Jack Bowen


            There’s a phenomenon going on in Finland with their ice hockey goalies: they’re becoming the best in the world.  And it’s all based on a framework that accounts for the unique psychology of the goalie. It also establishes a solid foundation of simple technique and fundamentals.

The Yoda of Hockey (& Water Polo) Goalkeeping

            An article in a recent The Atlantic magazine introduces us to the “Yoda” of ice hockey goalkeeping: Coach Upi from Finland.  I believe I have had the privilege of being coached by the Yoda of water polo goalkeeping—Bronco—and many of you have been “introduced” to this guru through our focus on Estep and the gifts of our two primary conditioning drills including one which bears his name (“Broncos”).  And the comparisons are uncanny.

            Here, I want to share the similarities between what Upi has done for Finnish goalies and what we have been doing in our own goalie training the past 16 years.  There are many similarities between the hockey and water polo goalie, and certainly a few important differences.  But the philosophies of training the two sports’ goalies are very similar.

Goalie Fundamentals: Hockey’s “Butterfly” and Water Polo’s “Iron Cross”

            To begin with, the Finnish approach to training sessions exactly mirrors ours.  The article mentions how most American teams begin shooting drills with the forwards skating in close and wailing away, smashing the puck to the corners with no account of the goalie’s preparation.  The Finns, on the other hand, go through what can only be compared to our version of Pull Downs and Estep.  They aim to “just let the goalie feel the puck.”  As one Finnish goalie coach commented, “We want the puck to look big for the goalie.”  Likewise for the water polo goalie and the ball.

            Put this together with this other bit of insight highlighted by another of Finland’s goalie coaches: “One of the big problems today, everywhere in the world, is those young kids are just dropping down in the butterfly.”  Without going into the detail of the butterfly move, there’s a pretty direct correlation to it in water polo goalkeeping known as the “iron cross.”  Early on, young players can have some success by doing the following: putting your hips high up on the water’s surface and then snapping your torso up with your arms outstretched.  This accomplishes two things: even with a weak eggbeater, the goalie can easily get his torso out quite high and, secondly, given that the young goalie is facing young shooters, very often the shots end up in the middle 70% of the cage, thus bouncing off the goalie.  But this approach does not translate well.

            It prevents the goalie from being laterally mobile, it gives the goalie no “second move” (i.e. following a fake, a cross-pass, or a rebound), and it inhibits the goalie from forming the habit of moving her head and body to the ball: one of the most important habits a goalie can have.  The Finnish coach continued to explain the need to focus on a goalie learning and maintaining a proper foundation as well as learning how to skate: “We’re not training kids to be their best when they’re 13.”  They’re trying to impart a set of habits and fundamentals that will serve the goalie well throughout his career, not just at the 14-&-Under level.

            This is exactly what we’re doing with our Progressive Fundamentals Focus: from Headers, to Pull Downs, to Estep, to 1-Arm Control, to Corners, and all the variations.  One hockey commentator speaks to this as he references the approach of Finnish goalie coaching: “They try to teach you to stop the puck, not have it hit you.”  As goalies, we want to be more than how the common fan views us: as objects trying to get hit by the ball.  By coming out and meeting the ball and maintaining fluid lateral movement, we can be more aggressive—and, thus, more successful—in our approach.

The Mental Approach

            It’s here that the author begins to address the mentality of the successful goalie.  He writes, “To the casual observer, it looks like the goalie is at the mercy of those attacking, but elite goaltenders turn the hunter into the hunted.”  As goalies, we need to see ourselves as more on the offensive than we are typically perceived.  Part of this stems from our coming out to meet the ball with both our head and arms.  But part of it is a mental approach to goalkeeping: not as passive targets but as active captains of the defense, reading the motions and positions of the attacking players.  The article explains that while one particular Finnish goalie’s best saves “may have been pure reflex,” he also “frequently knew what was coming because he had engineered it.”

            And one bit that I just can’t resist including here because it ties in so nicely with one of my favorite aspects of goalkeeping: the goalie’s “game face.”  The article’s author writes of a Finnish goalie, Miikka Kiprusoff, who began working with Upi at age 12 and eventually became the top NHL goalie and an Olympic goalie.  The author writes that, along with having amazing hand-eye coordination (something they focus on greatly) what distinguished Kiprusoff most was his state of mind.  Following a goal scored, he would systematically pull his mask up and take a sip of water, showing not an ounce of expression: “The sheer force of this indifference was so astonishing,” he writes, “you’d find yourself second-guessing whether the puck had even gone in the net.”

Back To The Basics

             Before you get too overwhelmed by the various nuances of the successful goalie, Upi summarizes his approach to training top goalkeepers: “Just the basics.”  It’s worth meditating on this a bit.  Just the basics.  This is what good goalkeeping boils down to: having a simple, effective framework that’s been proven to work and then perfecting it.  For water polo goalies, this is our “Fundamentals Focus” which is a part of every Goalie Combine we conduct.  It’s the heart of what we do.  The idea, as many of you know, is this: We want to perfect one single skill set of fundamentals that we can employ to block any shot—except that lob shot, which ice hockey goalies have the benefit of avoiding!  This way, when we re-act to the shot, we are literally re-enacting what we’ve done so well, thousands of times, with utmost effectiveness.

            The author, a non-goalie, writes in the article’s introduction, “In any single game, the most important player on the ice is typically the goaltender.”  That it comes from a non-goalie means that much more.