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December 20, 2019

Carter Hart, other NHL goalies use intense training to develop 'goalie vision'

One of the most unnatural acts in all of the sports is to stop a hockey puck. It’s a six-ounce black piece of rubber that has the standard dimensions of one-inch thick by three-inches wide.

The average speed of an NHL slapshot is about 85-to-93 mph.

And you wonder why goalies are considered a little “off” in general.

In the 2018-19 NHL season, there was an average of 2,579 shots taken per team, which averaged out to 31.4 shots a game.

That’s a lot coming at a goalie each game.

And, it’s a lot to see.

With modern technology improving equipment, physical conditioning and mental framework, it’s also taken a step into the most important asset a goalie needs—eyes.

Some of the old-timers eschew the thought of eye conditioning, while the more modern goalies, like the Flyers’ own Carter Hart, and Washington Capitals’ star Braden Holtby, swear by it.

There is an incoming faction of goalies and teams that are looking more intently at how a goalie looks at the puck.

In the hockey world, it’s called vision training, but Edmonton-based performance psychologist John Stevenson, who works with Hart and Holtby, doesn’t really like the term. Stevenson calls it cognitive perceptual training, because he feels it’s not just the eyes that are being exercised to pick up the puck and the play, but it’s the brain, too.

“We’re training the brain and training the eyes to process more, process faster and see things clearer,” said Stevenson, who was Hart’s first goalie coach. “Just like you’re going to a fitness trainer, there are a ton of things that you can do to work on this. To me, this is where some of the older goalies are struggling, because it’s an area they ignore.”

Stevenson calls it the performance wheel, with the spokes being physical skill requirements, technical skills, tactical skills, mental skills, with the hub being nutrition, hydration, rest and lifestyle. In the tactical area, that’s about seeing, reading and reacting. The ability to see, decide, and act is critical at the NHL level.

The ability to scan, plan, and do determines a goalie's positioning, his ability to track pucks and control their rebounds effectively. Stevenson stresses that goaltending is about situations, and the best goalies in the world can read the conditions. Stevenson calls it multiple-object processing.

The only problem with cognitive-perceptual training is if it’s not practiced regularly—it’s lost.

The eyes are muscles like the biceps, triceps, and thigh. Atrophy sets in without continuous repetition.

Fifteen years ago, when Stevenson began cognitive-perceptual training, there was the CogniSens’ NeuroTracker, the Dynavision D2 board. Goalies will now wear Senaptec Strobe glasses, and companies like Senaptec and Vizual Edge are making more inroads towards the mainstream. 

There are the myriad of ball drills, and then the biggest drill of mental rehearsals, watching game film and seeing yourself making effective responses will develop a goalie's hockey IQ - their ability to anticipate and make great decisions on the ice.

The biggest mistake that goalies make with regard to eye-hand coordination ball drills is that they don't make the drills progressively harder each time and they don't cover the four core exercises that simulate a game situation, namely: 1) narrow focus-tracking; 2) broad focus-peripheral; 3) be unpredictable-ie. the goalie does not know when or where the ball is coming from and 4) they must incorporate and develop a decision-making component to them.

“I remember an article in Philadelphia written at the end of last year, where Bernie Parent says that Carter has this God-given ability to see the game, and no disrespected meant to the great Mr. Parent, but that couldn’t be further from the truth,” Stevenson said. “Carter works all of the time on seeing the game and his eyes. Twenty-five years ago, I remember I was perceived as an absolute lunatic because I introduced power skating to goalies. Fifteen years ago, I introduced Yoga to our goalie school, and about 12 years later, I brought in the CogniSens’ NeuroTracker, in a 3D perceptual cave.

“Like I told some media why guys don’t talk about it, they want to keep it as a secret. Two, on the total flip side, if you’re going to see someone who can help improve your vision, it’s perceived as a weakness. That’s so f------ stupid, because if a guy can process, see, read and react, who doesn’t benefit from that? If that can get someone another year or two on their contract, and make someone among the upper echelon of the league, and that $8 or $9 million a year, I don’t get why these guys don’t do it.

“They perceive it as a stigma.”

Hart has a good idea of why.

“Back in the 1970s and ’80s, a lot of off-ice training was a beer and a smoke,” Hart said, laughing. “The league isn’t like that anymore, but you still have old-school guys and old-school coaches that think and do things the old-school way. I personally think a lot of goalies, especially younger ones, are moving in this direction of visual training.”

Then Hart, 21, relayed a story he heard about Hall of Fame goalie Gump Worsley from his former Everett juniors coach, Kevin Constantine. Constantine was at his first NHL camp riding a stationary bike when Worsley walked into the training room and told “KC” he never saw a stationary bike “stop a puck in my life. Come on, have a beer.”

Brian Elliott, the Flyers’ 34-year-old back-up goalie and 13-year NHL veteran, laughed, and blurted out, “Eat some carrots,” when asked what he does to improve his vision.

