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There is a temptation to refer to the goalkeeper’s mindset as a “training mentality,” and this would not be incorrect. But, the goalkeeper’s approach, her focus, extends so far beyond training that the term “training” seems to limit the psyche unjustly. In a sense, the goalkeeper almost has a governing philosophy or a world view. We can say of many of the great goalkeepers – whether at the youth or senior levels – that “she carries herself like a goalkeeper,” or, “you can just tell she is a goalkeeper.” Why is that? Why is it that the good ones act like goalkeepers even when they are not practicing their craft on the field of play?
The factors that lead goalkeepers to act the way they do could be explored to infinite depths, but we might start by taking a look at the basic nature of the position the goalkeeper occupies within the context of the team and the game.
It can be lonely back there. True, the more a goalkeeper develops, the more incorporated into the team shape and operation she becomes (especially on attack), but initially the goalkeeper is stranded on an island that is about 6’ by 8’ – roughly the size of a prison cell! The young goalkeeper often will feel detached from the team’s offensive successes and solely responsible for the team’s goals against. This is just the nature of the position when the game is played at a very elementary and unorganized level, and that is why almost nobody wants to play in goal at that level. It is partially up to the coach to frame the position for young players better than that, but it is just as much – if not more so – up to the player to recognize her calling to play in goal. The nature of the position of goalkeeper actually appeals to a small minority of players. At the youngest ages, this will happen on two basic levels: the youngster will either recognize the opportunity to shine from this unique position, or the child will see in this position an opportunity to “hide from the game.” This second type of goalkeeper is useless, especially in today’s game. A good coach will talk with this player and challenge her to excel from the goalkeeper position, but if the child refuses to take on the challenge and persists in being meek, she must be removed from the position, as it does not help her, her teammates, or the game in general. In other words, the goalkeeper must want to be there. Thus, we can lay bare perhaps the most essential quality of a goalkeeper’s mentality: the goalkeeper is one who takes on challenges single-handedly and thrives on the opportunity to do so. It can be lonely back there, yes, but the true goalkeeper (even at the youngest ages) will transform socially the perception of this position from one that players wish to avoid into one of which they are envious.
Goalkeepers are often named captains of the team – why? Is leadership somehow endemic to the position?
Yes and no.
Because of the isolation or “on stage” factor and because the goalkeeper is the one to whom the team turns to “bail them out,” leadership is built into the position in some sense. However, as any experienced coach or player will tell you, not all goalkeepers are leaders. So, there is something more to it than that. The confident goalkeeper who faces challenges head on is, in a way, a microcosm of what a serious team aspires to be. Here we have a player whose every touch is under pressure and whose best performance is the ultimate effort “not to lose.” (Now, this is different from the effort “to win,” though the two are very closely related.) The only way for the goalkeeper to succeed at this effort is to work tirelessly when called upon. She can take no “time off” because doing so equals certain goals against. So, it is only natural for the team and the coach to warm to this player and model their collective attitude after hers. The team tries to embody the same tireless work ethic and “refuse to lose” demeanor the goalkeeper exhibits.
When the goalkeeper accepts the responsibilities that her position on the field and her position within the team require, she is afforded many opportunities to display leadership under various circumstances. The following circumstances pose for the goalkeeper a challenge of her character and, thus, a test of her leadership qualities regularly:
an “impossible” situation, i.e. a breakaway or a penalty kick
a game-winning save
a game-losing goal against
a regular save
a regular goal against
a major mistake by a teammate
a major mistake by the goalkeeper herself
being chosen as the “back up” goalkeeper on a particular game day
winning the starting position
a demanding training session
an off-field problem that requires a player to step up and take charge of the situation
and many more
The thing is that the goalkeeper rarely does anything without the attention of the team and coach on her. So, if she is to succeed in the context of the team, she must wear her heart on her sleeve and handle any of the above situations and the countless others that may arise with the utmost poise. When the team trusts the goalkeeper (and there must be trust between the goalkeeper and the team if there is to be success), they will often model their own demeanor after how the goalkeeper reacts to key moments. That is to say, if the goalkeeper is confident and composed at a critical moment, then the team is likely to be confident and composed. If the goalkeeper is panicked and defeated at this moment, then the team may lose heart. For some goalkeepers, the feeling is that this is an unfair element to goalkeeping; they would rather just go about their business quietly, blending in, with no more or no less responsibility than any other player on the team. But, the thing is the goalkeeper occupies a position that is different from the other players. And with this position comes what has elsewhere been termed the burden of responsibility. In other words, like it or not, the goalkeeper will be looked to as an example by the team and the coach.
