uhlsport USA
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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.

Common keeper communication

Goalkeeper communication with the defense needs to be specific. "Mark up!" is one of the things I hate to hear most... unless you have a defender named Mark on your team who needs to move "up"! Otherwise, it is meaningless. Everyone typically thinks somebody else has got it covered.

The most common thing I probably say to defenders when in net is, "Step to the ball!" They are sometimes unsure, and it seems I can see the shot coming well before anyone else. Shutting down the shot before it happens is critical.

After that, I tell defenders about free players... to their right, left, behind them, outside of them or in the middle, etc. If players are marked before the ball arrives, again my job is made that much easier.

There are a few things that goalkeepers might not think to say, however. Another frequent bit of info I tell my defense, especially central defenders, is "Stay there!" They will often start to drift towards the ball when it's on the flanks, exposing dangerous space in the center of the field. Often, they don't need to drift out at all, but will be fine just holding the center right where they are.

I will also try to give positive feedback. If a defender is in good position but has a lot going on behind them, I might just tell them, "You're okay!" And of course, there kudos for great defensive stops, but also a pat on the back for solid, organized defending if I've not had to move them around much at all.


A great point about communication

Lawrence fine makes a great point about communication in his Goalkeeping Newsletter from FineSoccer:
It's not uncommon for me to receive emails where the keepers says “I'm communicating my teammates aren't listening”. While the keeper might think they are communicating, if their teammates aren't hearing or aren't listening, it's not communicating but rather, just talking. There certainly are situations where no matter what the keeper does or says, someone doesn't accept the communication but more often, it's not just the defenders fault. Communication is a two way process and if one side isn't responding, it's the job of the other side to figure out a different way to get through to them.
How do you communicate better? Four keys: 1) Be loud. 2) Use names. 3) Be specific. 4) Get feedback.


Facing your audience

Always be aware of what's happening on the field, even during apparent stoppages. Actors and presenters have a rule: Never turn your back on the audience. When you're on the pitch, you're on stage, so try to make it a habit to do the same thing: never turn your back to the field. Cruzeiro goalkeeper Fabio found out the hard way.


What are you communicating?

Last winter I was at a college showcase tournament. As I watched a particularly graceful, tall girl dribble the ball down the field, it suddenly struck me: dribbling a soccer ball is a quite unnatural movement. It is not like running, or walking, at all. It's more like dancing. That insight goes a long way, for me, to explaining why it is very difficult to become an excellent soccer player unless you pick up the basic skills at an early age.

When training field players as well as goalkeepers, we use the words "rhythm" and "tempo" a lot. I'll ask my players to "dance" with the ball, and explain the reason that Brazil are known as the "Samba Kings". There is a particular movement and fluidity to a good soccer player; light and smooth and quick and in control. Even a goalkeeper stretched out at full length to make a save is demonstrating a particular dance: the footwork, the acrobatics, the gentle fall. A goalkeeper can control the pace of a game: are they quick and jerky or calm and controlled, slow and deliberate or fast and decisive?

Today I came across an article at Gladwell.com (Malcolm Gladwell is the author of Blink and The Tipping Point): What the Dog Saw. It's an article about Cesar Millan, the "dog whisperer" who can solve even the worst cases of canine misbehavior. But much of the article is not about what Milan says or does, but how he moves. So these passages particularly caught my eye:

Cesar is fluid. "He's beautifully organized intra-physically," Karen Bradley, who heads the graduate dance program at the University of Maryland, said when she first saw tapes of Cesar in action. "That lower-unit organization—I wonder whether he was a soccer player."
Combinations of posture and gesture are called phrasing, and the great communicators are those who match their phrasing with their communicative intentions—who understand, for instance, that emphasis requires them to be bound and explosive. To Bradley, Cesar had beautiful phrasing.

When you play, what are you communicating? Not just verbally, we all know about verbal communication, but non-verbally?


Two steps ahead of the game

It can be terribly frustrating to be a goalkeeper at times. The old cliche is that the ball has to get past eleven players to score, but any keeper worth their salt feels they should have a chance to stop just about everything. It might be by having made a better save themselves, or by having gotten the defense into shape before hand.

The goalkeeper has the entire soccer game in front of them, and often the chain of events leading to a goal is painfully obvious to them. They can see the unmarked attackers, the wide open passing lanes and the unprotected space. But once the goal is scored, there's not much to be done.

As much as the goalkeeper would like to be able to position his or her defenders like chess pieces, it won't always happen. The challenge for the keeper, then, is twofold: one, can they think one—or even two&mdashsteps ahead of the game and get the defense in shape before it even breaks down; and two, can they do it in a way that helps the defenders, rather than tears them down?

A positive goalkeeper, who corrects constructively and doesn't get down on their teammates, can go a long way towards building a team with confidence.

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First line of attack

Although soccer doesn't lend itself to statistical analysis as well as many other sports, many companies are trying to bring a more quantitative approach to the game. Computer software makes it possible to record events and their position on the field in real time and produce meaningful conclusions. In fact, I use stat-keeping software myself for the soccer teams I coach, although not to the level that many top clubs do. Data like passes completed/lost, number of passes between certain players, and the times and areas of the field where these happen can show an interesting picture of a game with insights that might not be apparent at first.

