uhlsport USA
"Outstanding keeper instruction. This is a must for goalkeepers and coaches."
—Ottawa Internationals S.C. web site, Ottawa, Canada

Goalkeeping Tips, Tidbits and Random Thoughts

An athlete talking to themsleves during competition is hardly a new phenomenon.... The talk does not have to be vocal. By merely thinking you are talking to yourself and sending a message.
   -- Tony DiCicco, Goalkeeper Soccer Training Manual

If you have a question, comment or rebuttal you'd like to see addressed here, send me email. I will post your mail to the blog at my discretion unless you specify otherwise.

A simple training tool

I find many more dropped balls are due to problems withe the eyes than with the hands. Often, keepers will take their eyes off the ball a split second before the ball is actually secured, leading to a bobble. Perhaps they are looking up to distribute quickly, or are worried about an onrushing opponent. But there is a simple practice trick to get keepers to focus their eyes.

Take a ball you will train with and get a permanent marker. On every panel, write a large capital letter. Most balls have 32 panels and there are only 26 letters, so to make up the difference also use the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 8 (make sure to make your "one" and "letter i" look different).

Now, every time the keeper catches the ball, they must say aloud the letter facing them. This keeps the eyes locked in on the ball until well after the catch is secure.

This patented "Alpha-Ball" (not really, but I expect credit—and a small royalty—if you make a lot of money off this idea!) is a simple training tool for encouraging proper focus on the catch. Get your keepers into a good habit using this and I can almost guarantee fewer dropped balls.

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The most common mistakes

What are the technical breakdowns that lead to the most goals given up by goalkepeers? Most people would probably say that the problem is with the hands when the keeper lets and easy one get through, or perhaps with the diving or parrying technique. I don't think so... in fact, I'd put "hands" third on the list of mistake-prone areas after these two:
  • Footwork. Many goals are allowed before the ball ever reaches the goalkeeper. With only split seconds to react, a keeper must be in the ready position before the shot is struck, if possible. It's hard to react and make a save when you are still moving. Footwork is also at fault for many diving and parrying miscues and for mishandled crosses—if the proper footwork isn't executed from the start, the resulting save will be much, much more difficult.
  • Eyes. It's the simplest thing in the world: watch the ball all the way into your hands until it's secured. It's also the simplest thing to forget. Take your eye off the ball a second too soon to look upfield, or look at that charging forward instead of the soccer ball, and the ball could be in the net.
So, my saying for keepers is, "Feet, Eyes, Hands". Get the feet set, have good footwork; focus your attention completely on the ball; then attack the ball with your hands.

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The eyes have it

A study done of elite hockey goalies shows that one of the keys to performance is what researcher Joan Vickers at the University of Calgaryis dubbed "the quiet eye," the critical moment of focus prior to action: Key to Hockey Goalie Success Discovered.

"Elite goalies focused directly on the puck nearly a full second before the shot was released nearly three-quarters of the time," according to the research. I'm sure the same goes for goalkeepers in soccer. Keepers need to learn to "read" the shooter and predict when the shot is coming so they can be ready, have their head still, and be able to focus on the ball.

The mantra I use with my keepers is "Feet, eyes, hands." Before the shot is struck, get into the ready position (feet), focus on the ball (eyes), and then save with your hands.


Optical illusion

"Honest, coach, it wasn't my fault that goal went in. My visual system isn't equipped to process the trajectory of fast-spinning balls."


World Youth Championships, W vs Diamond

Boy, the season goes fast, doesn't it? And busy. You would never imagine how much energy it takes to manage preschoolers. A coach friend of mine likens it to "herding birds." But anyway, a couple of thoughts for a long-overdue update:

After watching the beginning of the U17 Youth Championship and this summer's World Youth Championship (U20s), it's become shockingly clear why goalkeepers mature later in life. What I saw of the goalkeeping was overall poor in both competitions. The US keeper Bryant Rueckner made a real howler in the group match against Italy, letting a free kick skip unimpeded into the far side netting. Perhaps he thought it was going wide? The moral: never assume!

On average, soccer teams get older and taller as you move from front to back. Goalkeepers are often among the oldest and tallest players on a team. (I've finally hit the age where I am getting older and shorter, unfortunately.)

Diamond vs W?. Which catching grip is better? I know goalkeeper coaches who teach one, some the other. Which do you use or recommend? I am firmly in the W camp (thumbs together, fingertips pointing almost straight up), although if a keeper comes to me using the diamond (thumbs and index fingers almost touching)and is comfortable and catches well, I won't try to change them. There are a number of reasons I think the W is preferable, especially for young keepers.

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More analogies that I use when training goalkeepers:

  • If you've ever sung in a choir or played a wind instrument and struggled to hit a high note, your instructor might have told you to think about trying to come down from above to the note, rather than straining upwards to hit it. It's a mental trick that I find helpful when going up to catch high balls. Ideally, you want to get your fingers a bit over the top of the ball. Otherwise, the ball can roll off your fingers and over them into the net.
  • When cushioning the ball, you need to get your arms out to meet the ball in front of you, then "pull" it in as your elbows bend. Another analogy for cushioning the ball is a squid grabbing a fish. A squid doesn't shoot out its tentacles and slap the fish; it grabs it way out in front, secures it with its suckers, and then pulls it in for dinner. This is a great analogy for younger kids. Then the rest of the practice I remind them to "be the squid."


