Goalie Thoughts: Petting the Monkey

Sorry about this, but today’s goalie thought gets a little touchy feely. I only ask that you not laugh at me too hard — I’m sensitive that way and, after all, I’m doing you the favor of letting you into the dark cobwebby corners of my twisted mind.


First, some background. A few of you already know that I grew up a swimmer, so water sports (e.g. Ice Hockey) are in my blood. I didn’t start playing in net until 2005 (we’ll cover that in a later installment). The point here is that I retired from swimming after high school and started coaching swimming. During my 15 years as a swimmer and additional 15 years as a coach of all skills and levels, I learned a lot about athletes.

One of the more important things I learned is that every athlete is different and every athlete motivates in a different way. At a gross level, some athletes need to be relaxed to perform, while others need all the weight of the world on their shoulders with a heaping side of high anxiety. Psychologists refer to these varying states as “levels of arousal” (get your mind out of the gutter, this is ‘serious’ business). Not only is every athlete different, but context counts, too. Some athletes require different levels of arousal depending on the event at hand — e.g. high levels of arousal prior to an ultramarathon are probably not the ticket.

As a coach, you learn to differentiate amongst your athletes and work with their needs to tease out the best that they can give. You learn to establish different methods of approaching, motivating, correcting, encouraging, teaching depending on the athlete and the context. As either a coach or an athlete, you work to keep the state of arousal at a level appropriate for the event. As an Aikido buddy once told me: “It’s okay to have butterflies in your stomach, just make them fly formation!”

::Monkey Petting::

As an athlete, one of my former swim coaches used to make us listen to motivational tapes. She would sit us in a room before practice, turn down the lights, and some Jack Handey type would spout motivational garbage about how fast we were and how awesome we really could become. The times that I didn’t fall asleep, I typically spent rolling my eyes in boredom. After all, this guy on the tape didn’t know me, probably didn’t even know how to swim either. Why would I listen to that? These sessions were wasted on me!

However, as a coach, I found that positive reinforcement techniques did work. Positive reinforcement prior to competition or even a tough practice, can really do wonders for performance. Sometimes, positive reinforcement between teammates proved even more powerful. For better or worse, nowadays I casually refer to mental positive reinforcement as “stroking the monkey” or “monkey petting“, where the “monkey” is your ego.

Having a conversation with my monkey after letting in a fantastically weak goal.

The thing about monkey petting, is it really needs to be personalized, personal, and directed at a receptive monkey for it to be effective. It becomes effective when the target monkey is able to internalize the positive reinforcement. For that to happen, the target monkey has to listen, and believe in the words enough so as not to outright reject them at the eardrum. This is why the reinforcement between teammates worked so well, it can be more genuine sounding (less pandering) than that coming from the coach.

As we covered earlier, back in the day, the tapes didn’t work for me. However, a coach making eye contact and saying few choice words worked even more:

  • “Reach!”
  • “Stand on it and don’t crash”
  • “Balls to the wall”
  • “Shake it if you got it”
  • “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight but the size of the fight in the dog.”
  • “If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing well.”

In fact, one of the best motivational speeches I ever received involved no words at all — simply put, 3 pennies in a well to wish for good luck (I have no idea where or what this refers to, but it worked anyway). Lining up on the blocks, my coach at the time (Coach John “Willie” Williams) casually caught my eye as he stood on the far end of the pool. With barely a motion, he silently flipped three pennies into my lane, one-by-one. The result: one heck of a swim!

::Back on Topic::

So what does this have to do with hockey goaltending?

Even in a beer league, one wants to go out there, play well and hopefully win a game now and then. Even when the prize for winning is a team picture in front of a puff-painted beer keg and a 2-sizes-too-small t-shirt, you still want to win. This can make you nervous at times. As a goalie, you can end up in slumps that last weeks. You can have bad luck throw a perfectly good shutout. You can just out-and-out play like crap. You can find yourself in against an impossible breakway. It could be a penalty shot. It could be the last minute of a 1-goal game with shots dinging off the post. Pucks like to find their way in with less than 10 seconds to go!

Any of these situations will tweak your “level of arousal”. And the problem with all of these scenarios is that the puck keeps on coming — and as a goalie you need to take each shot one-at-a-time and ignore all that came before it. This can be a tough thing to do when your monkey is out-of-whack.

