For Most Student-Athletes, the Key to the Recruiting Process is Good Grades
January 9, 2016
Lacrosse Goalies: Recognize Your Fear Response, then Learn How to Overcome It
December 10, 2015
You’re man-down. The ball moves across the crease to an attackman who is alone on the left side. He catches it and begins to reach back for a ten-yard blast. As he is setting his feet to rip upper corner, what are you thinking? How will you respond?
As a goalie, you hope that your reactions are instinctual, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes fear takes over. When it does, you feel paralyzed. You may flinch, close your eyes, or drop to your knees. Fear can affect you to a point where you may not be able to control your muscles and you actually freeze. But where does the fear come from?
After playing the position and working with goalies for over 30 years now (including my time spent as mental coach focusing on goalie psychology), I have come to learn that goalies can experience fear for a variety of reasons.
THE PHYSIOLOGICAL EFFECTS OF FEAR ARE THE SINGLE MOST DEBILITATING FACTOR OF PLAYING GOALIE IN LACROSSE. You can focus on improving your technique all day long, but it will do absolutely nothing to help if you don’t address the fear you experience when someone is about to shoot on you. You MUST address how fear effects your play in order to reduce interference and show your true talent. Period.
There are numerous reasons why one would experience fear when in the cage. Probably the most common fear when playing goalie is the
fear of pain. This makes sense. Getting hit hurts. Plain and simple. We all remember that one shot we took in the leg, bicep, or neck that didn’t stop stinging for days, not to mention the bruise that followed for much longer than that.
A second reason that we may experience fear is that we inherently do not want let our teammates down. It is your responsibility as the goalie to stop the ball, even if the defense collapses. It could be that you are simply afraid to fail. That’s what makes you an athlete. Nicholls (1984, 1989) states in his Achievement Motivation Theory that an athlete’s major motive is to demonstrate competence. Fear can take over our ability to make stops if that competence is threatened.
Notice that I did not mention that one of the situations in which we experience fear is a last second shot at the end of the game. In that situation, a goalie will experience high level of anxiety, not fear. What’s the difference? I’ll tell you.
Anxiety and fear are closely related negative emotional states associated with physical or psychological harm. These emotions can be differentiated by the relationship between the feeling and the potential threat.
Anxiety is characterized by the anticipation of being harmed in the future, where as fear is characterized as the anticipation of being harmed in the present. For example, a high state of anxiety can occur when we worry about an upcoming test, asking that girl to prom, how well you will do in tryouts, etc. In these situations, the feeling of anxiousness is vague and is not presently dangerous.
Fear, on the other hand, is a reaction to immediate danger. This distinction is important to recognize because fear can have highly debilitating effects when trying to make a stop. Let me explain.
In the scenario discussed earlier, the goalie is anticipating a fast, hard shot from someone who is wide open from close range. A part of the brain, called the Limbic System and particularly the Amygdala, springs into action. This part of the brain is the emotional center and is responsible for protecting the body from harm. (For instance, it is the mechanism that causes you to flinch if a door slams behind you or causes you to recoil if someone were to point a gun at you. Let's hope that never happens, but you get my point...)
Once the limbic system is activated, it sets off a chain of events that will inhibit you from performing easily and fluidly, thus making you unable to make the stop. First, the body fills with chemicals called Norepinephrine and Adrenaline. With this rush of chemicals, the heart rate increases and the muscles tighten.
As the muscles tighten, you may find yourself “shrinking” in the cage. Have you ever dropped to your knees to make a save before they even shot the ball? That “collapsing” reaction is the brain’s way of protecting the body from immediate harm. “Get out of the way!! This is going to hurt!!” your brain says. The same is true for closing your eyes, ducking your head, or tucking in your elbows in to your sides.
So now what? First of all, it is paramount that you become aware of these thoughts or reactions because without the acknowledgement of our thoughts, we cannot change them. Once acknowledged, there are two ways to address this.
First, become aware of your tendencies when someone is winding up. Do you become tight? Do you lower you hands? Is it difficult to move your feet quickly because you are in a squat position? Can you move your hands as quickly as you would like? Do your eyes flinch? Do you tuck you chin down and lower your head?
Once you’ve established these debilitating tendencies, you have to counteract the part of the brain that is trying to protect you. Keep your hands loose. Drop you shoulders (but not your hands). Exaggerate your step and force yourself to move towards the ball. Keep your eyes wide open.
Remember, we know that physiologically our body wants to remain in one spot and “shrink” to protect itself. Knowing that is the case, you must force yourself to move forward and stay loose.
Second, you want to deemphasize the effects of fear by focusing on the release and not the ensuing danger. You can train your mind to become so focused on the release point of the shot that the limbic system never gets activated in the first place and you remain comfortable and ready to move. It is a technique called “Lock In, Lock Out.” By locking in to the appropriate stimulus (the release point of the impending shot), we lock out the potential pain.
You can change your mindset when facing shots, and if you do, fear will start to disappear. You can “get angry” at the shooter, raising your intensity level. Choose to go all out and stop the ball. Be in an aggressive mindset BEFORE the shot is even in the air.
Let me give you an example: When I was working with a lacrosse team in Arizona, we put on a clinic for the public at a Phoenix Sports Day to show the members of the community what lacrosse was all about. About twenty high school players displayed what they do in practice from shooting, passing, defending, and so on.
Unfortunately, we did not have a high school goalie there that day, so I jumped in the cage for the demonstration. The players got in line to run towards the goal and take a shot on me, one by one.
The first player ran all the way down to about three yards outside the crease and shot pretty much as hard as they could. I was not prepared for such a hard shot considering this was supposed to be just a demonstration. I got hit square on the thigh.
So, the next player comes down towards me in the goal - same as the first player. What happened? The same thing. Hits me, literally, right in the same spot. Not fun.
Now, the third player in line is ready to go. But I was not going to approach this next shot so passively. I decided that if I was going to get hit, it was going to be on my terms, not theirs.
As they came down towards me, I started to move out towards them. As they shot the ball, I did everything I could to get in front of the ball. It hit me in the shoulder. It may have been a little painful, but I was psyched to feel the pain this time. I MADE that stop, I wasn’t simply hit by the ball. That bruise was a badge of honor.
This comes down to a “Fight or Flight” mode. Either you are going to fight when confronted with fear, or you’re going to flee. Choose to fight! If you fight you will make more saves, play better, and increase your confidence. (The funny thing is that if you fight, you’ll actually get hit less often because you are more focused on the ball.)
I'm busy working on my blog posts. Watch this space!