As I’m sure you’re aware, I’m very keen on looking at the dynamic between hockey goaltenders and equestrians. My theory is that the way these sports are played require similar cognitive processing from the athletes. When riding a horse over a show jumping course, the rider needs to be thinking 30 seconds ahead and consider so much. Some of these could be:
- Is my horse paying attention?
- Is our pace good enough?
- Am I going to fast/slow?
- Is my horse hesitating or being over-confidant?
In processing so many different factors, a rider needs to be thinking constantly and needs to react for things before they happen. For instance, if in 5 seconds I need my horse to jump, I need to co-ordinate my timing. By the time I figure out the appropriate command, give it to my horse, my horse understands what has happened and makes the adjustment, 4-5 seconds could have easily passed. This is why riders always need to be several steps ahead of the game.
I believe that ice hockey goalies have to think the same way when they’re at work. With hockey being such a fast-paced sport, I believe a goalie would have to predict a shot is going to be made before it actually heads their way. When you consider that a hockey puck can travel upwards of 80 kph in a top level hockey game, I believe that goalies have learned to anticipate these shots before they are actually made. In doing so, they need to be constantly assessing the game that is being played out in front of them. Basically, my theory is that riders and goalies need to use the same perceptual processes to make decisions quickly and effectively. Since there is more established research and possibly more demand for examining the goaltender’s position, I believe any research used with hockey could be directly applied to equestrians, especially show jumpers. If you watch the video I’ve embedded blow, it illustrates my point perfectly.
Tuukka Rask is a personal favourite of mine, but the way he shifts his body and is in position before the puck comes flying at him makes it clear that he could accurately predict how the play would turn out. It is without a doubt he has one of the quickest gloves in the NHL today. I believe that there is some kind of cognitive process that allows athletes to be thinking ahead and accurately predict what their opponents will do.
Under ideal circumstances, I would like to look at the goaltenders that have backgrounds playing in Finland. This is not only the goalies of Finnish nationality, but those from elsewhere that have played in the Finnish hockey league (SM-Liiga). In addition to to the Boston Bruins’ Rask, some examples include, Miikka Kiprusoff (Calgary Flames), Kari Lehtonen (Dallas Stars), Antti Niemi (San Jose Sharks) and show-stopping Tim Thomas (Bruins).
As it stands, the Finns have become a major force in the world of goaltending. Since the turn of the millennium, we have seen a dramatic increase in the number of Finnish net-minders. If you look at the graph below, you can see how the proportion of Finns in the goalie position has increased to close to 10% of the NHL. This becomes more impressive when you consider that virtually all active Finnish goaltenders have a Save Percentage of over 90%.
I believe that a lot of the recent Finnish success has to do with the good coaching and athlete development programs in place. It is generally accepted that the Finnish people have a very unique culture – though they are geographically part of Sacandinavia, they speak a language that is closely related to Hungarian. Politically, they have instituted a highly sophisticated social welfare model where the government provides for virtually everything (university tuition for instance), but there is still a high level of respect and appreciation for individual rights. Some of these values and traits could account for the Finns’ fine tradition of athletic excellence, however the recent surge of goaltenders we are seeing in the NHL could be more readily explained by coaching and athlete development than inherent “Finnishness.” That being said, a major part of Finnish culture is a mutual respect amongst individuals, regardless of status. If this mutual respect finds its way to the coaching programs, it could account for some of the success discussed. I would love to examine the coaching system and isolate what elements are particularly successful and potentially apply them to other sports, but especially equestrian disciples given the mutual thought processes that athletes are expected to master.
My own experience tells me that there is this conception in North America that children cannot be taught position specific tactics at a young age. I believe this is dead wrong. A bright child is a bright child, no matter how young he or she is. As a coach, you might have to break down your instructions into a format they can understand. It is my belief that the Finns are demonstrating this. One young goaltender I spoke to said he first strapped on a pair of pads when he was five-and-a-half. I’ve already outlined many successful Finns currently between the pipes in the NHL, and it is my belief that practicing and developing this skill through most of their lives has been a factor in getting them to be the athletes they are. I also think this lifetime of play in the goaltending position helps them gain greater experience in predicting how a play will pan out, enabling them to make amazing saves, much like the one in the video of Rask. This is another area in which goaltenders and equestrians overlap – many equestrians were riding ponies as very young children and continued to grow and develop through their lives.
While this research project is focused primarily on Finnish goalies, I intend to create the link to equestrian development at a later date. My plan is to first prove the effectiveness of the Finnish system, and then look at how the model can be applied to equestrian sports. Once again, I must thank you for taking the time to read my research interests and for your continued assessment of my application.