And it was during one of these slumps that I tried a little experiment on myself. Of course, this “experiment” was of no scientific value and shouldn’t even be called an experiment, but we’ll use the term anyway.

You see, I started trying some positive self-reinforcement. “Ooooh, so what?” I hear you say. “Then why are you wasting your time reading this?” I respond in my head. “Dunno…..bored?” you reply. “Good enough” I say. Moving along…


Countless athletes before me have done exactly this, each in their own way. And I’m gonna run you through my descent into darkness as I began talking to myself in the crease.

You see, it all started out simply enough. I kept getting beat 5-hole and was in a slump. So on my drive up to the rink, I would say to myself a couple of times “no 5-hole goals tonight……<repeat>”. Then, as I mostly closed that 5-hole up, I found other things to say to myself. For instance: “Limit the number of stupid goals to one or two tonight…<repeat>”.

You see, talking to myself was working — where the motivational B.S. tapes hit a wall due to monkey-rejection, I found my monkey was actually listening to me. Scary, huh? Don’t worry, it only gets worse!

Like a drug, the monkey petting became habit forming and even more weird. I dragged one out from my Aikido days and started using “Mind, Body, Spirit…. <repeat>” where mentally I was picturing Mind == No Stupid Goals, Body == Good Form, no 5-hole goals, Spirit == Challenging out to meet the shooter.

The monkey petting continued to work and became even more embarrassing (so it makes perfect sense to put all this out there on the web!) While I’m sure every goalie has used the “Be like a wall…<repeat>” self motivation, mine became an internal chant that simply went “I am a brick wall…<repeat>”. And instead of just a few times on the ride up to the rink, it became a game-time mantra (e.g. one of my favorites is “Om mani padme hum“) Believe it or not, this chant/mantra and it’s frequent/constant and near mindless subconscious repetition during games did something to relax me prior to a breakaway or after a series of Kung-Fu saves (to get the heart rate down).

Somewhere around that time, one of my D exclaimed to me “Go, go, Gadget, go!” after I snatched a puck out of the air with an quick extension of my knuckle-dragging arm. And guess what… my mantra/chant/self-motivation subconsciously evolved and and absorbed the words to become: “I am Inspector Gadget. I am a brick wall….<repeat>”. Told you it got weird. Stopping a clean breakaway.  Monkey says there's a little too much 5-hole!

And then came the day I totally denied a shooter his joy in life on a breakaway and I simply heard a passing “Whatever, Spiderman…”. You’re way ahead of me…. and yes, the evolution continued: “I am Inspector Gadget. I am a brick wall. I am Spiderman…..<repeat>”. Wow…. I was starting to scare myself now, but the monkey was responding!

That’s not to say that the basic, deliberate and conscious self-motivations were put aside. The drive to the rink still was a good time to give a little focus on what needed work “Keep the glove out front, get that stick down, no easy goals from the corner…”, etc. This isn’t hard, since something always needs work!

But even a good mantra runs the risk of losing it’s mana. So, I started having a little fun with things and consciously began working on new monkey petting goalie mantras. The funniest thing of all is that just about any monkey petting goalie mantra seems to work — almost as if the words themselves don’t matter! I figure I could simply recite “Peanut Butter, Peanut Butter, Chocolate…<repeat>” and achieve nearly the same effect (by the time you read this, i’ll have tried that and moved on to pig-based breakfast meats!). What mattered was how I internally mantra’d to myself — the intention of the words made the butterflies assume formation.


Updated: July 23, 2008

So, what are some of the other monkey petting goalie mantras that I’ve come up with. Following is a list, with more to be added as I come up with them. Enjoy (snickering and laughing wholeheartedly permitted!).

  • I am a brick wall
  • Be like wall
  • No 5 hole, hands out, paddle down
  • Mind, Body, Spirit
  • I am Superman
  • I am spider man. I am a brick wall. I am inspector gadget.
  • I am agressive and I will challenge the shooter
  • Bring it on meat, bring it on
  • No soup for you
  • And for you haiku fans:
    • Fluid, explosiveagressive, solid and tight

      I feast on pucks day and night

  • Peanut Butter, Peanut Butter, Chocolate (This one has been proven to have serious juju)
  • Cabernet Merlot Pino Syrah! (Yup… this works too)

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