Are you a backup goalie, or backing-up more than you want?
How to Use Challenges to Your Advantage
I hate the word ‘backup’.
People use derogatory words and don’t realize how hurtful they may be to someone. To me, ‘backup’ is a bad word. And I’m sure it’s a punch in the ear to many other goalies.
Here’s why. The connotation is ‘bad goalie’, ‘not a starter’. Very simply, it means ‘not good enough’.
I don’t mind saying I backed up last night, because that’s an action. But to call someone a backup is a label. I don’t like that.
That said, my first two years at Cornell University, I was ‘backing up’.
Never did I consider myself a backup, but, the truth is, I didn’t start a regular season game for my first two years.
Why not? Two words: Ben Scrivens.
I want to say, first, that Ben Scrivens has been an incredible friend to me.
After he graduated, Ben was the biggest supporter I had, outside my family, and he helped me more than anyone knows. My professional career would not have been the same without Ben Scrivens. He opened doors for me, vouched for me, and even gave me gear. For that, I’m forever grateful.
But, I’m also incredibly grateful for Ben in another way.
Backing up Ben Scrivens was the best thing that ever happened to my goalie career, although, at the time, it seemed and felt like the worst.
Let’s not beat around the bush.
Being a backup sucks.
My ego was absolutely bruised, battered and crushed. That was the hardest part. Your ego is your biggest challenge. Once you can ‘confront the brutal facts’ in any situation, you can effectively deal with it.
I had never gone a year without starting a game and that mental hurdle was the biggest obstacle I had to overcome.
Here’s why it was even harder for me. I chose Cornell because I thought it would give me the best chance to play all four years.
This was based on conversations from the Cornell coaches, other university coaches, and scouts.
This may blow your mind, but Ben Scrivens was not supposed to be the incredible goalie that he is. That’s a great lesson buried in my story. Ben has told me that his goal was to “play a few college games and get a great education.”
That’s coming from the All-American, college record-holder, and current NHL goalie (also with an NHL record for 60-some saves in a shutout).
When I committed to Cornell, Ben had only started a game or two, and no one expected him to achieve the incredible results that he has. So, out of all of my college opportunities, Cornell looked like the most promising.
They say happiness is your reality divided by expectations. Freshman year, my expectations were high and my reality was low, so you can guess how happy I was.
And it affected my play. I was turning negative. I was sour. This isn’t fair, I was thinking. I deserve this, I deserve that.
Here’s the thing, no one owed me anything.
Around Thanksgiving of my freshman year, after a particularly bad practice on the road in North Dakota, my coach pulled me aside and called me out for not playing well.
I was pissed.
“You’re mad at me for not playing well in a pre-game skate when you haven’t even given me a start?!”
It was a wakeup call, and it hurt really badly. I got right off the ice, changed into workout gear, and found a corner of the rink to workout in and cry a little…
Once I got my ego calmed down and cursed the coaches in my mind, I had this profound moment where I thought, Okay this sucks, but what do I want? What’s important here?
I want to be the very best goalie I can be. I’m only a freshman, we’re only 8 games in. I’m getting more and more comfortable, and you know what? I’ve been taking the easy way out. I haven’t been playing well.
Here’s a brutal fact of my play. I was so upset that I tried looking like I didn’t care to spite everyone. That’s like drinking poison and hoping someone else dies.
Who was that hurting? Me.
So that was a rock bottom moment, in the corner of Ralph Engelstad Arena in North Dakota, where I said to myself, Screw all of you. I’ll show you.
And I committed to myself, my game.
I’d like to say I was a hero from there on out, but it was a process. I still got frustrated, I still thought I’d get a start here or there, and I still had days where I was pissed I wasn’t playing.
But, overall, from that moment on, I committed to my game, my improvement and those two years (freshman and sophomore) were the best development years I’ve ever had as a goalie.
Here’s how I used being a backup to my massive advantage.
First, goaltending is a pressure-filled position. College hockey is a 30-40 game season, where every single game matters. If you lose a game you shouldn’t, it may jeopardize your NCAA tournament hopes.
Because there are so few games, the games are intense. Every night feels like a playoff game.
For a goalie to perform well for those 30+ games, you need to be on your A-game. You need to be dialed in. You need to be in top form.
We played Friday and Saturday nights. Sundays were a much needed day-off. And Thursdays, especially in the second half of the season, were pretty easy days in terms of exertion. Meaning you go out to get warm, get your rhythm and feel good.
That means that Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays were work days. But Mondays, especially in the second half, could also be days where you’re getting back in the groove or resting. So, really, that leaves you two days a week to ‘work’.
Goaltending is all about performance, so as a starter, you’re focused on performing well when the lights come on. Your week is geared toward making sure you’re ready to shine on the weekend. So you’re more concerned with maintaining your game and feeling good than developing.
You’re maybe using 3-4 days a week, max, to work and improve. The rest is used to maintain and perform.
There’s nothing wrong with this. Your job is to perform.
Enter my opportunity. I had seven days a week to work. I could literally get 2X the work in as a starter. Anytime, you have double the opportunity, you’re at a huge advantage.
Yes, I just said I gained a huge advantage by being a backup for two years.
But it really wasn’t only 2X; it was more. We had the ice for two hours each day, with an additional hour or two that were optional. Practice was an hour and a half or so, depending on the time of year. The starter goes out for practice and then rests up.
I went out for the optional hour, the practice and the extra ice afterward. That’s 3X that day, 2X a week. I’m no mathematician, but my development opportunities were booming.
Off-ice? I didn’t have to worry about being sore. I lifted extra, I worked out extra. I could focus 100% on getting better, because that was my job.
