Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Hockey Exegesis #2: Control

“You’re really playing against yourself. You have to learn what you can control and what you can’t control and not let what you can’t control affect your confidence.”
- Mike Richter

Goalie wisdom is the best kind of hockey wisdom. Skater wisdom is useful, in that motivating, pump-yourself-up, c’mon-boys-lets-go way, but in the end it’s just a lot of different variations on “Try harder.” Goaltending, though, doesn’t lend itself to jockish mantras about giving 110% and your ACL being a long way from your heart. It’s a position that either drives men crazy or drives them philosophical, and either way it leads to (I think) some of the most genuinely interesting and widely applicable insights into the game.

Here we have Mike Richter, offering us a bit of goalie wisdom that is not only applicable to non-goalie hockey, but to life in the largest sense. Try Googling (actually, you can use whatever search engine you like, the Theory is not proprietary) the first sentence of that quotation- “You’re really playing against yourself.” No, really, go on. I’ll wait.

*twiddles thumbs*
*tries to whistle*
*adds a few items to shopping list*

See? Unlike the Bowman quotation, that sentence doesn’t lead you directly to Richter. Rather, you come up with dozens and dozens of people talking about investment banking and writing and education and all sorts of things, with no thought that they’re quoting anybody. Hell, Richter was probably quoting somebody else when he said it. It’s so common it’s a veritable idiom, it is. But I think this variation goes a bit beyond the cliché, in that Richter doesn’t just leave it at the moral of ‘don’t be to competitive’, which is how I think most people mean it. For him, it connects to issues of identity and responsibility, choice and chance, the very heart of the debate between free will and determinism. This is deep, deep goalie wisdom.

For a goalie, professional identity- self-evaluation, self-knowledge, what Richter is getting at with ‘confidence’- depends on a very difficult project: being able to differentiate his talent from the factors around him. How can he, in the heat of a season, without recourse to hindsight or the great overhead view of the Almighty, know how good he really is? What parts of his performance are his own and which are his team’s? What slice of the ice is his to control?

He can go by wins and losses. That’s what the team as a whole is judged by, that’s what the skaters judge their success by. For a goalie, though, it’s problematic, because a goalie cannot do anything himself that contributes directly to winning. The best he can do, on his own, is play to an endless draw. He can stop everything, engulfing pucks square in his belly like an amoeba absorbing its prey, admitting no goals and giving no rebounds, and all that will earn him is overtime and then shooter after shooter after shooter until he fails or dies of exhaustion. Michael Leighton famously once stopped 98 shots in a single game. He still lost. If the team in front of him doesn’t get goals, the goalie will fail, no matter how excellent his play.

Wins and losses are a terrible measure of people, too. Success in life, as in hockey, has a lot to do with the team you’ve got in front of you. Somebody born to the social caste equivalent of the Red Wings is going to see a lot more wins in his life than some Islander child. Both may work hard, both may achieve success, but in raw terms the person with the better franchise is going to come out ahead virtually all the time. You can judge groups by wins and losses, but not individuals.

The next option is save percentage. It’s a nice, durable little stat. It has the virtue of measuring success relative to workload rather than in absolute terms, and thereby equalizes out some of the inequities of playing behind a bad team. A goalie who gets unforgivably shelled and loses can still come out with his save percentage intact. Moreover, it tends to be consistent and gently predictive, so it clearly reflects something about underlying talent, particularly for guys who switch teams a few times. The human equivalent, I suppose, would be judging success relative to opportunities available, that is, recognizing that working oneself up from abject poverty to self-sufficiently working-class is actually more of an achievement than working oneself up from slightly wealthy to very wealthy.

I once knew a goalie who cared so much for save percentage that he cared only about save percentage. So long as he stopped shots at a better rate than his counterpart at the other end of the ice, he felt that he had ‘won’, scoreboard be damned. Of course, then there came one midnight game where the reffing was a little wonky and the defense a bit sluggish and before you know it there were four pucks one after the other in the back of the net, and this goalie threw the single greatest shit fit I have ever seen a human being throw. It was a tantrum so epic that for fifteen minutes everyone in the arena just stared silently, big eyes and bit lips, while he screamed and swore and pitched his blocker and his glove and his stick down the ice, and then went to the bench to throw the defenseman’s stick for good measure. He saw his save percentage tank and, although he rationally might have known that it wasn’t his fault, the measurement meant so much to him that he couldn’t keep his shit together if it was bad, even for one night

That’s the trouble with save percentage: it works well for large-scale analyses, the weighting of goalie seasons against each other, even the prediction of the future. For people sitting in chairs and studying goalies, it’s just terrific. But for a goalie’s judgment of himself, his ability to understand how well he’s playing, it can be toxic. For one thing, save percentage is constantly dangling that elusive 1.000. It implies that there is a perfection out there to be achieved, that the ideal performance would stop 100% of pucks. But there is no such thing as stopping 100% of pucks, except for very short, very fortunate periods. Line a goalie up against five offensive players with no teammates in front of him, and the best goalie in the world, a veritable goaltending machine, would not be able to stop 100% of pucks. There is no agility, no positioning, no vision, no size in the whole range of human variation that could accomplish such a feat.