But seriously, Elliott says he does the various ball drills, and juggling before games. Elliott said a great deal of training today was handed down from what former great Russian goalie Vladislav Tretiak used to do with tennis ball drills and hand-eye coordination.

“When it all comes down to it, you’re tracking the puck in and out of your body,” Elliott said. “That’s all that matters. We’re definitely working on things. As a team, we just got the computer system set up, so you try to do whatever helps. If it doesn’t help, you get to a little video game.

“You are always working on your focus, but everyone does it in different ways. For me, I juggle, or throwing the ball off the wall, everyone does their things to keep their eyes sharp and ready for game time. I don’t think there is anyone way to do it. I’m sure in baseball, hitters do certain things to pick up balls coming at them at high speeds, too.”

Elliott said that while there is merit in eye conditioning, it’s not something he’s into.

“If I were a kid coming up today, I would try to play as many sports as possible, because that will improve your vision to see things from different angles and using your eye sight in different ways,” Elliott said. “You can say I’m a little old school, but having a mix, especially when you’re a kid, getting out and playing different sports is a great way to improve your vision, and you get to enjoy yourself playing a sport as well.”

Holtby makes time for vision training. He says his one regret is not starting sooner.

“I do little things on game day to prepare my eyes,” said Holtby, 30, the 2016 Vezina Trophy winner and 2018 Stanley Cup champion. “It’s something I wish I had more time and resources to do it more. I wish I started it a little earlier in my career. But there are that you do on your own, and the eyes are muscles that have to be trained. 

As a goaltender, that’s a huge part of your game. I think a lot more goalies are doing it today, it’s another tool to improve your game. Vision training is being taken more seriously, and I’m fortunate because I have one of the best teachers in John (Stevenson).

“A lot of people I’m sure still see it as a gimmick. But the same was thought about sports psychology in some circles when that began. Strengthening your eyes is another tool in your toolbox. That’s the way I see it. It does take time. It does take effort, like any muscle conditioning you do. It’s not like you do it once and you’re good to go. You have to constantly do it, take your time and work with it. I think it’s coming around. I think more young goalies are doing it.”

Hart started vision training very young when he was around 13. This year, Hart moved to Vizual Edge. The company’s websites state, “As a result of intensive scientific research, three decades of progressive development, and thousands of case studies, the Edge Trainer is the leading solution for evaluating, training and perfecting the core six visual skills.”

The core six skills are convergence, divergence, depth perception, alignment, recognition and tracking.

Hart liked the program on his iPad and he goes through the various drills three times a week for about 15-20 minutes a day.

“I think a lot of goalies are moving into this direction,” said Hart, who’s proving he’s every bit as good as advertised so far in his second season with the Flyers. “There are other programs out there, and I’m always interested in new things, and new technology coming out that’s pretty cool.”

Hart wears 3D glasses looking at his iPad, and one program features squares. The squares come closer and they’re red and blue in color. They overlap and move. It’s challenging, Hart said, to find the right square. Other programs include arrows, and they measure eye speed, but it’s up to the eyes to identify the right ones to hit. Colorado Avalanche goalie Philipp Grubauer and the Dallas Stars’ Ben Bishop use that program.

“It gets harder and harder every time,” Hart said. “This is probably considered space age stuff to the older guys.”

Stevenson says the ideal vision for a goaltender is like a flashlight. It’s focused on a central spot, but it is peripheral awareness that needs to be just as acute. When the flashlight is broad, subtle differences like blade angles and who are coming down on the wings are noticed. When the flashlight narrows, that’s when the depth perception tightens on the oncoming puck that’s going 85-to-93 mph.

Created in 2002, the Vizual Edge Performance Trainer was the first visual training software of its kind, allowing athletes to sit and train their eyes on their own time without a professional leaning over them. 

Visual training, or cognitive perception training, is being used by the NFL, Major League Baseball and college softball and football teams and the Premier League in soccer.

But it seems like it’s entering the NHL in drips. Though, Stevenson said there are more hockey teams going in this direction.

There is still some resistance, says Stevenson, who was the former goalie coach of the Ottawa Senators and Edmonton Oilers.

“When I was there with the Senators, there were guys that didn’t want to do it,” Stevenson recalled. “There’s that misconception about it. The Capitals have it and don’t use it. Braden does it on his own. Personally, I think more young goalies like Carter are doing it, and here’s the deal: If you’re not doing this, you won’t compete with the guys that are doing it year after year.

“It’s like anything. Some guys just have it without any training. I think what will convince more people to use it is the science. That will change it, I really feel that way. They’re constantly growing it. A lot of people think that vision is a set thing. No, it’s not. You can actually strengthen the muscles. You can strengthen the eyes. You can make the brain process faster. They’re constantly growing it. 

The advent of virtual reality training similar to what the military, NASA and the special ops do has already arrived in sports training and it's only to get better as the technology progresses. The goofy thing is, they’re using this training in the NFL, they’re using it in Major League Baseball, why such reluctance in the NHL, I don’t know?”

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