What’s the message? This is one of the phrases I use most when coaching my goalkeepers in regard to mentality and poise. It is very important to me that they understand the coded messages they send mostly with their body language, but also with their words and their play. The goalkeeper, like anyone else, is always saying something by the way in which she is standing, the spirit with which she plays, and the words she chooses. This message can be positive, negative, or anything in between. And the team will receive it. If you have a goalkeeper who has not considered this yet, but who is looked to as a leader by your team, watch closely the next time he or she concedes a goal at a crucial moment in the game. First, take note of how many of the players on the field turn their attention, if only briefly, to the goalkeeper immediately following the goal. Then, assess what the goalkeeper’s body language is projecting. Is it confidence? Is it defeat? Hopelessness? Indifference? You will be able to decipher the message, and so can your players. This is perhaps the most important moment for the goalkeeper to be aware of her body language. Why? The team suffers a psychological blow after conceding a goal. Collectively, they have failed and they feel that. Teams with a good understanding of the game will not necessarily blame the goalkeeper for the goal, as most goals are a result of several players’ errors. However, the team will hold the goalkeeper responsible for the ones she “should have” saved, and rightly so. So, how does the goalkeeper send the right message to her team at this critical moment?
A great goalkeeper coach once told me, “a lot of this job is acting.” He was right! He was, of course, referring to the degree of theatre the goalkeeper coach must employ to effectively get through to the keepers regardless of his “natural personality.” But, the same principle holds true for the player trying to get across to her team. Every goalkeeper is different and some have a tougher time stomaching goals against than others. At the youth levels, you will see everything from the goalkeeper who beats herself up over a goal against to the goalkeeper who seems entirely unaffected. Neither extreme is good. The team must see that their keeper cares, but they must not see that their goalkeeper is defeated or has lost her mind! A little bit of anger is okay; it comes very naturally to most serious goalkeepers, and it is good for the team to see some steam coming out of the keeper’s ears once in a while, but the keeper should be mindful of the proverbial explosion after a goal against. For some keepers, this manifests itself physically as they assault the goalpost, punch the ground or even themselves, or punt the ball a mile up the field. Well, what is the message here? It certainly is not a message that suggests the keeper or her team is in control of what is going on. For other goalkeepers, the explosion comes in the form of a tirade directed at the nearest defender, letting her know how at fault she is. This is anger displacement and may function to make the keeper feel better, but it is certainly not healthy for the team and it is not going to go very far in terms of nurturing the important relationship between the goalkeeper and the defenders. Criticizing a teammate has its place, but the timing and delivery must be taken into consideration. Caring, determination, and conviction are the ideas the goalkeeper should try to convey following a goal against. It is okay if the players see that the goal hit you in the heart because that shows them how much you care. So, the facial expressions of disappointment or controlled anger are okay momentarily so long as they are kept under control. But, at the same time, that grit and competitiveness must return to the keeper’s eyes and overall countenance while the team’s attention is still on her. They must look back there and believe they can still do it!
Often a goalkeeper’s communication will disappear immediately following a goal against. It is hard to say exactly why this happens, but it tends to have something to do with feelings of accountability. i.e. who am I to be bossing these players around right now, if I can’t even keep the ball out of my own net? This sentiment is understandable. But, the coach must have a discussion with the keeper to make sure it is understood that effective communication from her to her teammates is part of keeping the ball out of the net, and it must continue after a goal against in order to prevent the same thing from happening again. A momentary lapse might be okay, as the players will pick up on the keeper’s ownership of the goal, but as soon as there is defensive organizing to be done, the goalkeeper must go back to work with the communication.
