February 2013

The Goalkeeping Road Map: Setting the GK GPS

By Rob Walker, Director of Coaching, Federal Way FC & Head Coach, St. Martin's University & Director of Coaching Federal Way FC

The Smart Phone generation has made mapping, and getting directions, a precise component of travel. It is so different from our past, but is now changed forever. In the old days, we used to send maps and directions to each other so we could get from one place to another. Now, technology has changed how we use “directions” to get from point A to point B. Global Positioning Systems create a pinpoint path for us to find our way.

In terms of developing a goalkeeper, we still need to follow landmarks and “maps” that have always worked. The hallmark of the position still remains unchanged after 140-plus years — stop the ball from crossing the line (and going under the crossbar). While technology has a place to play in the world of player development, goalkeeping still has its focus in the mechanics and decision-making parts that have made goalkeepers worth their salt over the years.

In most coaching circles, it is generally agreed that goalkeepers take time to mature and develop, in comparison to their outfield-playing teammates. In young ages (U-14 and below) the goalkeeper has obvious obstacles to overcome in simply managing saves based on the goalkeeper’s size in comparison to the goal and the field. As the goalkeeper grows through the teen years towards the final part of their youth career (U-15 through 18) we can begin to project goalkeeping talent, but we also see weaknesses that make us wonder if the goalkeeper can get from “here to there.” When the goalkeeper reaches their 20’s, experience begins to build and the position becomes more solid. In fact, many professional goalkeepers feel that they are at their best when their field playing counter-parts are reaching retirement in their early 30’s.

The real issue for all youth goalkeepers is that we “have” to have a goalkeeper on the field for every game. Holding out until a goalkeeper reaches their 30th year is a big-picture issue in development. Having a competent, talented performing goalkeeper(s) on a youth team is a reality of the present and one we can spend some time discussing. The bullet points below outline key developmental stages through which the goalkeeper should progress to make the most of the youth soccer experience.

  • Stage 1: This stage is represented as the “entry level” to soccer: U-10 through 14. During this time period, player growth (getting through puberty and into adolescence) supports multiple players sharing the goalkeeping position. Recent growth in the last 10 years has put more pressure on this position as youth teams have stressed more emphasis on results at these ages.
  • Stage 2: This stage overlaps the younger ages (U-10 through 14) as players matriculate to (and away from) the GK position. During this stage, the goalkeeper begins to specialize and play more in this position than any other; often times splitting games with a teammate.
  • Stage 3: This stage encompasses 13-16 year olds who start to believe that the goalkeeping position is “their” position and can see themselves as a goalkeeper first. While levels of performance may rise and fall as consistency is not yet something that can be counted on, the goalkeeper in this stage believes their performance is similar to their favorite pro. This stage is home to rapid improvement in the technical and tactical side of the game as the stage moves the player from puberty into adolescence.
  • Stage 4: This stage begins to show the hallmarks that make up a future pro: consistency and efficiency in technical and tactical play. The ball stays out of the net, and the goalkeeper takes up a leadership role on the field.
Organization of a Youth Goalkeeping Development Program

Understand that goalkeepers go through the stages described above at different times (even goalkeepers on the same team will progress differently), as the stages rely not only on experience, but also on individual growth. The youth coach has a wide range of considerations in putting a regular training program together. This is where the modern “GPS” can only take the coach so far in implementing a program. Many of the “old” principles to development still apply:

  • Design a weekly training schedule — U-12 through U-14 should train once or twice a week for about 45 minutes to an hour; U-15 through U-16 should train twice a week for a little over 60 minutes; U-17 through U-19 should train 2-3 times per week for about 75-80 minutes.
  • Goalkeeping training should always augment what is being done in the team; pairing goalkeeping objectives with team training objectives is always a good idea.
  • Training sessions should include: warm-up (use technical basics as a staple item) and a technique session, and end with a little decision-making or work on “bigger picture” items like crosses or through-balls.
  • Fitness. Younger goalkeepers would be best served with an emphasis on technique, while older goalkeepers should add this component into regular training (along with technical and tactical pieces).
  • The goalkeeping coach needs to balance two big points: giving feedback and keeping the goalkeeper(s) active throughout the training session.
  • Charting a goalkeeper's progress over time is a good idea. The use of a written journal to record the training completed, the coaching points stressed and the performance of the goalkeeper, after each session, can be very useful. Goalkeepers may find this is a helpful learning tool and should take on the responsibility (especially as they exit the Aspirational stage, for the Performing stage).
  • Use of a video camera can help the goalkeeper understand what their strengths and weaknesses are in a particular area. This is something that can simply be recorded on a Smart Phone and shown on the field (old school comes of age!).
Points of Emphasis