However, when it comes to goalkeepers it is even more difficult to find meaningful statistics. Shots saved vs shots on goal is one obvious one, but doesn't always tell how effective a goalkeeper really is. The best goalkeepers keep their defense in shape and are well positioned themselves, so the opportunity for a shot never even presents itself.

I ran across a series of player analyses done by a company called Softsport. They did an analysis of Peter Schmeichel to see what made him one of the greatest keepers ever. They selected six attacking categories (distribution) and four defensive categories (shot stopping and cutting out passes and crosses).

It's a bit interesting, but no real insights IMHO, at least on the defensive side. "Intercepted Passes", "Shots saved", "Corner kicks saved" and "Goals against" don't really provide much of a view of a keeper's game.

One thing that caught my eye on the attacking side was that Schmeichel was credited with an average of one pass per game that led to a shot on goal. I think that's great number, and shows that every keeper ought to be looking for the chance to attack as soon as they get the ball into their hands.

I think an even better stat might be "Scoring chances created". A good attack might not lead to a direct shot on goal and still be a great scoring opportunity. Personally, I strive to set up 2-3 chances at the other end every game, by quickly finding open players in a position to counter-attack. In indoor matches, that number goes up even more, and I'm often disappointed if one or two goals a game don't come as the result of my distribution, whether it's with hands or feet.

We all know the goalkeeper is the "last line of defense", but we can never forget we're also the "first line of attack."


The other side of the ball

I'm a strong believer that goalkeepers should get a chance to play in the field—before the age of 13 or 14 keepers should not be in net exclusively, and even after that they should get to play other positions when the opportunity presents itself.  In particular, goalkeepers should try playing striker.  Even if it's just in a summer league, indoor, or a pickup soccer game (with full goals and someone else in net), it can give a keeper great insight by being on the other side of the ball for a change.

In fact, I think that good strikers and good goalkeepers have many common characteristics:  the ability to be calm and composed in high pressure situations in front of goal, the mental makeup to deal with failure and move on, and an attitude that "the ball is mine".

Up front, you get to see keepers making mistakes and learn how you, as a striker, can take advantage of them.  You can also see good goalkeeper plays and how it affects the attacker.  For example, last night I got to play up front in my coed league game.  If I can brag a bit, I scored a hat trick in our 3-2 victory.  But my first two goals, early in the first half, were almost identical.  The goalkeeper stayed on his line, and that was all the additional time I needed to 1)  pick my spot and measure the shot, and 2) shift the ball to a more advantageous position to make the goal.  Both times I was coming in from the left side of the goal. Positionally the keeper was sound, taking away the near post and making it difficult to go far post with the ball on my left foot.  But by his staying back, I had just enough time to switch the ball to my right foot.  This put the ball a yard or so towards the center of the goal.  Now, instead of being perfectly positioned between the ball and the goal, he was now a yard out of position and my shot was much easier.  A couple of quick flicks with the outside of the right boot, and we were up two to nothing.  Had he come out, he would have made that one-yard shift in ball position less harmful, but might also have prevented me from switching feet at all and forced me to take a left-footed shot or nothing.

I guarantee you, if I were a timid keeper and saw how I could take advantage of another timid keeper, it might encourage me to change my game a bit—a lesson much more powerful than any coaching point.

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What game are you watching?

There are a lot of things going on in a soccer match. When you see a game, whether at home or on the television, what game are you watching?.

You can watch as a fan, living and dying with every brilliant play and horrible blunder by your team. You can watch as a player, picking up new moves, fakes and runs to try out on the pitch. You can watch as a coach, analyzing patterns, strengths and weaknesses. You can even watch as a referee, looking for mechanics, presence and game control. In each case, you are looking for different things... in effect, watching a completely different game.

As a goalkeeper, the game you need to watch is closest to that of the coach, with your focus on the other team's attack and your defense. Every clue you can get can help you keep your defense organized and protect your goal. How many attackers do your opponents use? What are their strengths--dribbling, winning balls in the air, short combination play? Do they play to the flank and cross, or try to work through the middle? Long balls from the back? Do the midfielders make runs from deep? Does their attack favor one side or the other? Are certain players dangerous from long range? Do certain attackers have strengths you need to guard against, or weaknesses you can exploit? If you have played a team before, or have access to scouting reports, it makes this job easier. But you ought to be able to learn a lot in the first 15-20 minutes of a soccer match.

For example, if a team likes to send long balls over the top to speedy players, you might make sure your midfielders step up to the ball sooner to prevent service. You might do the same with your outside backs to pressure flank service if the attackers are good in the air. Against a team that likes to play combinations through the middle, you need to keep your defenders compact. Another example is when you are up against a player who is strongly one-footed. Getting your defenders to simply shepherd him to the weak foot can effectively take such a player out of the game.

