Wednesday, June 5, 2019

The "Goalie" Mentality

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…do not 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 wintertime. Our 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 sees a therapist who specializes in treating children who have anxiety related to medical trauma.  We had always hypothesized that Russell's medical horrors as an infant might be affecting him later in life, and as we learned that might indeed be the case. I can’t say how appreciative we are to finally find 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. We would have considered it a huge success if we were to make it through without a meltdown.

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 was a little disengaged but had a couple of good moments. For the most part, it 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 in 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 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. 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. 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. How many times we had prayed that this kid would just get one break.

Once again he was alone in a goal that seemed to swallow up this little boy. Russell is thin and small for his age and it seemed overwhelming. Would this just be one more in a long list of disastrous experiences for him? 

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. The boy who had been aloof and seemingly disengaged had disappeared - he was laser focussed on the ball and protecting his net. The first shot on goal was a slow roller and Russell flopped onto the ball. Not being completely familiar with all of the rules, 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 me, 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 a “goalie mentality.”

Since that early game, Russell has played in goal on several 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?

UPDATE: I wanted to follow up on how the rest of the season went. Russell continued to improve and play goal. He was so into playing in goal he began showing little interest in playing the field.  Something for us to work on. However, he began showing a lot of confidence in goal and some of the other boys were openly suggesting to the coach keep him in goal as that freed up some of the other skilled players to play in the field. Near the end of the season, the boys had a game in Transcona, where Russell once again played in net. The boy stood on his head as his team was severely outplayed and he kept them in the game making several spectacular saves.

After the game, one of his coaches commented on what an outstanding job he had done and patted him on the back telling him he was the player of the game. a Dad I was very proud.

At the end of the season, we have an annual tournament to wrap up the season.  Typically, the boys take turns playing goal.  One boy would play the first half and then another boy would play the second half. We played 3 games in the tournament and Russell played goal every minute in goal. Both halves of all 3 games. He did great!

I wrote done some of these memories because successes like this have been few and far between. It's so important to celebrate the successes. I don't even know if Russell will play soccer again, but for two months we played 2 games a week - went to practices and we had a lot of fun.  I'll never forget it and how amazing our boy is.

The entire season I never once told anyone on the team - coaches or parents - that Russell has a heart transplant. It was so nice not to have to explain that.

1 comment:

  1. That makes so much sense. Giving back your kid normality, with all of that history, it's hard to do. It is wonderful that you both white knuckled your way through it, and your little guy is making his way forward!