Why keeping your eye on the puck is not the best option
Posted by Dean Holden at January 1st, 2014
by Alan Bass, 14 August 2013
Any young goaltender is often given one main piece of advice: “Keep your eye on the puck.” At a young age, that might be great advice. But once you reach a high level of goaltending, it is much more complicated than that. In fact, that advice might be detrimental to performance, especially at the NHL level.
That is not to say a goaltender should never look for the puck or make eye contact with it. What it does mean is that a goalie’s main focus should not be a staring contest between a black rubber disc. After playing the position for many years, professionals (and the best of those professionals) are able to automatize the task of stopping the puck with ten other people blocking their view – five of which are intent on shooting it at over 100 miles per hour.
So why not watch the puck all the time?
Goaltenders and coaches will give you all sorts of positional reasoning, such as “you need to be aware of what is going on around you, not just where the puck is.” And while that might be true, cognitive psychology shows that is just a small, minute part of the game. In reality, it is nearly impossible to watch the puck, especially as it is being shot. Not only is the speed at which it is coming toward the goalie faster than our eyes can follow, but the angular velocity at which the puck leaves the player’s stick is untraceable – and it only gets faster as the puck gets closer to the goal. (The speed of the puck itself does not increase, but the closer an object gets to our eyes, the higher effect a slight movement in angle has in our brain and its perception of the speed). Humans can only track objects moving up to 70 degrees per second. A shot hockey puck can travel up to 500 degrees per second.
When the puck is shot, a goalie must make a split-second, automated decision as to where that puck will end up, and, for lack of a better term, “guess” where that puck will end up. And while it is wrong to suggest that all goaltenders simply “guess” the eventual trail of the puck, it is correct to conclude that they make a calculated estimate and determine exactly what part of the net must be blocked in order to prevent a goal from being scored.
Now, give goaltenders a great deal of credit – they must do all of that, and more, in just a few milliseconds. In fact, research has shown that even a few milliseconds of late reaction time can result in a goalie looking foolish, as if he weren’t even paying attention. But in reality, you could argue that a hockey goalie has a much easier job than a soccer goalie or a baseball batter, both of which must deal with an object that can change direction mid-air on its own (with correct spin and placement). Hockey players, however, have yet to discover how to curve the puck mid-shot (knuckle pucks aside, high school players).
But you could also argue that, because hockey players move faster than any other freestanding athlete in their sport, that a moving player’s shot actually can confuse a goalie’s perception more than a Lionel Messi free kick. This is just one reason why a player streaking across the ice can score at a much higher percentage shooting the opposite direction they are traveling (e.g. skating toward the left side of the ice and shooting toward the right side of the net).
So before you step into the net and think to yourself, “This should be easy – I just have to watch the puck and put my arm out at the right time,” remember that goaltending is a lot more complicated than that.
And that’s precisely why the consistently best in the world – the Marty Brodeurs, the Henrik Lundqvists, and the Ryan Millers – should be even more proud of what they’ve accomplished at their positions.
Alan Bass, a former writer for The Hockey News and THN.com, is the author of “The Great Expansion: The Ultimate Risk That Changed The NHL Forever.”