Thursday, October 18, 2012

Doing Your Best (part two)

A few hours after our conversation, we were on our way to the rink.

"Okay, let's try something," I said. "You haven't played in over a week, and it's going to be a tough scrimmage, so let's do something that all the pro goalies do."

"I'm in," Eli 11.2 said. He had his iPod and headphones beside him, as he likes to listen to music on the way to a game.

"This is how it works," I said. "For the first half of the drive, think back to a game where you played really, really well. Try to feel the shots you stopped. Think about the cold air, and the feel of your stick on the ice, and every specific detail you can think of to make it more real. Then, for the last half of the drive, project that feeling into tonight's game. Imagine tonight's kids taking those same shots, and you stopping them all. Focus on the rink and all the details you can think of to make it seem like it's already happened."

"So I'm taking the past into the future," he said.

"That's it," I said. "You take the successful past and project it into the successful future. So just enjoy the drive and I'll tell you when to flip."

I looked in the rearview mirror a few minutes later. His headphones were on, his eyes, closed, and he was slowly moving his head back and forth, listening to the music.

"Okay, go forward to the future," I said, and he nodded without opening his eyes.

I have a hard time keeping track of all this stuff, but it's important to develop good habits early. So we're going to do visualization before every game, and he has a specific warm-up (juggling, plus me tossing balls off a wall from behind him so that he tracks the motion and makes the catch), and he's doing neck strenghtening exercises every day. Little things that will add up over time, because almost everything exceptional is built that way.

When we got to the rink, every kid in the locker room started talking to him as soon as we walked in, what is what always happens. The rink is such a happy place. Eli always brings a deck of cards, and before he gets dressed, he'll do one or two card tricks, which never cease to amaze the other kids (and the grown-ups as well).

I could tell from his body language that he felt good, and he was very sharp in the ball tossing warmup. Their opponent was the Squirt travel team, which was basically full of kids one year younger than him, and most of them were on the development team with him last year. They've already played in one tournament and have been practicing together for six weeks. Eli's team had never even practiced together as a group, so it was definitely going to be trial by fire.

When the game starts, his team is in trouble right away. Kids aren't always where they should be, even though they're skating hard, and the travel team has the puck 2/3 of the time, at least. And they're getting shots, but they're not scoring, because Eli won't let them.

Eli stops the first eight shots of the game, and he's dominant. His team gets outshot 9-2 in the first period, but they're ahead 1-0, and they're confident. They skate back to Eli on every line change in the defensize zone and tap him on the pads, or cuff him on the helmet.

That's what he does. He takes games that are out of control and controls them, and everyone around him feeds on his energy. 

His defense plays very well, allowing only one breakaway the entire game (which he stops). He also stops a penalty shot, and winds up with 15 saves on 16 shots. His team gets outshot 16-8, but they win 3-1.

"I'm glad you didn't tell them you were rusty," I said as he came off the ice.

"Shhhh," he said. His helmet was on top of his head, and he had a big smile on his face.

The next day, he had another flag football game. His quarterback threw to him twice--ten yards underthrown on the first pass, ten yards overthrown on the other. What mattered, though, is that he ran every pattern hard, he locked down on defense (no completed passes in his zone, plus an interception), and had a successful onside kick (his second in the last two games). His team won 20-0, and as we walked away from the field, he was smiling.

"So was that more fun?" I asked.

Oh, God," he said. "Totally different. And it felt great to get that interception."

"That wasn't even your best play," I said.

"It wasn't?"

"No," I said. "Your best play was when their quarterback committed to throw long into your zone, but you were on the receiver so tight that he tried to overthrow to get over you. That was the wounded duck that Sam intercepted. You caused that."

"I didn't even think about that," he said.

"They targeted your zone five times," I said. "You had an interception, Sam had an interception, you dropped an interception, and there were two other incompletions. Zero for five. That's known as a 'shutdown corner'."

He laughed.

"That's the difference in giving your best," I said. "Even when it's hard."

"And hey, I got two passes thrown to me!" he said, laughing.

"His two worst passes of the game," I said, laughing. "If those had been grenades, even the shrapnel wouldn't have touched you."

"I know!" he said. "Were those awful or what?"

"Let's eat and get home," I said. "Hockey, 7:15 a.m."

"I can't wait!" he said. The Enthusiasm Engine, fully engaged.

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