7 words will change your child’s soccer career, when they tell you: “I think I want to play goalkeeper.” For some families it will be a natural progression. Perhaps the coach has been rotating players through the position and it seems like a natural fit. Maybe your child is enamored with the position, and came to soccer to emulate the greats like Buffon, Casillas or Neuer. For others it, might come with a sense of shock, or even concern. Does that mean my kid won’t get a good workout? Will my kid get hurt with balls constantly flying at their face? Is my kid a glutton for punishment? Where did this come from?
Added to the worries, particularly in the younger years, is that it takes a very long time for a goalkeeper to learn their position. They have a long list of goalkeeper skills to master, and that’s on top of all the skills they need to be a soccer player first. Furthermore, goalkeepers are under pressure early on to not concede goals, even though they for several years will lack the tools to be effective defenders of their goals. One of the toughest things for a goalkeeper parent to get used to is the groans from the sideline when their goalkeeper makes a mistake, and then has to go back into the net to fish out the ball and make the frustrated walk back.
After leaving the comfort of AYSO for club ball, my own son had a very rough start of it. For a few years, he had a few coaches that neither understood the position, nor were sympathetic to the learning process. After a long search, and a little bit of luck we finally found a brilliant, caring coach that understood the position, and allowed my player the room to grow. But through it all I had very few people I could turn to for advice. The other soccer player families that we met didn’t understand the position or what it took either. Finding a private goalkeeper coach was helpful, but I still questioned in the back of my mind if I was getting an honest assessment of his potential, and in any case, the private coach was not present to coach the team. So, I had to kind of grope my way through the process, making mistakes along the way.
While finding the right goalkeeper coach (whether as part of the club or private) is important for your goalkeeper’s growth, finding the right team coach is even more critical. It will make or break your beginning goalkeeper’s early years, and will be a key factor in whether they walk away from the sport or thrive. But how do you find the right fit? Here are some key questions to ask your child’s coach along the way when they are still playing for youngers’ teams, and these are questions I wish I had known I should ask when my son first started the process.
1. How do you feel about mistakes?
Your player is going to make a ton of mistakes—lot’s of them, early and often. And when they make the mistake, a goal more often than not will be conceded. Most children just starting out will even make basic mistakes while they are learning, like dropping balls or not paying attention (since they are overwhelmed by trying to get so many of the basic movements right). Even if they’ve mastered something like handling a shot directly placed at them, it might wind up looking different if it’s shot a little higher or a little lower than they are used to, or if the ball takes an unexpected bounce, or if it comes from the corner or at an angle instead of straight onto goal. Until they’ve seen the situation both in training and on the pitch, getting it right is more often than not a little bit of luck.
Mistakes are part of the learning process, and are how children learn. It’s the way kids experiment, and put into practice during a game that which they learn in training. We want children to test their limits, which in turn may cause something to go awry the first couple times its tried. A good coach will understand the goalkeeper will make lots of mistakes, and will be tolerant of them. Just as important as recognizing that mistakes will be made is how they react to them. Do they jump up and down and yell at the child, or do they tell them it’s all right? Do they tell the teammates to shut it when they groan about being a goal down, or do they join in the criticism? Do they explain to the parents the difficulties the goalkeepers face as part of the learning process, or do they scapegoat them to avoid responsibility for the loss? And when the mistake is made, do they give the child a constructive teaching point that will help them improve, or is the advice limited to an abstract platitude like “do better”? It is critical that a coach create an environment where children are free to discuss and learn from their errors, without shame and without regret.
2. What’s expected of them?
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Some goals aren’t even mistakes. If the child isn’t an unusually early bloomer, balls are going to go over his or her head. If the kid’s goalkeeper coach hasn’t taught them to dive yet, the child doesn’t stand much of a chance of stopping a low ball hit away from them with pace. And at the beginning, the goalkeeper coach is probably going to be spending a good year just covering the basics: how to handle the ball, how to get into set position, basic angles and movement and how to dive safely (but not yet effectively). Most children just starting out won’t be able to make that tip over bar, or sail through the air on an extension dive.
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And there are a ton of things a goalkeeper needs to learn: handling and the various hand position; diving (low, high and front, collapse and extension); positioning, angles, and footwork; high balls and tipping over bar; forming a wall and defending against free kicks; communication; distribution; clearances and reaction saves; one v ones; defending against corners and crosses; and defending against penalty saves. And that’s only a partial list, and doesn’t include developing a goalkeeper’s feet and learning how to become a soccer player.
When a goalkeeper is just starting out at the younger ages, both due to physical limitations and the fact they haven’t mastered the long list of techniques, they may only be able to defend against balls directly shot at them or their immediate vicinity. Is that the expectation of the coach, or is a player that doesn’t know the technique expected to do things which may be unsafe like dive, come out for a cross, or defend the one v one with a smother? Does the coach understand that some balls cannot be saved if they are beyond the physical limitations of the players such as a ball shot over the child’s head? Will the coach compare the keeper to opposing keepers who might know more or just know different techniques such as tipping over bar? Will the coach make clear to the player when something was their responsibility versus when a goal just exceeded the current capacities of the goalkeeper? Will the coach make clear to the goalkeeper (and the teammates) exactly what the goalkeeper’s minimum responsibilities are for their level of development?
