The Goalkeeper Epidemic
The worst part about writing this article is that many people won’t know what I’m talking about. Most people are not familiar with goalkeeping, which makes sense because there’s only one goalkeeper to ten field players, so most people are not goalkeepers by trade. But that’s not an excuse. As coaches, regardless of personal playing experience, it is essential to be as knowledgeable as possible about goalkeeping. Here’s why: 1. If you coach a team by yourself, you need to be able to address and coach your goalkeeper – even if your club has a goalkeeper coach. 2. If you are fortunate enough to have a GK coach for your specific team, you still need to be knowledgeable. How else can you tell if the goalkeeper coach actually knows what he’s talking about? It’s foolish to just trust him blindly. Not to mention that if you ever have a disagreement with that coach, you won’t be able to back up your opinion if you are not familiar with the position. The truth of the matter is that there are not very many good goalkeepers. Even most of those considered to be among the best in the world have a vast number of flaws and holes in their game. They’re the best we have, but they’re not actually that great. The worst part is that it’s not their fault. The rest of us have failed them. We have been failing them for years. We’ve just come to accept mediocrity as the standard. So what are these major flaws goalkeepers have? Usually, two things: technique and tactics. Technique comes down to the mechanics of the saves – including leg positioning, stance, center of gravity, arms/hand positioning, and the actual handling of the ball. Tactically, it comes down to positioning, timing, the decision of what type of save to make, and organizing the defense. Next time you watch a match, look for these three things: 1. At the time the ball is struck on goal, are the goalkeeper’s feet still moving? They shouldn’t be. Any time the ball could potentially change its course toward the goal (by someone else’s doing), the keeper’s feet should be planted to allow him to move in any direction. Watch for this. I bet it doesn’t happen very often. 2. When making a save, is the goalkeeper leaning forward and/or moving in a forward direction? They should be. But more often than not, goalkeepers tend to lean backward, sometimes attacking the ball feet first. 3. When a goalkeeper dives, does he take a step toward to ball first? And does his top knee come up, driving him toward the ball? Ideally, both should happen. There are times when there might not be enough time for a step (but that’s usually due to poor positioning or timing), or other times when the ball is coming close enough to the keeper’s body that it’s unnecessary. When a larger dive is needed, driving the knee gives an extra boost to carry your body at least another half inch. Don’t believe me? Stand up and drive your knee straight up in the air as hard as you can. You’ll be lifted up ever so slightly. Most goalkeepers fail at both of these. They just spring straight-legged from wherever they’re standing. When you think of great goalkeepers, or really great saves, what do you picture? I bet it looks something like this:
When I see this, it makes me cringe. And not just because his legs are straight. The only reason goalkeepers need to do an extension dive is if something went wrong. Usually, they are in a bad position at the time of the strike. Maybe their feet were moving. Or after the strike, their footwork was poor, slow, or nonexistent. If all that was perfect, then it’s likely that the defense was out of place. And yes, it’s the goalkeeper’s job to organize them. The goalkeepers who stand out from their peers have one thing going for them: athleticism. They can jump, dive, react, and change direction better than anyone else. Most saves that goalkeepers make are due to their athleticism, which is proof that there’s something wrong. We talk all the time about athleticism not being good enough for footballers. Does it help? Sure. It’s a nice supplement. But if that’s all a player has, he won’t make it because everyone else is superior technically and tactically. Hypocritically, we have allowed goalkeepers to get by on superior athleticism but only above average technique and terrible tactical understanding. It is widely accepted that goalkeepers peak in their thirties. Why is that? Because by the time they are in their thirties, they have gained experience and developed better decision making and positioning practices. But why does it take them until their thirties? Are goalkeeping tactics just so complex that it takes 25 years to fully understand them? Of course not. Goalkeepers just haven’t been taught the finer points of the position their whole lives, so after playing professionally for ten years, they finally begin to understand the position fully. If goalkeepers were developed properly and learned the details of GK tactics as youth, they would have that same understanding by age 20. But some goalkeepers do get goalkeeper specific instruction in their youth. Usually for many years!
Do they really? What is “goalkeeper specific instruction?” Here’s what it means to most of us: Once or twice a week, goalkeepers go to keeper training where a trainer makes them hop through cones and serves balls at them to save. Hopefully they learn proper technique. Then at team training, the team warms up and begins the session. Meanwhile, the goalkeepers go off on their own. They warm up, work on handling, do some footwork, and take some shots on each other. Then the coach yells over that they’re ready to do an activity that involves the big goal. So the goalkeepers run over and get thrown into a 4v4 game with players shooting on them. During this time, they receive no coaching or instruction throughout the entire activity, nor during the final scrimmage. How is this helping them? Sure, they’ll eventually get better by figuring out how to get to balls and stop them. Keeper training will help them develop proper technique. But where’s the instruction during team practice? How are they supposed to learn the decision making aspects? How are they supposed to translate the technique to the actual match? How are they supposed to understand the team tactics? It’s a ridiculous scenario. But everyone’s doing it. It’s the standard. What if a field player only worked on volleys and passing against a wall, then was thrown into a game with no instruction? Would we expect that player to be effective or make smart decisions? Of course not. It’s time we actually start developing complete, high-quality goalkeepers. But it’s impossible to do this if we, as coaches, are not capable of teaching them. We need to stop neglecting them and become knowledgeable about goalkeeping and the best way to develop them. It’s for our own good. If we actually taught and developed keepers, they would be so much better and would help our teams so much more. If you take yourself seriously as a coach and you have not taken the time to become knowledgeable about goalkeeping, you’re clearly not taking it seriously enough. We need to change the standards of how goalkeepers are developed and give them the attention and knowledge they (and the rest of our team) deserve.