A realistic understanding of save percentage, then, includes the understanding that it is not perfectable, that even the best goalies will get scored on- and moreover, since save percentage is an average, that they will get scored on at an irregular rate. No goalie lets in exactly one goal for every thirteen shots, but rather something like 1/13, 0/13, 4/13, 0/13, 2/13. The goalie’s experience of his own save percentage is not the experience of an average, but the experience of an accumulation of streaks of good and bad. How, then, is he supposed to understand which goals he can forgive himself for and which are rightly deserving of blame? How is he supposed to judge whether a bad run is merely the percentages being realized or an emerging flaw in his performance? One can see how save percentage doesn’t really help, in the middle of a season or a game, with problems of control and confidence. No one can know the real save percentage until the end of the season. No one can know the real relative success of a life until it’s over. In the meantime, a body needs something else. A working, ongoing standard by which to evaluate.

Which is why, I think, goalies are such fanatics for technique. The history of goaltending is, in my extremely preliminary cursory evaluation, the evolution of technique. Back in the weird old days, when goalies tended to be little more than lumpy skaters with oversized shinpads, technique was pretty much having the cojones to put yourself in the way of the puck as much as possible. Later, it added an emphasis on reading the play and making intuitive assessments of shooters’ character and intention. But come the advent of the butterfly, it became a calculation of angles and percentages, a true system.

Goaltending technique is the accumulated study of how to take away the greatest amount of easy net-space from the largest number of potential scorers at once. It becomes, in effect, a code of behavior, and thereby provides a standard of judgment that can be applied directly to individual actions without regard for individual results. It’s a set of categorical imperatives for the ice: if every goalie took this pose every time this particular situation arose, the most possible pucks would be stopped, therefore, it is always the right pose to take. So the aim of the goalie becomes not to stop every puck, but to always be in the position that, overall, will stop the most pucks.

Technique, as a code of behavior, allows a goalie to name the things he cannot control. Sometimes there will be a bizarre deflection off two moving sticks and an oddly angled skate, and that is not his fault. Sometimes his defensemen are going to get tangled up and leave a winger uncovered just to the left of the crease AND let the pass through, and that is not his fault. Sometimes there will be several hundred pounds of plastic and manflesh on top of his head and the puck will get prodded through beneath by God-knows-what, and that is not his fault. And sometimes he will have covered 83% of the net damn near perfectly and the shooter will make that improbable, obscenely difficult shot- hell, the shooter wouldn’t be in the NHL if he couldn’t make that shot every now and then- and THAT, even, is not the goalie’s fault, although it went right by his ear. Sometimes all of those things happen in one game, and the team will lose 5-2, and when that happens, a knowledge of technique is what allows a goalie to go to the dressing room, head held high although his save percentage is in the toilet, secure in the knowledge that it was beyond his control.

Out here in the real world, kittens, we’re all goalies. We’re all struggling to figure out what we can control and what we can’t, what parts of life we’ve made by our choices and which have been forced on us by fate, where our abilities end and the luck begins. And too often, we judge ourselves by our success vis-à-vis others- whether we have as much money, as lofty a title, as hot a girlfriend, as big a house- without realizing that success is often as far beyond our control as failure is. Play life according to the score clock, and you end up either taking blame or taking credit for shit that was actually handed to you by your team. Play life according to the save percentage, and you end up feeling as though you have responsibility for the bounces or the agility of your defensepeople. Play life according to technique, though, and the questions are subtler and deeper: Was I where I should have been? Did I do the thing I ought to have done? It’s only people who can answer those questions in the affirmative who go to their graves happy. In life as in goaltending, it isn’t whether you won or lost, it’s whether you were in position.


Anonymous said...

scoreclock, save %, or technique. excellent. parents, pay attention...
p.s. i seem to be the only one trying to heed your warning of no reply, no new post. but i don't bake...

Clare said...

I think you may have hit upon the reason that I am absolutely obsessed with this position. (Well, that and the fact that I'm more than a little off, myself).