Good goalkeeping performance is about repetition over time. Skills like catching, diving, kicking and punting can be taught in the Shared, Burgeoning and Aspirational stages, but the key for the goalkeeper and the coach is to realize that these skills are pieces to a puzzle that is constantly built and re-built. The 14- or 15-year-old goalkeeper who says, “I learned to dive and I am ready for something more advanced,” doesn’t yet get the big picture. Diving has many different nuances and is a long-term staple of the position. Like many “closed skills” (a skill that has a definitive starting and ending point) the goalkeeper will spend a lifetime seeing these skills shift in and out of focus and will constantly need to address the key techniques: footwork, catching and diving, etc. Accepting this mantra of consistency in “the basics” is part of what makes a successful goalkeeper at any stage of development. The table below identifies key goalkeeping skills and offers some key coaching points and benchmarks for good development.

GK Skill Key Coaching Points & Benchmarks
(ground, to the body, above the head)
  • The shape of the hands could be the biggest concern in dealing with this specific technique. Low balls are difficult because the goalkeeper must get his/her hands near the ground. Unfortunately, the length of a player's legs can sometimes make it difficult to get the handling "right" when the goalkeeper can't get a bent posture behind the ball.
  • Another concern is that the hands need to be pointed downward on low balls and upwards, with the fingers and thumb of each hand in a "concave" position behind the ball. Upon contact, the ball should be curled into the chest. Young goalkeepers often have difficulty with driven balls (either on the ground or in the air) because his/her hands are on the side of the ball and not behind it.
  • After bringing the ball into the body, the goalkeeper should move forward or to the side with the ball. This footwork is absolutely critical in "killing" the momentum of the shot. A ball that is played into the chest can be absorbed by taking a little jump forward as the ball is pulled into the chest.
(moving to a ball played away from the GK’s body)
  • The first step to the ball is the most critical factor in this technique. A simple solution to this situation is to push off with the foot that is closest to the ball. If the ball is shot to the goalkeeper's right, the goalkeeper should "lead away" with the right foot.
  • If more than one step is needed to get to the ball, additional steps should be taken to get the body behind the ball.
  • Finishing this catch with several steps following the moment when the ball comes into the body helps "lock" the ball into the chest.
Diving for a ball close to the body
  • There are two types of techniques that a goalkeeper can use to deal with service in this area. First, if a ball is served stiffly, just to the side of the goalkeeper, the goalkeeper can collapse his/her dive to get the hands and body behind the ball. This technique works best when the foot that is closest to the ball slides away from the serve, away from the ball. At the same time the foot collapses, the goalkeeper simply pushes his/her hands to the ball. The timing of both these movements is what gets the goalkeeper down to the ground quickly.
  • The second type of diving technique a goalkeeper can use to get to a ball near the body is to take one good step and dive (again, off the foot that is closest to the ball) and push to the ball. In both cases, the dive ends when the ball is pulled into the chest and the top leg is pulled into the body.
  • A good technical cue in dealing with balls on the ground is to bend or flex the knee closest to the ball when pushing off. A bent knee helps get the body "down" to the ball. In order to deal with a ball that is rising up, the goalkeeper should push off the inside foot that is closest to the ball and push the hands across the body to a good handling position behind the ball.
  • The end result of good diving is the same as when keeping the feet: the goalkeeper dives on his/her side and the ball ends up tucked into the chest. The goalkeeper must decide: has the ball been served in such a way that staying upright would result in the ball not being absorbed. Diving enables the goalkeeper to extend the hands and the body behind the ball.
Diving for a ball away from the body
  • To dive for a ball that is hit away from the goalkeeper's body, the goalkeeper needs to use an extended diving or "power" technique. This technique is accomplished by taking a long step with the foot that is closest to the ball, followed by a quick, short step with the same foot. When this second, short step, is taken, the goalkeeper should take off to dive. As the goalkeeper pushes off, the top leg should also come across the body (this is the "power step.")
  • The final key in this technique is the position of the hands at the end of the dive. Generally, because the goalkeeper has had to go to “full stretch," the ball may need to be pinned into the ground upon landing (top hand on the top of the ball, bottom hand behind the ball). When the body has completely finished landing, the ball should be pulled into the body.
Where do you go from here?

The table above is a start on solid foundational coaching of the goalkeeper, regardless of the goalkeeper’s stage of development. From this foundation, work in high balls, crosses, through-balls punting and kicking shape up the “basic” regimen. This roadmap has many twists and turns as the goalkeeper attempts to perform these skills at varying degrees of technical and tactical pressure. With guidance from the coach, the question, “Where does the goalkeeper go from here?” turns to, “This is where to go, and how to get there.”

While there are many “apps” for this and for that, the best “app” for the goalkeeper is to go “old-school” and hone those basics.

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