Goalies: Good in Practice But Bad in Games? This is for you.
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Lots of lacrosse goalies are cool and calm while saving shots in practice, with their coach 1×1, or with their friends playing some pickup ball.
It’s the games – under the lights, referees on the field, fans screaming on the sidelines – that cause the problems.
The same goalie who can make save after save in practice suddenly chokes up once the game whistle blows.
What is it that causes goalies to tense up during games and not perform like they are capable of? Better yet, how can you fix that?
In this post we’ll dig into the sports psychology behind this phenomenon.
I’ll explore why goalies struggle when the game day pressure is on and some of the tips that players, coaches, and parents can employ to ensure their goalie performs to their full potential on game day.
Note – If you’re a goalie who is the opposite – great in games, but bad in practice. Check out this post on how to get motivated for practice.
Making a save in lacrosse is a fine combination of motor skills, quick reaction time, and good preparation.
It’s not about thinking. In fact during the save process, if you have to think, odds are the ball will already be in the goal by the time you attempt to save it.
So the first tip for avoiding that game day choke is to put in the hours on the practice field.
When you first start out in your lacrosse goalie career, you’ll have to put tremendous thought into making a save. Where does my top hand go? Which foot do I step with? What do I say to communicate with my defense? How do I trail step?
As you progress through the 4 stages of being a lacrosse goalie, making a save requires less and less thought. Until you get to the stage of Unconscious Competence where your body is really on auto pilot when making saves.
This is the stage we want to be in to avoid choking in the big game.
Why? Because on game day your body and mind will be hit with a rush of emotions and a rush of nerves. This happens to every goalie.
The more you’ve perfected your save movements and really internalized them the better you’ll perform in the games because you won’t be thinking.
Remember, like the Navy SEALs say, “The more you sweat in training, the less you bleed in battle.”
So put in those hours and hours of practice. Focus on your lacrosse goalie workouts. Work harder than any other goalie.
Because all those hours of practice boil down to this: When game day comes along your body will already know what to do and you start to tackle the even bigger challenge: the mental game.
Assuming you have the ability to make the saves in practice and the problem is that the skills are simply not showing up in the games. Then the problem is 100% mental.
Let’s walk through the Balance Beam Example.
Suppose there’s a 10 foot long balance beam resting on the floor.
Could you walk across it? Sure. No problem. You could probably do it easily without losing your balance and without being scared. Right?
Now suppose we raise that balance beam 100 feet into the air and suspend it between two buildings. Could you walk across?
Not as easy, right? Now you’re scared. Now you doubt yourself. Now you have fear.
But guess what? Its the exact same balance beam!
The only thing that’s changed in this scenario is that we’ve introduced the element of failure. So instead of focusing on your balance, you’re thinking about not failing. You’re thinking about falling.
Based on these negative thoughts, your body would start to change.
Your body would have a strong physical reaction – sweaty palms, loss of muscle control, nausea, the whole deal. And of course, your balance would be ruined.
This example perfectly describes the situation that most lacrosse goalies face when dealing with practice versus the games.
In practice the balance beam is on the ground. You’re saving shots. You’re playing loose and having fun. In the event, you let in a goal, it doesn’t effect your game. Your focused on your task of saving of the ball and leading the defense.
In games the balance beam is 100 feet in the air and you’re worried about winning, worried about impressing your fans, teammates, parents, coaches, or the cute girl in the stands.
You’re focus is not where it should be and as a result your performance suffers.
No lacrosse goalie can play successfully focusing on what’s going to happen if they fail. Which brings us to the next tip.
Not focusing on the result is easier said than done: what goalie doesn’t want to play well, to be the star, to get the game ball at the end of a victory? All lacrosse goalies want a positive result.
Here’s one big clarification — I’m not asking you to not care about winning and losing.
I’m asking that you don’t concentrate on it. There’s a big difference there.
A lacrosse goalie cannot concentrate on results without thinking about failure – it’s simply impossible.
And as we saw in the balance beam example, the thought of failure makes our body tighten up and we play poorly.
So your focus needs to be on playing the game. Having fun. Being focused in the moment and enjoying the gift that is lacrosse.
Of course they wanted to win. Of course they wanted to play well. But their focus was on the action of playing.
All goalies will have moments of struggle, this one of the toughest positions in sports. However hopefully this mental shift gives you the tools to improve your game and break through the mental barrier impeding your game success.
One common piece of advice many people tell lacrosse goalies (or anyone really) before a big game or performance – “just relax”.
I probably should add this to my list of lacrosse goalie pet peeves because this drives me nuts.
Just relax? When you’re playing in the national championship game on national TV.
Just relax? When you’ve flown to another state to play in a tournament with hundreds of college coaches watching.
I’m here to tell you that “just relax” is not the answer.
One method I learned from Craig Sigl at Mental Toughness Trainer is called the “AND” method.
It’s a method to help lacrosse goalies (or any athlete) change their mental attitude when under big game pressure.
Feeling scared before a game is a natural feeling. It’s 100% ok to feel that way.
With this method, we tell ourselves “I can feel this scared/nervous/whatever AND I can still go out there and win”.
In other words, stop trying to fight being scared and worried because the more you fight it the worse it gets. Even athletes at the top of their game get nervous and scared before big games.
So the next time a thought like “I hope I don’t choke” enters into your mind. Recognize it. Hey, I’m worried and nervous AND I’m still going to dominate. I’m still going to play my best.
I’m nervous AND I’m going to dominate.
I’m nervous AND I’m going to make every save I can.
This shift in thought has helped more than a few goalies succeed under pressure.
Checkout this post for additional tips to improve goalie mental toughness.
Another very effective method for overcoming game day anxiety is using anchors or positive affirmations.
I want you to do a little exercise right now.
Take out a piece of paper (….. I’ll wait …..) and right down a sentence that describes how you want to play. Envision your favorite MLL or NCAA lacrosse goalie and write a description of how they play.
Make your affirmation as specific as possible. It’s not just – I’m a good lacrosse goalie. You’ve got to sell it more than that.
Imagine you’re describing your goalie abilities to someone who’s never seen or heard of the sport of lacrosse. How would you do it?
I’m a confident and explosive goalie with lightening quick hands who leads the team and is on every shot!
Now every day I want you to look at yourself in the mirror and repeat this phrase. Repeat it before every practice, repeat it before every game, repeat it half-time.
Every single day read it out aloud. This isn’t a one and done approach. Like brushing your teeth every single day you need to repeat this positive affirmation.
People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing – that’s why we recommend it daily.
The theory behind this is we’re trying to bury this thought into our subconscious mind. Then when the pressure is on these thoughts will emerge from our subconscious and you’ll be confident and dominate in the big games.
If there’s another specific issue or challenging you’re dealing with in the game, put that in your positive affirmation and get it addressed.
With so much pressure on the shoulders of lacrosse goalies, pre-game jitters are common.
For the goalie that dominates in practice but cannot bring that success into a game, the problem is most of time purely mental.
Using the tips and techniques in this post hopefully you can overcome that mental block and dominate in the games despite feeling those inevitable feelings of nervousness.
Until next time! Coach Damon
How do you overcome pre-game jitters? Any tips or tricks you use to perform at your best during the games? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.