Those who follow sports are familiar with a commonly used term "The Goalie Mentality." For those not familiar with sports metaphors, let me explain.
I heard a story a few years ago and it described some of the eccentric behaviour that seems to be common among goaltenders. The story describes a goalie who used to build a mental wall in front of his net. Just before the opening faceoff, he would skate to the blue line and slowly skate back to his crease. The whole way back he would mentally build a wall brick by brick. All the time telling himself it was his job to keep the wall intact. Some nights it worked….some nights the wall came down, but it was a consistent method for him to start every game. There were occasions, where a defenceman would greet the goalie in the midst of his pre-game ritual, to have a chat, only to be met with silence. Of note…don’t mess with a goalie, they are a bit nuts.
I share this story because it has had some relevance to us lately.
As with most kids, our kids spend way too much time in front of screens. As the snow was slowly melting, earlier this year, we could sense spring on the horizon. Susan and I asked Russell if he would like to sign up for a spring sport. We made a couple of suggestions and when we suggested soccer, he did seem to perk up a bit and he seemed genuinely interested.
With a lot of skepticism and a touch of fear we signed Russell up to play soccer. We knew this would be a huge challenge for him. Russell hasn’t played soccer in 4 years, and that experience would hardly be called organized soccer. We knew he would be playing against boys who likely played every year and likely played indoor soccer in the winter time. Our other much greater fear would be how Russell would handle the whole situation as a boy who has had many challenges in his life, and where sports in school has been an unmitigated disaster. Russell has had many significant developmental challenges and at some point I hope to talk about them in more detail, but that is a decision for Russell to share and not me.
When I try to describe Russell and the challenges he has, many terms get thrown around. ADHD/ADD - Global Developmental Delay - and some have described him with some characteristics of Autism but then quickly correct themselves and say “but he doesn’t have autism.” For parents this has been a mess to try to figure out and honestly none of these labels seem to fit.
About 2 ½ years ago it was suggested to us that Russell see a therapist who specializes in treating children who have anxiety related to medical trauma. As we learned more, this concept seemed to describe Russell in much more accurate terms. I can’t say how appreciative we are to have finally found something that works for Russell. So far this therapy has been paying huge dividends, but we still have a lot to learn and this is a long term process. Ironically, one of the therapeutic methods that she uses involves playing soccer.
After hearing about our plan to put Russell in soccer, his therapist was very excited. She also cautioned us to just let Russell be Russell. Don't warn his coaches about some of the challenges Russell has, let Russell figure this out on his own. Her concern was that if we made a big deal out of this that the coaches would just treat Russell the way he is treated in school. That he is different - and that he isn't capable. Don't let Russell get labelled. Don't let anyone put an asterisk beside his name.
As we were introduced to Russell’s soccer coach and the rest of the team, Russell shared something with us that struck fear into us. In trying to encourage him we talked about scoring goals, playing defence, and being a good teammate. Russell has very strong opinions and when he shared with us that he wanted to play goal we knew this was something he had his heart set on.
That may not be a big deal to most parents but for us, we were stricken by fear. Of all the positions to play, being a goalkeeper would put him on an island, by himself, and with no one to back him up. When the other team would score - they would score on “him.” A ten year old boy with significant anxiety issues. Suppressing our own fear, we kept quiet and hoped that the coach would take care of this. Surely, he wouldn’t put Russell in goal given that Russell was very inexperienced and was just learning some of the rules. We were not even sure how much Russell would even participate. Our goal was to have him be part of a team and be included. We were trying to keep our expectations in check. Just get out of the house, have some fun, and get some exercise. That was our only goal.
The first game came and we could tell Russell was quite unsure on the field. He played defence which was a very safe spot for him. He did OK. He had a couple of good moments and it seemed like everything was positive. Russell’s team won the game easily, I think the score was 9-1. Russell had a positive first experience but we know he was asking his coach to play goal. We could also see that the team had several very talented goalkeepers. I didn’t see a chance where Russell would be playing goal anytime soon. We hoped Russell wouldn't be disappointed.
Game 2 came and things were going much as they had in the first game. This game was much closer and as I recall we were down a couple of goals at the half. It was actually a competitive and entertaining game to watch. Then the unexpected happened. As the team was gathered around their coach I saw Russell rummaging through the equipment bag. The gloves were going on. Then the bright yellow jersey. I elbowed Susan and drew her attention to what was going on. All I could say was, “They’re putting him in…they’re putting him in goal!”
Both Susan and I had our hearts in our throat, which would seem like a massive over-reaction, if you didn’t know Russell and what he had been through. Not just his medical history but his experiences in school where he has many times been labeled as one of “those” kids. The kid who wasn’t given a part in the Christmas concert because he was too disruptive and that was given other tasks to do while other kids would do the regular curriculum. It was also reminiscent of many of our experiences where Susan and I could not protect him from. We couldn’t take his place when he was jabbed with a needle or when he was subjected to countless medical procedures. All we could do was stand on the sidelines, try to encourage him, and watch and wonder if this kid would ever get a break.
Once again he was alone in a goal that seemed to swallow up this little boy. Yes, by itself it was just one small experience but for Susan and I it held a lot of symbolic and emotional significance.
The half began and play continued. Our team started playing much better in the second half. They scored a goal and before long the game was tied up. Then play moved toward our goal where are son guarded the net. He seemed completely focused on what was going on. The boy who had a difficult time focusing was nowhere in sight. The first shot on goal was a slow roller and Russell flopped onto the ball. Not being completely familiar with all of the rules of soccer, Russell required a little coaching in taking a goal kick, but he figured it out. Russell’s team played very well in front of him, perhaps knowing they had a “shaky” goalkeeper they knew they had to play well defensively.
|Photo Courtesy of Rex Sokolies|
For the entire half Russell’s white knuckled parents did not relax. As time passed Russell seemed to gain more confidence. He made a couple of stops and many of the parents cheered which felt awfully good. Before we knew it,the referee was blowing the whistle. The game was over and Russell shut the other team out. Our team chalked up their second win. For Susan and I, we survived a very stressful half. Despite his parents being completely stressed, Russell walked of the field showing no emotion. From his reaction I wondered if he didn’t have “goalie mentality.”
Since that early game, Russell has played goal on several more occasions. Has he been scored on? Yes. A couple of games were fairly rough, as they have faced some very good teams, but Russell’s reaction to being scored on has been consistent. He pulls the ball out of the net and fires the ball at the referee with no reaction. He just plays on. One of the key skills of any goalie is having a very short memory. So, you let in a goal…maybe it was a soft goal…it doesn’t matter …you have to focus on the next shot - the next play. You need to move forward and leave the past in the past…besides …what do you have to worry about, there is a wall there right?