Mistake Management. For any educated fan of soccer, it is understood that goalkeepers make mistakes regularly and at all levels, including at the very highest professional and international levels. And sometimes the mistakes at those levels can be very embarrassing and magnified by the thousands of fans watching and the fact that the backup is also a professional and ready to take your spot the first chance he gets. So, how do these goalkeepers continue on? Mistake management. Never let one goal turn into two! This sounds like common sense, but it is one of the most important points to emphasize with your young goalkeepers. When goalkeepers concede goals – especially “soft” goals – they can be haunted by them for long periods of time. Needless to say, this can have a devastating effect on their performance for the remainder of the game, and sometimes even in the games to follow! It is all an issue of ego and the goalkeeper must be taught at a young age to put it in perspective. A very logical conversation with the goalkeeper goes a long way here. “It stands to reason that to do your best in a given situation during the game requires your full concentration, doesn’t it?” you might pose to your goalkeeper, “Well, if that is the case, then you can’t have your attention divided on the present and the past – especially since you cannot change the past!” When a goalkeeper is caught in two minds: one in the present and one in the past, she is likely to make mistakes that she normally wouldn’t make were she focused exclusively on the present. This is how one goal turns into two! Another very simple adage I use over and over again with my goalkeepers is Always the next ball. If during the periods between action, the keeper’s frame of mind and focus is always on the next ball, then she will give herself the best chance possible to perform to her full ability at all times. This must be the approach whether she has just made the biggest blunder of her career or the greatest save of her life: Always the next ball. The maturity that this requires does not usually come to goalkeepers on its own until they are quite old and the development of humility, as a natural piece of their personalities, comes to be. But, it can be taught at a relatively young age under the following conditions: the goalkeeper has an open mind; the goalkeeper coach knows and understands the goalkeeper as a person; the goalkeeper coach knows and understands the type of goalkeeper with whom he is working; and the keeper trusts her coach (and her team).
Before going into more depth on types of goalkeepers and mistake management, it is worth stating something I think everyone in the goalkeeper’s sphere (the team, the coach, the fans, and the keeper herself) will agree on after a mistake: everyone wants to get the next play right, so everyone will be happy if the goalkeeper is able to is able to bounce right back into the game and get the next ball! Big time goalkeepers such as the professionals and internationals mentioned before understand this, and this is what keeps them playing at a high level even after they let up a howler.
TROUBLESHOOTING REACTIONS TO MISTAKES
The highly-technical goalkeeper’s mistake or goal against. Needless to say, the goalkeeper’s psyche can be fragile at times. At young ages, the very serious goalkeeper is often very technically oriented. Technique is often their measurement of success or failure. This is both a blessing and curse for the goalkeeper coach. The positive side is that the keeper will pay great attention to detail in training and during play and will make technical progress at an exciting pace. On the other hand, this keeper is often in danger of becoming a player who plays strictly by the books. They often lack the creativity to make an unorthodox save when called upon to do so, and some of them – when they do make this type of save - will even regard it as a failure because they are technically incorrect. For this type of goalkeeper, mistake management is a very difficult task. Fear of embarrassment is usually a major concern for highly-technical goalkeepers, as they often have a misconception as to how their mistakes are perceived. They often feel very silly doing the scrambling and floundering for loose balls that is sometimes required of the keeper in emergency situations. And the keepers feel like everybody sees their mistake, which they most certainly do not. For example, a goalkeeper might misjudge a flighted ball, come out to meet it, and have it hit only her fingertips and fall awkwardly behind her into a crowd of players. The game now asks the goalkeeper to do something unorthodox to solve the problem: she has to go backwards and she may have to dive on top of the ball to cover it and protect it from the players in the area like a football player recovering a fumble. Again, they will often feel ridiculous doing this because it is not necessarily an accepted and established technique. You may see this goalkeeper “give up” at this point, and this must be addressed immediately but carefully by the coach. (More on that to follow.) Similarly, when the very technical goalkeeper is beaten for a goal because of a technical error (for instance, a breakaway is scored under her hands because they were not positioned low enough), the goalkeeper may have a very tough time “shaking it off” because she holds herself to technical perfection as a standard. Again, this is wonderful on one hand, but a real problem on the other, as technical perfection is not realistic at a high level of play. The coach, of course, must understand this keeper’s orientation toward her game and help her through it with the objective of engendering a perspective more balanced between the technical and tactical in the goalkeeper. i.e. The keeper should strive to execute technically correct at all ties, but the top priority must remain to solve the soccer problems posed to her in front of the goal in order to keep the ball out of the net.
