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THe Battle beneath the helmet Few are built to handle the physical and mental battles of a goalie - the last line of defense

By Gabby Guerard

All eyes are on Elizabeth Morehouse.

Her teammates anxiously stare, unable to do anything but wait and see what she could do, desperately wishing she’ll be able to stop the shot. If she makes the save, her team stays alive in the stroke competition, which followed a tie game, even after double overtime. But if she doesn’t, her team is out of the postseason tournament.

The referee’s whistle slices through the tense air. The player takes one step and launches the ball bar-down on Morehouse’s stick-side into the net. Cheers erupted from the opposing team, fans, and coaches.

She couldn’t save the goal. She let her team down.

“I laid on the ground and I just started crying,” Morehouse recalled.

Her high school senior season was over – again.

The ecstasy of cheers from the other team morphed into the gasping of air, as Morehouse shook awake from the nightmare to find herself lying in bed. Panic ran through her veins as her heart pounded.

This was the harrowing goal she couldn’t save.

It wasn’t the first time she had been haunted by the failure to stop a shot under pressure. And it wouldn’t be the last.

Goalies wear pads and helmets to protect themselves from the physical shots they’re blasted with. However beneath the gear, there is another battle they have no protection for, yet must withstand all the same.

The psychological one.

***

As the women’s lacrosse goalie, Brenna Keefe has a specific routine every game day: wake up, shower, makeup, weave two braids down the middle of her head, coffee, and turn up the music. She needs to mentally prepare for the competition ahead.

“I go into games knowing if I’m ready or if I’m not ready,” she said. “If I’m not feeling a certain way, like if I’m not shaking, nervous about the game, I feel as if I won’t play as well.”

These nerves fuel her, but are rooted in the same pressure she felt back when she first suited up in goal.

“When I was younger, I used to get very upset, because I put such high standards on myself, because I’m the last person it has to go through, so I feel like I have to stop all of them,” she said.

While the ball goes through 11 other players before it gets to Keefe, she still plays an instrumental role – instructing players who to mark, which way to force the play defensively, and if there is someone open.

Making the saves isn’t the biggest challenge as a goalie. It’s effectively communicating.

“It may seem easy to just tell people what to do,” she said. “But then it’s also hard, because if you let the goal in and it was actually your fault and you give advice to someone, they may be like, ‘Well you just let the goal in, it’s not my fault.’”

***

Like any other player, goalies make mistakes too. The only difference is when a field player makes a mistake, there’s someone behind to make the play.

There’s no next line of defense behind a goalie.

As the men’s club ice hockey goalie, George Matteo knows when it comes down to a close game, one mistake as the goalie could cost his team the game. It was back in high school, the first round of States. The game went into overtime. An opposing player sent the puck past Matteo’s defensemen to a teammate up ahead.

The shot was coming. It was just a matter of when.

Like any goalie, his mind raced with questions: What do I need to do to make this save? Am I on my angles? Am I out too far? Should I come out a little more? What other shots has he taken this game? Where does he like to shoot? Should I give him that spot to make him go where I’m ready? Should I favor one side to try to force him off his game?

The player came down to hit a one-timer, and Matteo was forced to make a split-decision to try to save the shot. But as the puck crossed the goal line, he instantly regretted his choice.

“There’s definitely those one-goal games where I’m like, ‘If I moved or did a certain thing in that way, it wouldn’t have been the outcome,’ so it definitely goes through my head,” Matteo said.

Though, these thoughts don’t just occur when the game is over and there’s time to reflect. Goalies’ minds are flooded with “what-if’s” the second they’re scored on.

But the game doesn’t pause. There’s no waking up.

“If I let it get to me, then it’s just going to go downhill really quick and I know that, so I definitely have to keep it together,” Matteo said.

Goalies have to remember their mistakes enough to correct them for the next shot, while also not dwelling on them or getting caught up in the emotions too much, or else they won’t be able to focus on the next play.

That’s when one goal sneaking by can lead to a second that the goalie was just a half-second too slow to save. Then a third gets tipped in far-side. Then a fourth slips under the pads on a dive. Then a fifth gets lifted in from a rebound shot.

Then all of a sudden, one goal becomes five.

“They may think we’re negative a lot, but it’s because we have to deal with the continuous put-down of like, if you’re continuously scored on, you’re like, ‘Wow I’m not good,’” Keefe said.

***

While defenders try to help goalies stay out of their heads, there’s only so much they can do from the outside looking in. There’s only one person who watched the play through a cage with thoughts racing beneath a helmet: the goalie.

They’re the ones who know the gut-wrenching reality of being at the mercy of a shot. They must throw themselves around, even reaching and bending in ways that challenge the flexibility of the human body at times.

They do this to make the save – or in other words, to be pelted with a hard object flying toward them at full speed. Their own health is not the priority. The priority is what’s best for the team.

Sometimes that means rushing out of the goal area to dive at an opposing player who’s sprinting on a breakaway. A goalie’s face can be just inches away from a swinging stick or a puck that has just been drilled into the air. Then they often collide with the player, dropping that individual to ground-level with them.

“I love taking people out,” Morehouse said.

“It’s not because I want to hurt anyone, just because it’s one, more helpful for the angle and more helpful for the goal not to be scored against. And also it’s just like the spotlight is on you – it’s you and that breakaway person.”

Everyone watches these moments as if they’re a short film unfolding on a big screen. Although it can be thrilling to come up with a diving save on a breakaway, that spotlight doesn’t fade away if the individual fails to stop the shot.

But, they have to keep going.

“You beat yourself up a little because you’re like, ‘Ah, that sucked,’ but you’ve got to snap back during games,” Morehouse said. “But then afterwards, all I do is think back like, ‘That’s my fault,’ ‘That’s my fault,’ ‘That’s my fault.”’