I love the idea that it's the way we get from one moment to the next rather than where we end up. But I also think it's important to pay attention to what's going on around you, to be able to read other people's intentions, and then to react appropriately. In goaltending and in life your instincts, if you use them and trust them, will tell you where you need to be and when.

Anyway, thanks from a goalie freak.

E said...

paul- thanks, again. this space has gone dark for so long at so many intervals that i've basically killed off my commentariat, although i can see from the stats that plenty of people are still reading. insha'allah with a couple months of regular posting i can get more dialogue going around here, which will obviate the need for baked goods.

clare- i'm actually really interested in how much the 'reading of intentions' features in goalie theory right now. read dryden, and it was clearly a big thing in the 70s, but now there does seem to be a much stronger belief that the right position is the right position, period. i need to learn more about how it works exactly, my problem being that goalie technique seems to be something passed down through the training process, rather than written about, so it's hard for me to know exactly.

p.s. i hope i didn't sound to combative in my response to your comment on the last post, it wasn't my intention to be so. you just hit on some issues that i argue with myself about quite a lot, so i can get a little... worked up.

Clare said...

I came off a little combative myself, I think, when I meant just to be engaged, and for that I apologize. It's just that I'm way too intuitive a thinker to find much enjoyment in a stripped down, data-based analysis of particular skaters or tendencies or whatever. And there are some corners of the hockey world where the stats talk dominates and distracts from an appreciation of the beauty of the game. In other words, I guess I need to hang out with different people during games. :)

As far as goalie technique, there are training philosphies that teach only percentages and positioning and produce the dreaded robo-goalies. Unfortunately a lot of kids are getting that kind of training, especially in North America. There's a growing counter-movement to that, though, as European and European-trained goalies have success over here. Hockey Canada is actually actively working on this issue because they used to produce the best goalies in the world and now the Finns and Swedes are outclassing them in international competition. If you haven't talked to or read Justin Goldman from TheGoalieGuild.com, I recommend doing so. He's been thinking quite a bit recently about the issue of how to teach kids to be positionally sound without killing off their ability to read shooters and trust their instincts. He's a scout and a writer, not a coach or a trainer and he writes incessantly about the theory of the position. And he is extremely accessible and will answer any intelligently asked question.

Scott Reynolds said...

Wonderful writing, as always (it's awfully tempting to use this one in a church setting).

The discussion so far reminds me of Luongo's comments on Tim Thomas from the Cup final, something to the effect of Thomas wandering about and making saves that would be easy for him difficult in order to make some other saves easier. In that Thomas is a pretty famous "heretic" it would be interesting to see what other goaltenders or goaltending people say about his style of play. That might give a good sense of what's considered acceptable by the establishment.

Clare said...

Scott, you can actually see this debate in action by looking at Luongo's entire career. He used to be much more reactive and reflex-based (think Luongo in the Gold Medal game). Recently, he has been working with Rollie Melanson, who was a disciple of Francois Allaire. Melanson is a perfectionist who teaches positioning and technique above all else, and you can actually track the effect on Luongo's game over the past year. There's a very real question about whether he's better off now than he was when he played more instinctively.

E said...

the theory goes to church? oh man, i'm not sure it's ready for that. sunday school, maybe.

the site that clare suggested is actually really interesting. they're selling a 'style guide' to nhl goaltenders, which i'd be tempted to get if only i could be sure of what i was getting. i'd love to be able to discern the calling cards of the different netminding techniques and philosophies.

Clare said...

It's pretty cool. What you'll really get out of it is some idea of what he looks at when he watches goalies and what he values most at the NHL level. (Hint: the mental game) If he still has the sample up at the site, it's pretty much exactly like that all the way through. No huge surprises. The Periodic Table part's the best part, IMO.

Jaboney said...

"How, then, is he supposed to understand which goals he can forgive himself for and which are rightly deserving of blame?"

Hmm... for me, it's got little to do with numbers. At the end of the game, I ask myself, "Should I have stopped any that got through? Could I have stopped any that got through?" If the answer to the first is "Yes", that's a problem; If the answer to the second is "Yes," it's a challenge to think about technique and how on-the-ball I was.

But I also ask whether I stopped any that I really shouldn't have, due to luck, instinct, Hail Mary flailing about... and figure that grabbing two or three that I had no business stopping balances letting in a soft one.

E said...

for sure, but isn't it always an understanding of technique that tells you which ones you shoulda/coulda had? or is there something beyond that i'm not considering?

Loree Cahoon said...

Techniques are really important for a goalie. We all know how important a goalie's role is in a game, and it's fascinating how a well-trained goalie can dictate the game by being in the right position at the right time. It can be through instinct, but it can also be a product of a well-trained mind and body -- your pick.
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