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Goalies talk to selves to keep calm, focus under pressure

Written messages also help because 'you are kind of on an island out there'

by Kevin Woodley / NHL.com Independent Correspondent

NOTE: Interviews for this story were conducted prior to the NHL pausing the 2019-20 season March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus. 

It isn't weird for an NHL goalie to be talking to himself during a game.

Actually, it would be stranger to find one who doesn't do it.

Whether it consists of positive prompts focused on maintaining the proper mindset, or technical and tactical reminders that change across time, talking to oneself has long been a part of stopping pucks at the highest levels. Some goalies use nonverbal techniques to refocus -- Braden Holtby of the Washington Capitals and Carter Hart of the Philadelphia Flyers will spray water into the air and focus on a drop falling to the ice, and others have reminders written on equipment -- but talking in the crease is as normal as a butterfly drop. 

"The self-talk is going on, like always," said Semyon Varlamov of the New York Islanders, who said he does his in Russian, his native language. "I think every goalie in the world, they have a self-talk. Before the game, during the game, it's always happening. That's how you try to get yourself ready. That's how you try to recover from the bad goal. That's how you try to stay focused during the game."

Video: NYI@COL: Varlamov kicks out pad to rob Landeskog

Arizona Coyotes goalie Antti Raanta got his first lesson regarding the importance of moving quickly from a tough game or goal from New York Rangers goaltending coach Benoit Allaire four years ago, but recently picked up a helpful go-to phrase from his daughter Evelyn, who is 3.

"When my daughter is watching 'Frozen' she loves to sing 'Let It Go,' and I think that's a very good catchphrase also for goalies," Raanta said. "Just let it go and focus on the next thing that happens. Sometimes when you have a bad game and you come home and my daughter is singing that, and it's like, 'OK, maybe I should just let it go.'"

Some goalies talk to themselves in more specific terms, depending on what they are working on at the time. It can include reminders about positioning, like making sure they get out to the edge of the crease, or posture, like holding their glove higher, or other changes they may be focusing on with their goaltending coach.

"It varies guy to guy and (depends on) maybe how intense they are," Minnesota Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk said. "I think we all do it. For me, I guess it depends on what you know just transpired in the game. If a play happened, and maybe I don't get scored on that play, but I know I was vulnerable because of something I didn't do properly, you just to kind of talk yourself through it. Like, 'Hey, you've got to get those feet set, you've got to get your shoulder turned, don't go down early, or maybe stay on your feet on this push, don't slide into it.' Even if it didn't cost you, I always know."

Other goalies place written reminders on their equipment. 

New Jersey Devils veteran Cory Schneider kept the same message on the inside cuff of his blocker -- first written himself, and later embroidered by CCM - from his NCAA career at Boston College: "Don't fear failure. Compete 100%. Enjoy the process. Play for others."

As Schneider said, "Sometimes it gets frantic and hectic back there and you start doubting yourself, so it's good to have little reminders to look down at every once and a while."

Video: NJD@ANA: Schneider makes great glove save on Djoos

Vancouver Canucks goalie prospect Michael DiPietro has a message written on the inside of his blocker, but it changes. When DiPietro played for Canada at the 2019 World Junior Championship, he used the anagram "ABC," which stood for, "[Be] Aware, Breathe, Choose," as a way to prevent his focus from drifting in a high-pressure environment, something he got from Vancouver's mental performance consultant, Ryan Hamilton. 

DiPietro started this season with "Take it 1 puck at a time" written on his blocker. It is advice he picked up from Tampa Bay Lightning veteran Curtis McElhinney when they roomed together at the 2018 World Hockey Championship. By the time he was called up to the Canucks from Utica of the American Hockey League three months ago, DiPietro had a new blocker and a new message: "WIN," or "What's Important Now."

"Sometimes I just come up with them on my own, but we have a really good mental strength coach in Utica, and he and I talk almost every other day," DiPietro said. "Goaltending, you are kind of on an island out there and you have a tendency to get down on yourself pretty quick after a goal, so he preached it to the whole team, this anagram, WIN. I think it can tie into the next play in the sense of 'what's important now,' but it also stands for the word win, so when it comes down to tough points in the game, maybe you let in four goals but you can still win 5-4, to me the only thing that matters is winning. So it's a good thing to refer back to."

Even at the highest level, the pep talks or written messages goalies direct at themselves can be about not letting doubt creep in. 

"I've been probably saying the same things for seven, eight, nine years," Raanta said. "It's pretty simple, a couple things like, 'You can do it, you've been there before, you're here for a reason,' and things like that. It's just something that calms you down and brings you back to a calm place. It's more about just reminding yourself that, 'Hey, everything is OK, don't worry about it, you have made millions of saves, so just forget it and let it go.'"

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