An effective goalkeeper is a leader and coach out on the field. The more you can watch soccer games with your coaches hat on and learn, the better you'll be.


Dealing with high winds

What a difference a few days makes! Last weekend, it was hot, around 30C, and sunny and everyone was complaining about the heat. Seven days later, it's around 10C, still sunny but that only helped a little against the driving NW wind (30-40kph). Our fields are oriented north/south, so I saw goalkeepers defending the south goal have to deal with strong, gusty winds.

I typically will stay back a bit more on my line than I might usually do, and this is especially true for youth goalkeepers who aren't yet tall enough to deal well with high shots on a full-size frame, and females, who in general tend to not track flighted balls as well as males. Staying closer to the line will prevent long, carrying shots from ducking over the keeper and under the crossbar. In the end, remember the saying "Last to leave, first to the ball." Don't go forward on a lofted ball too soon and have it drift over your head -- wait a beat and judge it first; then once you've got a bead on it, go hard and win the ball.

But at the same time, the keeper must be ready to instantly come off the line and sweep up any long balls that get blown by everyone. It's difficult to balance this important task with protecting the line, and that's one of the reasons playing against the wind is so difficult. The goalkeeper must be alert and ready to sprint.

Distribution becomes troublesome too. Anything hit high in the air can come right back at you. This is where a drop kick can come in handy, as it tends to stay lower than a punt. You can also throw the ball to teammates checking back to the ball, and if all else fails, aim your punts for the sideline near the center stripe, so at worst they will go out for a throw.

Finally, make sure the team knows how to deal with the pressure of a strong headwind. First responsibility for preventing long shots falls to the midfielders, so don't let them collapse back with the defense -- make sure they stay up to prevent service. Then he defenders must be wary of trying to clear with big kicks up the middle since they'll come right back. The ball has to be worked out of the defensive end on the ground and wide, if possible.


Better communication

On the tactics page I talk about basic goalkeeper communication: how to communicate with teammates and keep the defense organized. However, there can be too much communication as too little, and the way it is delivered (especially since it must be loud and repetetive) is important. I'll be frank -- this is an area I have problems with and have had to work on, so here are some ways to keep smooth communications between goalkeeper and defense, so field players don't get annoyed or start to tune the keeper out altogether!

  1. Arrange to get feedback. This is already on the tactics page, but I want to repeat it. Many times a defender may have heard the keeper's request, but keeps getting yelled at because they didn't acknowledge it. A glance, a nod, a wave, a quick verbal "Okay!" allows the keeper to shut up and move on.
  2. Limit talk to immediate, necessary stuff related to setting up the defense. If you the goalkeeper talks constantly, having a running play-by-play going, it eventually becomes background noise and their teammates will tune them out. They shouldn't waste their breath on exhorting teammates on when the ball is away from goal or point out misplays at midfield. Do, however, make sure they acknowledge good plays on the part of their defense.
  3. Keep the tone of voice from being too harsh. I tend to end up screaming, even though a scream isn't usually necessary and it gets on my teammate's nerves. A keeper may have to work at this -- set a small tape recorder by the goal sometime and have them listen to themselves; they might be surprised at how they really sound to others.
  4. Trust the defenders to do their jobs. A goalkeeper expects their defenders to trust their instructions, judgement and ability. The keeper should do the same for them. Often defenders have things under control and don't need any instruction. I've heard keepers (like myself) constantly yelling "Away!" any time there is a hint of trouble, not trusting the defenders to handle things. Often, it's unnecessary. A goalkeeper needs to be a leader, not a micromanager.


Difficult when you dominate

Sometimes, the hardest situation to be in as a goalkeeper is when your team is dominating. It seems a bit counterintuitive, but having to make a diving reaction save or snuff out a breakaway after being mostly idle for 15 or 20 minutes is extremely hard mentally. The old saying about "98 per cent boredom, 2 per cent sheer terror" definitely applies to the job of goalkeeping. It certainly proved true for U.S. goalkeeper Kasey Keller in the second half of today's friendly against Venezuela. After the U.S. dominated in the second half, with Keller rarely seeing the ball, Kasey had to make a quick diving parry to his right late in the game to preserve the shutout.

And it can be critical if the game is close in spite of the lopsided run of play, as it often is in soccer. A quick counterattack goal by the opposition can let the other team back into the game or even give them the lead!

The way to combat losing focus when the ball is at the other end of the field for long stretches is to stay connected with your defense:

  • Stay at the top of the penalty area or even outside it and play sweeper/keeper. Be ready to cut out long balls over the top, and make yourself available to your teammates for backpasses. Make yourself part of the play.
  • Stay in communication. Don't stop talking to your defense just because there isn't and immediate threat. Make sure the defenders don't fall asleep as well and let an opposing forward go unmarked. At the very least, acknowledge them when they make a good defensive play in front of you.
  • Constantly scan the field and ask "what if?". Mentally prepare for counterattacks that look like they're developing -- try to read the play and determine where it might go in a worst-case scenario, and remind yourself what you would need to do in that situation. The play might never come through, but if you are prepared for the worst, you can't be caught off guard.


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