The time on-ice, by itself, wasn’t enough. You’ve driven your car thousands of hours, but you’re probably a super average driver. Practice does not make perfect. Practice makes permanent.
So I had to learn to put purpose behind my practices.
I learned this through another wakeup call.
After a practice late in the year as a freshman, one of my coaches pulled me aside and told me that I looked ‘bad’ during a game of rebound at the end of practice.
Again, I was pissed. I’ve been out here for 4 hours! I’m doing a drill for the players. Everyone knows those aren’t ‘good goalie drills’.
I was tired, I’d worked hard all day, the drill sucked… You know those excuses?
Here’s the reality. Every single time I stepped on the ice, it was my responsibility to play the right way, my way. The coaches weren’t out there four hours ago, when I started my practice. All they saw was that drill at the end.
In their eyes, how did I do for the day? Bad.
If you’re in the net, play your way, or don’t be in the net.
So now I thought to myself, Okay, since I’ve been given the gift of ‘backing up’, I can practice 6X as much as most goalies, so I will use that practice time with purpose. Every time I’m on the ice, I’m getting better.
This is where I started making massive improvements in my game.
This is where results started compounding on results.
From then on, I never just “went through the motions.” Every single time I was in the net, I practiced with purpose.
Another benefit of backing up Scrivs: I’m on the ice every single day with an NHL-caliber goalie. What does he do so well? Why does he do it?
Learn from him, mimic him, be a theft of great parts of other goalies’ games.
My focus totally changed from maybe I’ll get a start (most of the time…I still had moments of weakness) and refocused on becoming as good as I possibly could be.
I started setting goals every single week. What did I want to improve? I had tons of time to work on them and I had all the resources.
I got on the ice early whenever possible to do purposeful drills. I would grab two or three players and maybe a coach, not to take breakaways or do games for players but to run goalie-specific drills. Ten minutes here, 30 minutes there, day after day, rep after rep. I was improving, greatly.
We also filmed every single practice, much to the players’ annoyance, but I loved it. Every day after ice, I would go watch my practice. What did I do well? What did I need to improve?
I would do that Monday through Thursday, and then on Friday, during pre-game skate, the guys who weren’t playing would stay out and do more work.
Once I vowed to never do a drill that wouldn’t help my game again, I started making huge improvements, because every rep had purpose.
Back at the rink that night for the game, I worked out. I joke you not, I would do legitimate workouts while guys were getting ready for the game. I’d be sweating before I got changed for the game.
Forty games a year, that’s 40 extra workouts. That translates to massive gains in your agility, strength and conditioning.
I don’t think the coaches ever knew, and I’m not sure they’d care. Most of the guys knew, and they thought I was crazy and got a good laugh out of it.
I made sure I stayed out of Scrivs way. I didn’t want to be a distraction at all, but I wanted to use my time productively.
Same thing on Saturday; extra on-ice practice and extra workout.
Sundays, I watched film, sometimes from Scrivs. What did he do well? What’s something I could implement into my game? What did the other team’s goalie do well?
I used Sundays to rejuvenate, evaluate my progress, and plan the next week.
Then it was Monday again and the start of another week of development.
I read a bunch of sport psychology books; I became a student of the game. My mental capacity was totally focused on improving.
I did that for my full sophomore year, and it is probably the most I’ve ever improved in a single season.
This may seem absurd to you. I can see how you might think I was crazy, but the results were no joke.
A player ran into Scrivs pretty hard one practice near playoffs sophomore year. Fortunately, he was fine, but the coach pulled me aside and said, “I just want you to know that I wouldn’t be worried at all if Scrivs couldn’t play. You look just as good as him.”
Wow, what a compliment. I looked as good as an NHL-caliber goalie?
I may have been backing up Scrivs, but I refused to act or behave like a backup. I wanted to be treated like a starter.
As my sophomore year went on, I began acting like a starter in every way possible; I wanted my teammates to see me that way. Scrivs was graduating at the end of the year, and I wanted them to be 100% confident in me, so I worked all year to position myself as a starter.
I’m not sure you could ever quantify it, but I probably got two to three years of great development that year. I improved greatly, and I could feel it.
More than anything, I was proud. Sure, people who didn’t know better called me a backup and my ego was bruised when people would ask if I was the ‘starter’, but I was quietly working away, day in and day out, and I was proud of that.
I could feel the progress, and I knew how good I was becoming.
Scrivs was the best goalie in all of college hockey, so if I was as good as him, or even close, I was very confident I would do well given an opportunity to play.
In the playoffs that year, Scrivs had three or four shutouts in a row – he was unreal. At the ECAC Final Four, I overheard our coaches and a couple teammates saying we probably have the two best goalies in the whole ECAC.
Those little comments were huge. They kept my flame burning. Keep in mind, three goalies in that tournament signed NHL deals, not including Scrivs.
None of that would have been possible if I wasn’t backing up Ben Scrivens.
Although the next season came with it’s own challenges, I did play and, at the end of the year, I was fortunate to have the second best save percentage in all of college hockey.
If I would have been a starter from day one at Cornell, there is no way I would have ever been good enough to perform the way I did that year.
I had to have that step backward to achieve the success that I did. I had to have all those major challenges, obstacles, and ego shots to become the goalie who could achieve what I did.
None of this is meant to be bragging. This is meant to encourage you to use your challenges as opportunities.
Being a backup was the best thing that ever happened in my career, although it hurt like hell at the time.
If you’re not starting every game, make sure you’re using being a backup to your advantage!
Don’t forget the 5 Key Habits of a Great Goalie.
If you have questions, you can write me directly at Coach@GoaliebyGarman.com
Comments or questions? Just reply below and I’ll help you anyway I can!
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