Let me return for a moment to the phenomenon of the highly-skilled, highly-technical goalkeeper “giving up” in the middle of an awkward situation such as a scramble in front of the goal. It is easy for the coach to jump to the assumption that the keeper doesn’t care because of her actions, and that is an understandable reaction. But, this scenario is usually a bit deeper than that and understanding the inner workings of this problem for the goalkeeper will go a long way in helping her and, consequently, helping your team in the long run. Ask yourself if your keeper’s behavior under normal circumstances (in training, match play, off the field, etc.) ever really indicates that she doesn’t care? If the player has any integrity and heart, the answer is probably no. And if this is the case, then it is probably fair to say that her lack of effort is not because she doesn’t care. More likely, for this type of goalkeeper, it is because she either doesn’t know what to do or will feel extremely embarrassed doing it. When this problem is left to fester over time, the goalkeeper may actually be more comfortable with the goal against than making the awkward effort to solve the emergency. This is a major problem that must be corrected immediately, but it must be done through calm and logical conversation with the goalkeeper. Shouting at her without contextualizing the problem will do the coach no good. Ask her some questions. Let it come out in the open both that she cares and that she is grappling with the feeling of the unorthodox solution to the problem. Let her know that you understand but also that this “giving up” is unacceptable. After all, this is supposed to be a player with very specialized expertise, but if she doesn’t try for a ball, any field player could be thrown in goal and do the same job if not better! It will go a very long way to make absolutely certain the environment is 100% comfortable for the goalkeeper when training to resolve this issue. There must be a perfect trust between the goalkeeper and the goalkeeper coach because the goalkeeper must feel okay to embarrass herself in front of him, and, if working in a team training environment, in front of the team too. This is no small task!
The goalkeeper will start out with the same problem, no visible effort, and the coach should start coaching by stating the obvious: “Christina, you are not moving to get the ball; I can’t see any effort. Our first step is to show some effort.” Little, by little, the goalkeeper may chip away at her comfort zone and begin scrambling and “making plays,” instead of just counting on text book techniques. Needless to say, you should commend these efforts and tell her how happy you are to see her working so hard to keep the ball out of the net: it is a very positive message to both the coach and the team.
In the old days, the goalkeeper coach would berate the goalkeeper in this situation, demanding that she make an effort and perhaps even kicking her out of training if she persisted in failing to make an effort. This approach has its place, but things have changed, and it is not usually the best first course of action, as this gets the goalkeeper to perform chiefly based on either fear or anger, neither of which allows for the keeper to be well focused. You may reach your boiling point with a goalkeeper – I know I have several times – and explode on her, and this is understandable because you are only human. But, patience and restraint are very precious virtues when coaching a goalkeeper. All it may take is one outburst out of the blue (in the goalkeeper’s perspective) to lose the young player’s trust. She may feel almost as if you have just been hiding your anger with her all along. Now, every long-term working relationship between goalkeeper coach and goalkeeper will require the coach to scold his goalkeeper on occasion; that is just the nature of the coach-player-performance relationship. But, knowing your goalkeeper well and knowing, consequently, which chords you will strike with which actions, or with which words, is paramount to your effectiveness as a coach. You may shout once or twice a year at the most dedicated goalkeepers, and that will most likely be very effective. Then again, you may have a goalkeeper who needs to be under your wrath constantly. More power to you if you can work with a player under these conditions. For me, this goalkeeper is not worth my time, as her motivation is almost exclusively extrinsic, and I am interested only in intrinsically motivated goalkeepers.
The tactical, play-making goalkeeper’s mistake or goal against. All together a horse of a different color, the less technically-oriented play maker has different concerns regarding her mentality and her mistakes and goals against. In contrast to overthinking situations and beating herself up over technical deficiencies, the play-making goalkeeper tends not to think enough about the technical solutions. Because this goalkeeper often handles the same situations differently each time, consistency is a problem. This goalkeeper’s game is a bit undisciplined even though she may have the best intentions at heart. An example of the problems one could face with this kind of goalkeeper might be on low balls to the goalkeeper’s side. Whereas the technical goalkeeper is likely to low-dive every single time for this ball, the renegade play-maker may low dive for this ball one time, scoot over and stay on her feet the next time, forward dive the following time, and make up some other kind of dive all her own on the next one! So, when the ball is mishandled or goes past the goalkeeper for a goal, this keeper rarely says to herself, “which part of the dive did I get incorrect?” because there is no technical standard by which she measures herself. Instead it is just “I should have gotten that one!” This goalkeeper, however, does not get as embarrassed on the technical stage in the same way as the more technically-oriented keeper, which is a great quality to have in emergencies. As a result, this goalkeeper will usually do better in awkward situations, but she will lack consistency in more “routine” situations.