Analogies to other sports

Analogies to other sports are something I use when coaching. Basic athletic techniques from many sports share much in common with soccer—especially goalkeeping. Stance, balance, sprinting, and catching are common elements. I have several analogies I use regularly.

  • Going back on a ball hit over your head is done much like a baseball outfielder would do it. You go back using a crossover step and keep your head and shoulders as square to the field as possible in order to see and track the ball.
  • In order to fully cushion the ball when catching, the keeper needs to have their hands out and ready, arms extended, to meet the ball and draw it in using the elbows to take the pace from the ball. This is a bit like the reverse of setting up for a tennis or racquetball stroke: the racquet must already be back and prepared before the ball arrives to transfer the power to the ball effectively.
  • When coaching dribbling to field players, space must be exploited quickly when it opens up. The dribbler must "explode" through any gap or past defenders, much like an American football running back must "hit the hole" hard in order to get past the first line of defense into the clear.
  • Field players need to learn to be dynamic in front of goal in order to get open to score. I encourage slashing, diagonal runs, especially from deep and checking to the ball carrier. The basketball equivalent is the "cut to the hoop", creating a passing lane and then receiving the ball and driving towards the basket.

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"If you can't catch, it doesn't matter"

Words of wisdom from paulee, who had to play a game after losing his glove bag and borrow a pair of cheap gloves:

"Was reflecting on my experience of last night. Despite the fact I wore a crappy pair of Nike Krakens, I held everything that came my way. During the warm up, my buddy kept blasting shots right at me, talking smack. He just kept on me, trying to get me focused on the match, and not worrying about my gloves. Yeah, I would have prefered my Sells, and I'm not about to go play with a $20 pair of whatevers, but gloves are just an aid for us. A tremendous one, no doubt, but it's our hands that are important. For those of you who coach keepers, don't ever let them forget that, because too often, we get caught up in the mistake of putting equipment before good technique. I don't care what you wear on your hands, if you can't catch, it doesn't matter."

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The basics come first

You'd think that one of the primary measures of a goalkeeper would be the ability to hang on to the ball. But after watching and officiating a number of games this weekend, I wonder. Many keepers train hard on all the "difficult" stuff, like diving, distribution and sliding in on breakaways, while neglecting the basics: footwork, positioning, and catching. Sure, they may not be as exciting to work on, but if you have those three things down you will make the majority of the saves.

Being able to securely catch the ball not only prevents rebounds that lead to goals, it is a safety issue as well. Once that ball pops loose, it is fair game to be challenged for by the opponents, and often the keeper is in a vulnerable position. As the AR in a U17 girls' game on Saturday, I watched a keeper go low to gather a shot that hit her in the hands and popped loose, a few feet away. The incoming striker not only gathered the ball and put it into the net, but banged into the keeper as she tried in vain to collect the loose ball. No foul, and the goal stood. The keeper was shaken up but able to continue. Had the keeper held the ball the first time, not only would there have been no goal, but any contact with the keeper would have been a certain foul, rather than incidental contact when going for a free ball.

Too many keepers, IMHO, need to work on cushioning the ball. A little hard work in this area will go a long way towards making a better goalkeeper.


Hands to the ball first

Well, Tim Howard made a bit of a mistake in Manchester United's recent match against Southampton, and it turned out to be costly as United's attack went missing. He still seems to have the support of manager Alex Ferguson, though.

After watching (from my position as assistant referee) several girl's State Cup matches this weekend, I find myself repeating my mantra of hands to the ball first!. We got a lot of rain, 3+ inches of it, on Friday and Saturday and the fields were wet and muddy for the games that did get played. Numerous goalkeepers came out sliding to challenge for balls on the ground, but failed to hang on to the ball and almost gave up dangerous chances, though none were burned by it. The slide technique was fine, but they just got their bodies behind the ball and failed to really focus on getting their hands to it and hanging on. Now, as I said, conditions were wet and muddy and I didn't actually get to ask the keepers what happened after the game, but often failing to hang onto the ball is a simple matter of losing focus -- worrying about the slide, the oncoming attacker, the mud in your face, whatever, instead of concentrating on the ball into your hands.

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Keep the ball secure

Once the goalkeeper has secured the ball in their hands, they should keep it there until they're ready to put it back into play. Don't bounce the ball. It's unneccessary and can only lead to problems. Oh, and if they do roll the ball out to kick it off the ground, make sure that no attackers are lurking about to nick the ball away.

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Focus must be on the ball

The snow is gone, and we finally got to play this weekend! Unfortunately, we lost our first game of the season 0-1 on a preventable goal. The ball popped up in the penalty area, and rather than catch it, my goalkeeper simply slapped at it. It fell right in the box and the other team poked it in in the ensuing scramble. Afterwards I asked my goalkeeper about it. She said that a player on the other team had grabbed her shorts and she was distracted. She knew her mistake: when going to catch or punch a ball, the goalkeeper's focus must be on the ball, not on other players, not on the field or weather conditions, not on the upcoming distribution. We even train this situation regularly; it can be hard even in practice, and is that much harder when you're being clutched, grabbed and pushed in a game. What should have been a routine catch becomes a desperate scramble.

The goalkeeper is the last line of defense, so any mistake is magnified and mental focus is crucial. That's one of the reasons I think goalkeeper is the toughest position to play mentally.


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