instant.
A goalie must simultaneously be aggressive in "challenging" the shooter, and then passive in "out-waiting" him.
And, importantly, a goalie must be able to turn this type of mental focus on at a moment's notice, because even when it's not his turn to play the game, he must be ready to be called on to enter the game at any moment, and go from door-opener to man-under-siege ... at the drop of a hat.
- Goaltending's unique emotional challenges
As a rule, a goalie doesn't get to play in all of his team's games. In fact, virtually ALL goalies at some point in their career must serve as a backup on their team. Dominic Hasek had to, Corey Crawford had to. And so a goalie must be able to handle this role, and at the same time keep himself mentally and emotionally ready to enter a game at any time.
Goalies also sometimes get "pulled" from a game. At times this may simply be an attempt by the coach to motivate the other players on the team (and not an indictment of the goalie's performance in the game up to that point). But all that most fans and family see is the mortified goalie making that lonely skate from his crease to the bench, tapping gloves with the goalie coming in to replace him. A goalie must be able to handle that too.
As the last line of defense, a goaltender in hockey is extremely vulnerable emotionally. When the red light behind him goes on and 20,000 crazed fans all start pointing at him screaming "sieve" ... well, a goalie must be able to handle that.
There are of course goals scored that are not the goalie's fault, but most goalies believe they should stop the other 99% of shots. And it's easy to take it personally when a goal goes in that the goalie feels he should have had. A goalie must be able to handle that.
The goalie also tends to get "blamed" for a lot of goals, even when they're not his fault. Teammates and coaches (most of whom never played the position) tend to expect the goalies to save nearly all the shots they face. A goalie must be able to handle that expectation.
And I have additional reasons for having such a high regard for those who play the position:
- one of my best friends growing up was a goalie and he was constantly teaching me about the position, and so I learned to respect it.
- my own son Nick was a goalie.
At Bridgedale we are committed to the development of our young student-athletes, helping them to develop their physical and mental skills so they can perform at their best when it matters most, no matter the arena of life that challenges them. If you would like to learn more about Bridgedale Academy, please click the button below so we can schedule a time to chat.
Mike McPartlin, Headmaster, Bridgedale Academy
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