What Playing Goalie Taught Me About Embracing Change

If anything can be said about this moment, for many of us, it means changes in how we conduct our lives. For many in research who are used to conducting qualitative research in traditional ways like in-person interviews or focus groups, the need for social distancing is forcing change in a big way.

My journey into new, online qualitative research began over a couple decades ago. And it was admittedly a real challenge to come out of my comfort zone and adjust to new ways. Initially, I would at times struggle with the transition from traditional moderating to online moderating. My discomfort wasn’t methodological, it was psychological--it was the difference between accepting change versus embracing change. Once I learned to embrace change, the ability to apply my research skills to new methods improved ten-fold.

A key to that transition for me was what I learned when I was asked to play goalie on a roller hockey team and the counterintuitive approach to breakaways I learned, and how that helped me embrace change in other parts of my life.

I grew up in Northern California and my experience with hockey was one day making hockey sticks out of scrap wood, using a Duncan yo-yo as a puck, putting my little brother in goal, and the game ending after the first shot on goal sliced open his eyebrow and we had to accompany him and my mom to the ER for stitches. (True story. His eyebrow still sports the scar all these decades later.)

When I moved to Colorado in the mid-90s, our move coincided with the arrival of the new NHL franchise, the Colorado Avalanche. I went to a game that year with my three boys and discovered the sport I had been missing all my life. As did the boys.

Several years later, after I had been involved in watching and eventually coaching these boys, and my daughter, in roller hockey, I was invited to play on a roller hockey team in an adult league. I had been playing pickup games quite a bit by then--on the basketball courts near our home and with my boys, now teens. This invitation was my chance to play in an adult league in Monument, Colorado, on the same team as my 16 year old son and his friends.

I enjoyed hockey, but I wouldn’t say I was necessarily good. In fact, like with most athletic endeavors, I was a better benchwarmer than player.

One or two games into the season, I was asked to play goalie. The guy who organized the team reasoned with me that:

  • Goalies don’t have to be in great shape (I wasn’t at the time),

  • The players out skating were so good, I wouldn’t have to defend the goal much, and

  • The goalie is exempt from the team fee--it’s a hockey tradition.

In my first game, I let in more goals than I blocked. I was so bad that I think everyone was rethinking the idea, including myself. In some ways, it reflected my first online qual bit of moderating--I did everything wrong. (Except in the research world, despite all the mistakes, it turned out really well, a story for another time.)

So I got serious and practiced every night with my kids taking shots on me. I listened to my kids, because they knew more about playing goalie than I did. Talk about a humbling experience. But I have learned that it is through humbling experiences that we often learn the most.

In the second game I played much better. And, in fact, I ended up as the second best goalie in the league by the time the season ended. (Admittedly, the bar is not super high there.)

In the process, I learned some things. First off, all the reasons to play goalie that my friend had given me: All lies. For example, that I didn’t need to be in good shape. Did you know that an NHL goalie will lose an average of 25 pounds in a game? A goalie never rests--even when the puck is at the other end of the rink. By the end of the season, I was in the best shape I have been in for years. And, yes, the team fee is waived for the goalie. But the equipment costs about ten times the fee.

But my greatest learning, in my opinion, was about how to handle a breakaway charge.

There were many times in a game when an opponent break away with the puck, skate right at me in goal and take a shot. Those are nerve wracking situations.

My natural instinct in this situation was to back into the goal and hunker down to take the shot. The goal crease, the small half circle right in front of the goal, is the comfort zone for a goalie. Psychologically, it feels like nothing bad can happen in the crease.

That blue half-circle of sorts around the goalie in this picture--that's the crease. Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

That would seem like the smartest strategy on a breakaway.

But it’s not.

The smart strategy in that situation is actually to charge directly at the skater.

It feels totally counterintuitive to come out of the warm embrace of the crease and charge at the guy with the puck.

It’s all about the math. Defending a goal is primarily about making the goal smaller to the shooter. And that is all about the optics--cutting down the angles the shooter has to work with.

When you hunker down in the goal, you actually make yourself smaller and free up a lot of empty net from the shooter’s perspective.

If you skate at the shooter, your body becomes bigger relative to the net and that actually reduces the angles the shooter has to work. Cutting the angle down decreases how much the goalie has to move side to side and makes it harder for the shooter to angle the puck into the net. It makes the goalie look bigger in the net. (The same strategy--making yourself look bigger--works with mountain lions, or so I am told. Unlike goaltending, this is a piece of advice I don’t really want to have to put into real action.)

(Special thanks to https://hockeymath.wordpress.com/goaltending/ for the graphic showing how this works.)

Remember the Pythagorean theory from high school math? Yeah, finally, a real life use for that one.

As an amateur goalie, once I adopted this approach, I got better at stopping breakaway goals. It wasn’t easy though. At first, I would have to deliberately go against the screaming in my head to just hunker down and get ready. It took a bit of courage to push out of the comfort of the crease.

And that’s what I found helped me transition from traditional research methods into new ones. Rather than hunkering down, as it felt naturally right to do, if I approached the method head on, I found I could embrace it. And over time, it became easier to leave my research crease.

How do you skate out of the crease if you are facing moving into online qualitative from traditional? The exact ways that will work for you will probably be unique to your experience and comfort with change. But some things that worked for me and I have seen work for others include:

  • The different platforms that are used for online qualitative often will help you get over the specific technical aspects. Though most are not created by researchers, so don’t expect much help in how to moderate or implement other parts of the research process from a researcher’s perspective.

  • Take advantage of LinkedIn forums on qualitative and ask for help. The QRCA, a great organization of moderators, is full of researchers who are happy to share their best practices. It’s what I love most about the QRCA.

  • Ask around about the platforms to use. Just like picking a facility, the platform you use can make a difference in your success.

  • Don’t automatically throw out any recruiting you have already done, if this is a project that started before the need to go online. Chances are you can use recruited participants and just move them online.

  • Deliberately map out the whole process in terms of your process for traditional methods. Then adjust each part of the process for what you might need to do differently. At this point, it helps to get some help from someone who has done online qual. But you may be pleasantly surprised to see that very little changes--and the changes are more nuanced that you probably expected.

  • Avoid hunkering down--which is throwing out logic and rationality. Don’t ask me why--but the first time doing online qual, I’ve seen smart, skilled moderators just throw out everything they know because technology. Somehow that is this mysterious, game-changing thing that throws out all the rules. Well, it’s not. Don’t give in to the panic.

  • The biggest adjustment is actually in the conversation you have. Because you will be working through a screen--either being on video or talking via text. These both bring with them different rules for listening and responding effectively. This is where the most change to your normal practices and techniques will need to be made. This is where talking to someone who has done what you are about to do helps the most.

  • Consider hiring someone with experience to coach you through the project.

I do wish you good health and sanity in this troubling time. Things have gotten very real and we need each other more than ever before. I hope for the best for you.