Needless to say, the best goalkeepers are not at either polar extreme, they rather have a healthy balance of technical and play-making awareness. So, how do we, as coaches, go about developing the goalkeeper with the best balance and where do we start?
Technique First. Let us consider the unbalanced goalkeepers discussed previously in terms of which is in better shape to move forward as a player. The key factor here will be adjustments.
The highly-technical goalkeeper has quite a bit going for her. First of all, her attempts at saves and her mistakes are going to be fairly uniform, as she tries to handle a given situation employing the proper technique almost every time. Likewise, her successful saves are also going to look and feel alike for the same reason; thus, by imprinting those technical movements, the goalkeeper will develop great consistency on routine plays. For these reasons, she is in a good position to make adjustments to solve problems or mistakes. Her repetitions will have a “control,” like a scientific experiment, and she will be able to find the change that fixes the problem relatively easily so long as she is willing to change what she is doing, which is a definite consideration.
The play-making goalkeeper is a different story. A coach will often find himself trying to help this keeper by first reviewing the correct technique for the given situation. There is good reason for this. Most would agree that part of the beauty of our game is that, because of its free-flowing nature, it is different every time. Yet, there are patterns in the game that recur again and again, especially for the goalkeeper. Clearly, the same patterns of play require the same patterns of response from the goalkeeper. (i.e. It would make no sense to catch a shot at chest height using an overhand grip one time, and catch another shot at an identical height using an underhand grip at a different moment in the game.) So, based on this logic, the first adjustment for the play-making goalkeeper, when trying to work on a given situation giving her trouble, is actually to standardize the technique being employed and see where that leaves her.
So, when working with very young goalkeepers from scratch, the preference is to train them to technical perfection while helping them to problem solve situations tactically in the course of game play.
Training Mentality. But there is something very specific to training and a goalkeeper’s demeanor during training. The training ground is where the goalkeeper becomes hard or soft; it is where the goalkeeper works out problems and imprints habits; and it is where the goalkeeper has the most candid and unrestricted exchange with the coach and other goalkeepers. Ideally, the majority of this attitude toward training is learned holistically through example - almost as if by osmosis. Top end goalkeeper camps like Joe Machnik’s No.1 Goalkeeper Camp are unique in their ability to provide this type of environment all day long for an extended period of time, during which a young player can literally live as a goalkeeper. Often, they emerge a different player simply because they have learned, through direct exposure, the proper attitude toward training. Nothing can replace this experience.
Hard work, a respect for the work being done, and general common sense will constitute a positive attitude toward training. Efficiency is a critical element for a goalkeeper’s approach to training. Nothing should be wasted and everything should be maximized. That is to say, the goalkeeper moves quickly from one activity to the next whether that be in between repetitions or simply jogging back onto the field after breaking for water. She always returns the ball back to the server quickly and accurately and begins to focus on the next ball before the server has played it. There is very little “down time.” Likewise, the goalkeeper shows up to training early and prepared. She is fully and properly dressed and prepped in terms of initial stretching etc. before the session is scheduled to begin. She works attentively until the session is through, is proactive in offering assistance in gathering up the training equipment being used on the field, and she takes the time to stretch afterwards as well as the care to properly pack her own equipment. Everything about the goalkeeper’s effort, work rate, and attention should say, “I am here to train hard because I recognize it is important and I am happy to put the work in.”
When a group of goalkeepers are training together, there is a very special camaraderie that is unique to this type of group. It is different from a team’s camaraderie because, in the end, each goalkeeper is concerned mostly with improving her own game; however, there is a certain spirit of collectivity and support for the fellow goalkeeper that should be apparent in the way that they relate to each other. Hard work and big time saves should be acknowledged both when carried out by the players or, when applicable, demonstrated by the staff coach. This creates a very positive atmosphere: spirits are high and goalkeepers are compelled toward excellence in performance both by their own internal motivation and by the appreciation and praise expressed by their peers.
