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Goaltender Development

Devan McConnell

Off-ice training is crucial towards goaltender development. In today’s game goaltenders must be the most athletic players on the ice. A good training program will build the fundamentals of that athleticism and provide the transfer of the highly specialized skills necessary to be a successful goaltender. Many myths still persist about what to do and what not to do when it comes to off-ice training, such as a long run and stretch being adequate preparation for high level competition. However, when the time is taken and the expertise applied to breakdown the demands of the position, a proper off-ice training program can be combined with on-ice development to help a goaltender fully reach his or her potential.

Often times if there is any focus at all on development off the ice, the recommendations are archaic and rooted in a lack of physiological understanding, to say the least. Cardiovascular endurance, static flexibility, and high volume-low intensity weight training are the common themes preached by well meaning but uninformed coaches. “Develop that aerobic base, increase your flexibility, and don’t lift heavy or you will get too big” is the mantra passed down from coach to player. At first glance, this might seem like a logical recommendation. Goaltenders play the entire game, are called upon to sprawl and stretch across the ice to make dramatic saves, and are not actively involved in body checking. However, from the standpoint of athletic development, this outdated recipe does little to help the modern goaltender, and probably ends up hindering him.

Let’s first look at the misunderstood concept of the energy system demands required by the goaltender. The common thought process is that the goaltender plays the entire game and therefore needs to have a vast amount of cardiovascular endurance. Long duration, steady state aerobic exercise is usually advised to develop this “aerobic base”. Unfortunately, this thought process is inherently flawed. The primary energy system demands of the goaltender are not aerobic, but anaerobic. This means that the goaltender does not continuously work at a low to moderate level throughout a game, but instead has short bursts of high intensity work, followed by periods of rest. Goalies work very hard while the puck is in their zone to fight for position, react to plays, and make saves. This is followed by periods of recovery while the play moves up the ice. Training a “work-recover-repeat” athlete via aerobic steady state exercise will do nothing to increase his ability to work at high intensities and recover quickly.

In addition to the interval-based pattern of the game, there are always two intermissions. These break up the amount of time a goaltender could be working into 20-minute segments. Furthermore, stoppages in play due to penalties, off sides, icing, covered pucks and even T.V. timeouts clearly provide periods of rest in between the moments of action.

Now that we have a better understanding of the cardiovascular demands of the position, we can implement a more effective conditioning program for the goaltender. Instead of long duration aerobic exercise, we would utilize HIIT, or High Intensity Interval Training. This is a method of conditioning which involves very high intensity work for short durations, followed by periods of recovery. Not only does this clearly mimic the on ice demands of the position, HIIT has been shown to be a more effective method than steady state aerobic work for increasing VO2 max, improving body composition, and preparing an anaerobic athlete for the specific metabolic demands of their game. So even for that coach who is still convinced of the need for an “aerobic base”, the research clearly shows that high intensity interval training is still a more effective method to produce the desired results than long slow runs and bike rides. HIIT training will also achieve the desired results without any of the negative effects on strength and power that long aerobic work will have.

Just as engrained in tradition as conditioning work, flexibility training is an area where outdated practices still permeate the advice given to goaltenders. Flexibility is obviously of great concern as the demands of the position often call for the athlete to display incredible feats of contortion to make highlight reel saves. From an injury reduction standpoint it would seem equally as important to increase flexibility to ensure that the goaltender can perform these types of movements without “pulling” a muscle.

Again, at face value this seems straightforward. However, a deeper understanding of the physiological reasons behind most muscle strains and “pulls” will suggest a decreased emphasis on the traditional stretching protocols. A player rarely strains a muscle due to inadequate length of the tissue; instead, this injury is the result of a weak or underactive primary muscle. Often a player will “pull” his groin and thus be under the impression the muscle was not long enough. He will focus much of their attention on static stretching, only to return to the lineup and suffer the same injury. This is because the length of the muscle was in fact never the issue. What usually occurs is that the primary muscle needed for a particular movement is weak or underactive, and so a secondary muscle will have to work overtime to cover the other’s inadequacies. Usually this secondary muscle is not able withstand the increased demand of this role, and will in effect “give out” resulting in a strain.

Now I am not saying stretching is unimportant. What I am saying is it is probably over-emphasized in the goaltending world, not done as efficiently and specifically as possible, and more time should be placed in other parts of the training process. Most goaltenders spend so much of their time static stretching, they end up missing out on other key components of training that would do more to elevate their game. Clearly, flexibility and a flexibility reserve are important, however most go overboard and just do too much. Anecdotally, just think about how incredibly flexible most goaltenders are in their groin and hamstring musculature, yet they still sustain strains to these areas with alarming regularity. If flexibility were the only answer, these athletes would have solved the problem 100 years ago.

Another bit of food for thought is the lack of carryover from a slow, static stretch to a rapid, dynamic contraction-elongation of the muscles during the sport. Nobody pulls his or her groin just sitting on the ice, holding a split. They get hurt when they rapidly have to move in and out of that position. A greater focus on dynamic flexibility in the training process and especially pre practice and competition primes the body for the actual demands of the game.

Another common fear or misconception of the goaltender is that of gaining too much muscle mass from heavy strength training. While I agree there is no need for a goaltender to look like a bodybuilder, and in fact this would be a detriment to their performance on the ice, the fact is heavy strength training will do little to significantly increase muscle mass. It will however improve the goaltender’s ability be explosive, decrease the chance of injury, and maintain stamina throughout a long season. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that goalies should train like strongmen or power lifters. I am saying they should train like the rest of their teammates. In a good strength and conditioning program, what is really being developed is the athleticism needed to fully express one’s skill set during competition.

In the modern game, goaltenders need to be the most athletic players on the team. They need to be explosive, strong, well conditioned, highly reactive and coordinated. There is no better way to develop these attributes than by training in a manner that will progressively improve each of these areas. The traditional high rep-low weight, little to no lower body “strength” training most goaltenders have been told to perform is a great recipe for developing non-functional hypertrophy (meaning increased muscle mass which doesn’t contribute to actual performance).  This will also result in slower reactions, less forceful movement, and most importantly a loss of much needed strength and power necessary for performance and injury reduction.

A sound strength and conditioning program will develop the underlying attributes which a goaltender’s highly specialized and technical skill set is built upon. It’s just like building a house; you have to build the foundation before you worry about putting up the walls. A goaltender’s butterfly pushing technique might be impeccable, but if he is not explosive enough to quickly get across the crease, all that will happen is a smooth moving goalie pulling the puck out of his net. The foundation must be developed to have the ability to exercise that skill set to the best of the goaltender’s ability.

This athletic foundation must be built with proper training, including Olympic lifts, squat and deadlift variations with an emphasis on single leg training, balanced upper body work, along with core stabilization, pre-hab and mobility.  These fundamentals, along with a conditioning program intelligently designed to address the specific energy system demands of the position will allow the goaltender to utilize his on ice skills to the best of their potential.

Devan McConnell is a Sports Performance Coach at Stanford University. He is also a former college goaltender and has experience working with athletes across a wide range of ages and sports, including the NHL. He can be reached at DevanM@Stanford.edu


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