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Quiet eye is key for hockey goalies

Well, duh. Researches in Canada have found that the most successful hockey goalies are those who can keep their eyes on the puck. Seems simple. Just watch the puck, right? What could go wrong? "We found they don't," said Joan Vickers, professor a...

Eidsness
UND goalie Brad Eidsness clears the puck away during a game against Alaska-Anchorage recently. Herald photo by Eric Hylden.

Well, duh.

Researches in Canada have found that the most successful hockey goalies are those who can keep their eyes on the puck.

Seems simple. Just watch the puck, right? What could go wrong?

"We found they don't," said Joan Vickers, professor at the University of Calgary's Faculty of Kinesiology. "That was probably the thing that was most surprising. What we've found now in three studies with league goaltenders is if a goaltender hasn't read the movements of the stick and the puck on the stick as the puck is being released ... that's really too late to make the save."

In an article in the journal Human Movement Science, Vickers and Derek Panchuk found that goaltenders who focus on the puck and the shooter's stick stop more shots.

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Vickers also discovered what is known as the Quiet Eye Phenomenon.

This is when the goalie's eyes receive and the brain processes the last bit of visual information before making a save. Quiet Eye also translates to other sports such as basketball (shooting at the hoop) and tennis (returning a serve).

Vickers said she has used eye trackers on athletes, who are outfitted with a corneal reflection eye tracker which has two small miniature cameras that take videos of the athlete's eye and the scene wherever he/she looks. On each frame of video is a cursor point that shows exactly what the athlete is looking at with an accuracy of one degree of angle (that is a third of your thumb held out at arms width).

In order to determine the movements of the athlete, the eye tracker is synched with external motor cameras that couple the athletes gaze and their actions at the same time. It's called perception-action coupling.

Every gaze is analyzed but only one, the Quiet Eye, has emerged a predictor of elite athlete performance. Their QE occurs earlier and is of longer duration prior to the final action. This allows the athlete more time to get ready for the save; there is a greater probability they see the deceptive moves of shooters.

If it's coming off the stick, Vickers said, there's a much better chance of making the save than if the goaltender is trying to see the puck in flight.

"Being able to read the movements of the shot before the release of the puck becomes the most important part of that particular skill," she said.

It's a big reason why teams crash the net and have players move in front of the goaltender.

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An interesting side note is that some goalies who excel during games have been shown to struggle on penalty shots during a shootout.

"I would love a chance to take a look at a top-notch goaltender, especially one that has this problem between regular play and the shootout," Vickers noted.

So what can a goaltender do to improve his skill?

Vickers suggests using a live practice partner. Goalies who use a machine to shoot pucks -- or tennis players who rely on a machine that shoots balls for practice sessions -- are not helping themselves.

"Our research says that's really going to backfire on you badly," Vickers said. "If you think about it in tennis in particular, these machines have been used exclusively at these tennis academies going back 10 or 15 years and North America is not producing very many tennis players right now. I think we're making a mistake with how we're training people when they're young."

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