Work hard, but relax. Often, when a young goalkeeper first “catches the bug” and wraps her head around a training ethic, she will over do it. That is to say that she might work so hard that she becomes frantic and her performance suffers as a result. There is nothing good about a frantic goalkeeper. But, refining this youngster’s approach is not very difficult and it is fun to do! The young player must learn to recognize the difference between a controlled high work rate and going crazy. This is one of the elements of the goalkeeper’s training mentality that can be coached directly. Again, the best way is by means of example. A young, accomplished staff coach’s (or perhaps an older, more experienced player’s) demonstration paints the best picture here. Put him in a training exercise and let him go to work. As he is playing, point out to the young goalkeeper how controlled his movement is. He is always focused. His feet, for example, are always precise in their movement and set at the right times. Yet, he is always pushing the pace at which the training moves: making saves and bouncing right back up for more; returning balls accurately and swiftly to the server; playing just a bit faster than the serve so as to ask the server to test him more on the next one. These traits are the embodiment of the very valuable lesson to work hard, but relax.
Effort. Each goalkeeper has her own range, and the goalkeeper coach must never punish or reprimand the goalkeeper for the limitations of her range. I should explain that I am taking the word “range” here in a broad sense, to indicate the given boundary of ability. To illustrate, one might say a goalkeeper’s “range” enables her to catch driven crosses five yards out from the goal line, but not six. Or, one might say, a goalkeeper’s range enables her to work at 100% for 30 seconds, but not 35. As the coach of a youth goalkeeper, it is fair to say that your job can be summed up in one simple phrase: Extend the goalkeeper’s range. Effort and range are intimately related, and range must be applied to mentality too. The goalkeeper coach must demand the maximum effort in all situations and at all times from the goalkeeper in order for the goalkeeper to extend her range. To embody a style of training or play that is always at maximum effort is, then, a critical part of the goalkeeper’s mentality, and it is the coach’s job to teach the goalkeeper to understand why.
Pride. The goalkeeper must take pride in all that she does before, during, and after training. Does her appearance represent her as the goalkeeper she wants to be recognized as? Does the effort and work rate in a given training session do the same? Does the goalkeeper behave in a manner during play and away from the field that she knows her goalkeeper coach would be proud of? When the goalkeeper can answer each of these positively, she is arriving at a mentality that is healthy for her own development. Right around this time, the goalkeeper’s mentality will usually begin manifesting itself in terms of poised, comfortable, confident, and consistent play in games.
Understanding the complexities and idiosyncrasies of a young goalkeeper’s mentality are, no doubt, important for the coach who has taken on the project of developing the keeper. However, the point I would emphasize most for the coach undertaking this challenge is patience. Developing a well-balanced and mentally strong goalkeeper is most definitely a long-term project. In a sense, we are asking the goalkeeper to become an expert in a particular philosophy, versed in all of its tenets and familiar with how they are applied. This will be a process of verbalization, of hands-on experimentation, of environmental manipulation, and of repetition. The goalkeeper coach must work in the capacity of a guide for the youngster, rather than an authoritarian in order for the goalkeeper to develop an intrinsic embrace of a training mentality. This goalkeeper, then, will carry herself – will act – like a goalkeeper simply because it is the right way to be, not for anybody else, but for herself.
About No 1 Camps: At No. 1 Camps, not only will campers encounter soccer players from their home state and beyond, they may get the opportunity to befriend and challenge campers from around the world. 31 years conducting goalkeeper education. No. 1 Goalkeepers are encouraged to experiment in practice to increase their range and test their limits. Goalkeepers who know their strengths and weaknesses will not foolishly place their team at risk, and will become consistent, safe and dependable. What more can you ask? At the No. 1 Goalkeeper Camp each goalkeeper is faced with thousands of decisions and hundresd of shots. Each learns how to take pleasure in the most difficult practices, how to concentrate in the loneliness of the position and most of all, how to become a success at the most demanding position in team sport. www.no1soccercamps.com
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