Scientists in Canada have discovered the exact spots hockey goalies need to watch to successfully block shots.
The researchers say these findings could help goalies improve even if they are already playing at an elite level.
During a hockey game, goalies face shots that zip at up to 100 mph, faster than the eye can track [batters in baseball face the same problem]. Still, professional goaltenders can on average stop 90 percent of all shots they face. To do so, the best athletes rely on what researcher Joan Vickers at the University of Calgary dubbed "the quiet eye," the critical moment of focus prior to action.
To see where elite goalies focus their eyes in order to make a save, Vickers and graduate student Derek Panchuk conducted the most comprehensive, on-ice hockey study yet.
To accurately track a goalie's gaze, the researchers used headgear that has cameras record their eye movements as well as what they are looking at to within 16.67 milliseconds. The scientists fit headgear onto eight goaltenders from Calgary schools who played competitively for an average of 15 years and currently had a mean save percentage of 88 percent. Each goalie was pitted against the best shooters from their teams, as selected by their respective coaches.
The researchers discovered these elite goalies focused directly on the puck nearly a full second before the shot was released nearly three-quarters of the time. They also concentrated on the ice in front of the stick when it came to a quarter of all shots. Their gaze was only on the body of the shooter 2 percent of the time.
"Looking at the puck seems fairly obvious," Panchuk said, "until you look at the eye movements of novice goaltenders, who scatter their gaze all over the place and have a much lower save percentage than the elite goalies."
"This research is exciting because it's new information that can be immediately incorporated into a goalie's game with the proper training," Vickers said. "Our previous experience tells us that if athletes incorporate what we've learned in 'quiet eye' studies, they can improve in their sport, even if they are already at an elite level."
"Goalies often focus on physical things like improving technique but they overlook the decision-making," Panchuk said. "This study shows that you also need to focus on your decision-making and your thinking processes. Having optimal focus is just as important as being in optimal physical shape."
In future studies, Panchuk plans to investigate wrist shots, slap shots and penalty shots in hockey, where the goalie has even less time to react and make a save.
The findings were detailed online Oct. 16 via the journal Human Movement Science.