Though, she reminds herself of the bigger picture after she’s scored on, to try to move forward with a clear head. It’s the other team’s job to score.

“I know that if it’s at me and I’m making the saves and I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing and they still get by me, it’s just, that’s their job,” she added.

***

The goalie’s job is simple: don’t let the ball cross the goal line. What’s not as obvious is how isolating the role can be.

If there’s a face-off, the other players are by the goal for a few seconds, communicating with their goalie. Though once the puck drops, the players break out up ice.

But the goalie doesn’t. He stays between the pipes – alone.

“There’s no one there. There’s no one to talk to, there’s no one to keep you focused. You’ve just got to focus on the game,” Matteo said.

Staying in the game mentally isn’t as simple as just tracking the ball or puck. It’s also knowing where every player is, who’s marking who, communicating with the defenders, staying on angle to stop the next shot, and calculating when to risk coming out of the goal.

“It’s definitely a hyper-focused position almost, because I have to pay attention to so many moving parts at one time,” Keefe said. “It’s a lot going on at once, but that’s why I like it.”

While goalies are concentrating on all those components of the game, virtually everyone else is zeroed in on the other end of the field. They’re focused on scoring. Even for defenders, as soon as they come up with a stop, their job is to outlet the ball up-field and be an option offensively.

When a team transitions from defending to attacking, everyone goes on attack. Well, everyone who isn’t stuck in goal.

But it’s easy for players, coaches, and spectators to get so caught up in the adrenaline rush of an offensive run that they forget the bigger picture. It’s not just a matter of one forward with the ball who’s closing in on the opponent’s goal.

There’s another person standing between the two: the goalie.

In a big win, everyone is quick to congratulate the offensive players on their strong performances. But if the goalie hadn’t made the saves, it could’ve been a different outcome.

“I do think people forget sometimes,” Matteo said. “But then they don’t forget when you do really good – or bad.”

***

When a goalie plays well, it’s not reflected by adding a point to that team’s score; it’s reflected by not adding a point to the score. When a goalie plays poorly, the points add up on the scoreboard, as permanent visual reminders of his or her errors.

That’s when Morehouse knows she needs to step it up and be tougher mentally. But she’s simultaneously combatting the guilt of needing to play perfectly.

“I feel like if I’m not perfect or if I don’t play to the best of my ability, then I’m failing everybody,” she said.

When goalies have a lot of goals scored against them, there’s usually one next move: pull the starter and throw in the backup. It’s not just a subtle, quick change that can easily get lost in the constant switching or subbing rotations.

It’s an obvious stoppage of play for everyone to see.

Though it can be embarrassing for the starter, it can also be a moment of relief. If the individual is feeling beat down, it can ease one’s guilt to recognizing this change is what’s best for the team. Plus, the responsibility is now in someone else’s hands – someone who has a clear mind and is determined to prove oneself.

However, the pressure couldn’t be any more intense for the backup.

“I think that’s one of the hardest things, coming in straight up from the bench, especially when you’re pulled or changing halfway. It’s hard, really,” Matteo said.

“It’s setting you up to fail and I 100 percent agree with that,” Morehouse added.

It could be the only opportunity for the backup to get playing time in a game, because unlike other positions, goalies don’t sub on the fly. Unless the starter gets pulled, the backup won’t see any minutes.

“It’s a lot of mental when you’re on the bench. It’s a lot,” Morehouse said. “Because you put in the work every single day and you try so hard. You go to practice, you run with everybody else, you run with the starters who lost a game.”

Although it can be psychologically grueling to not play, backup goalies are vitally important. In a position that is so unique, having another perspective that’s goalie-specific can be beneficial.

“If you’re not playing a game, you’re literally standing there for the entire game, but then you’re in a position where you can give the other goalie feedback,” Keefe said.

***

Despite the highly competitive nature between the backup and starter, goalies share a unique bond. They’re the only ones who truly know what it’s like to stand between the posts and face the pressure ­– chest protectors strapped tight, pads buckled, helmet on.

And they’ll never forget the first time they suited up.

“It was definitely hard to move in,” Matteo chuckled. “Really hard to get used to, because it’s really different, like being stiff in certain areas and different type of skating movements.”

And even with all the pads, it does still hurt to get hit by shots.

“When I get hit on the inner thighs, it’s the worst, it just skids through. People always think the knee hurts the most, but that’s the one it just ricochets off,” Keefe said with a smile. “It’s like yes I get hit, but it’ll heal, so it’s fine.”

And win or lose, 90-degree sunshine or 40-degree rain, no matter how many times they shower, there’s a certain stench goalies just can’t seem to shake.

“I don’t think I’ll ever not smell like goalie pads,” Morehouse laughed.

But even with the ripe smell, stiff pads, frequent bruises, and nonstop pressure, Matteo, Keefe, and Morehouse wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Never have I ever thought about playing another position,” Matteo said. “It’s hard, it’s not easy. But the people who do it, they do it for a reason.

“I enjoy what I do, even though it’s hard, it hurts sometimes, it’s a lot of pressure, but I enjoy it. I wouldn’t change it.”

It’s not just a hunk of pads stopping the ball before it crosses the end line.

There’s a human between the posts.

When the horn sounds, the players all rush over to get their goalie. Sprinting full speed, smiles stretched wide and sticks in hand, they’re shouting with joy. The first few grab the goalie and wrap their arms around the smelly, sweaty pads. Then one by one the players begin to form layers, creating one giant huddle.

That’s when the goalie lifts off the helmet, revealing one more smiling face amongst the sea of triumph. Another psychological battle won.

Now, onto the next.

Created By
Gabby Guerard
Appreciate

Credits:

Jack Margaros, Springfield Athletics, Gabby Guerard