Olympian insight on helping kids navigate the maze to improvement
By Greg Bach
Two-time U.S. Olympic hockey goaltender Brianne McLaughlin stopped a lot of shots throughout her spectacular career.
But it was those pucks that got past her that triggered her journey to becoming a great goalie.
“You’re not going to learn anything by just saving pucks all the time,” says McLaughlin, who won a pair of silver medals competing for Team USA at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver and the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia. “You’re never going to know what your weaknesses are by being successful all the time.”
McLaughlin, like most elite athletes, found lessons in losses and developed more through encountering disappointment and working hard to smooth out those rough spots in her game.
“There’s a reason that all the top athletes say that they learn more from failure,” she says. “It’s very rarely that you see a kid who was an All-Star their entire life make it to the top. You have to have that desire to be the best and jump over those hurdles when you’re in your down time; and you have to be able to get yourself out of a slump.”
McLaughlin owns and operates a goalie training facility near Pittsburgh, where she shares her years of knowledge and experience from both the tactical and, equally important, mental side of goaltending.
She has a lot of experience to draw from, too. Besides competing at the international level she also led the Buffalo Beauts to the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) championship before retiring.
“The thing that I tell younger goalies is that you have to have a short-term memory and a sense of humor because there are going to be bad days,” she says. “And the more you get frustrated and upset the worse the game starts to go.”
She admits it was a tough lesson for her to learn early on, too.
“I wasn’t the best at it growing up,” she says. “If more than two would go in I would get mad and I didn’t enjoy the rest of my day. I would beat myself up over it.”
A conversation with her college coach changed her mindset, and her performance and mental approach flourished. Hockey was a new sport at Robert Morris, so the learning curve was steep, and it wasn’t uncommon for McLaughlin to face heavy workloads of 50 shots in a game.
“I was letting in like seven goals a game and I had to quickly figure out how to let those go,” she says. “My coach sat me down and said ‘you need to know when these are your fault and when they’re not. A lot of these there is nothing you can do.’”
One of the trickiest parts of coaching is changing the way a young athlete has been performing a fundamental skill incorrectly. After all, kids like change about as much as homework, and there is typically a lot of failure and frustration that accompanies the process of reprogramming the mind and body to perform a skill a new way.
“Where I think kids struggle is anytime you’re going to change a habit they have or whatever it may be they’re going to get worse before they get better so that’s a little bit hard for them to understand,” McLaughlin says. “They think it isn’t working because they could perform better before.”
But when trust is established between coach and player then the doors to skill development are opened wide.
“They have to trust you and know that you have their best interests and that you know what you’re talking about,” says McLaughlin, who set an NCAA record with 3,809 career saves while tending the net at Robert Morris. “Once they know that and they get through one little thing that changes their game and they’re better then it’s more fun for them and they’ll be more willing to try something new.”
And McLaughlin points out that it’s important to recognize their effort and even the most minimal of improvements along the way.
“Some kids may not be doing it 100 percent correctly but maybe they did one part of it better and that’s when you tell them ‘that’s awesome,’’’ she says. “The more confident they get the harder they will work. You also have to remind them where they were when they started so they remember ‘oh yeah, I used to not be able to do that.’”
Of course, the element of fun can’t be overshadowed either.
“I think there’s a lot of stuff with youth sports now that’s beginning to be a job at too early of an age,” McLaughlin says. “When you’re 10, 11 and 12 that’s the time to learn the passion for the sport and why you love it and there’s plenty of time in the future for it to become more of a job.”
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