3. Will my child still play the field?
I can’t tell you the countless times when I’ve refereed a younger’s game and I’ve seen a coach put the big but unathletic kid in goal because that kid can’t run very well on the field. Perhaps that’s the only way that particular child can play on that particular team, but it’s almost a certainty that as the child grows up, he won’t be playing soccer anymore.
With the modern backpass rule requiring keepers to be able to handle the ball with their feet, and with keepers increasingly being called upon to play the role of a “sweeper” by assisting the defense even outside the box, it has become critically important that keepers in addition to all their other skills learn how to play with their feet, and one of the best ways to do that is by developing soccer skills by playing on the field. Playing the field also allows the keeper to develop tactical awareness of what’s involved in the other positions, whether it’s a striker and the techniques involved in taking the shot, or a defender and learning how to coordinate within that back line. And kids being kids, there’s always the chance a goalkeeper might change their mind and want to play the field.
Every goalkeeper coach I’ve spoken to has told me that in the early years it’s vitally important for a child to play, at least some of the time, on the field. The United Soccer Coaches materials I received in getting my level I license recommended kids don’t specialize until the absolute earliest at age 12. So a parent should know going into a club situation if their child is going to play the field so they can make a frank assessment of the pros and cons.
4. How do you handle multiple keepers?
If there’s more than one, a parent of a younger goalkeeper should know how the coach plans to handle multiple goalkeepers. Is the coach going to rotate several players through the goal? Are there just two? And how will the coach assess playing time: by effort, by dividing the time evenly, or by playing the one which is performing strongest most often?
Having two keepers on a team can be a huge positive, or a huge negative. If the keepers are evenly matched and get equivalent playing time, the two might push each other to become better in various areas of their game. But if the children are at different levels of development, the situation can be fraught with difficulties. The more advanced keeper might come to resent having to split time, particularly if that player isn’t compensated with substantial field time. The less developed keeper might come to resent the lack of playing time, or being compared by coaches, players and parents to the keeper that is further along in their development. Any situation where keepers are of differing levels tends to work only if the coach encourages the more advanced player to serve as a mentor and compensates them with field time, while at the same time coming to an acceptable arrangement with the less developed keeper that keeps that player and the player’s parents satisfied. The coach also has to have the less developed keeper’s back in case the parents of other players complain about mistakes, and why such player is receiving playtime instead of the other.
5. How do you handle goalkicks and playing the ball back?
At the younger ages, it can be difficult for defenders to keep control of the ball if it is passed short to them from the goal on a goalkick. It can be difficult for a goalkeeper to learn where to properly place a goalkick and how to handle the backpass. Losing the ball so close to one’s own goal can lead to easy goal scoring opportunities for the other side, particularly once the buildout line is removed. Some coaches respond to these pressures by taking a big-legged field player and having them boot the ball downfield. Such a technique does as disservice to both the goalkeeper (who doesn’t learn who to properly handle the distribution responsibilities of his or her position) and to the defenders (who don’t learn how to handle the pressures of building from the back). This shortcut can also demoralize a goalkeeper, who may be training how to distribute the ball and handle the backpass with his or her goalkeeper coach.
It’s important for the player and the coach to be on the same page regarding expectations on playing with the feet. If the goalkeeper isn’t getting any field time, and isn’t allowed to play with his or her feet in goal, that player is being very poorly served. If the goalkeeper isn’t allowed to take his or her own goalkicks, it’s important for the parent to understand why and to make sure the player’s feet are somehow also being developed in a game situation.
6.What role does the club goalkeeper coach play?
More often than not a club will provide the goalkeeper with free group goalkeeper training. The goalkeeper coach may be a coach on staff, or may be a coach contracted to provide group lessons. The goalkeeper coach may show up to games, or may not. But it’s critically important to know how the head coach and the goalkeeper coach communicate.
Does the goalkeeper coach provide the head coach input as to where the player is at and what the player is working on? Does the head coach provide feedback to the goalkeeper coach about what the goalkeeper struggled with, did well with, and how they performed in the game? Does the goalkeeper coach have any input with respect to goalkeeper tactics and playtime? Is the head coach open to suggestion from the goalkeeper coach about how best to utilize the particular goalkeeper? Does the goalkeeper coach provide assistance in training distribution patterns and set pieces such as defending corner kicks, free kicks and penalty kicks so the goalkeeper isn’t getting conflicting instructions from the head coach and goalkeeper coach?
Without that line of communication, the development of the goalkeeper will be hampered. The goalkeeper might very well also become confused or frustrated by conflicting directions. And the goalkeeper won’t be able to fully address the issues which might arise. Ideally, the goalkeeper coach (even if he or she can’t come out to all the games) should be an integrated part of the coach staff, with a right to provide input regarding team decisions, while acknowledging the final word is held by the head coach.
7.How important is winning?
Coaches are under a lot of pressure to provide a win. Lose every game and the kids and parents get frustrated and look for other teams. Have enough losing seasons and teams implode, and clubs begin to question a coach’s competency. And hey, coaches, parents and kids all like to win, and getting the win is an integral part of all sports.
But in soccer, in particular, the pursuit of a win can cause coaches to take developmental short cuts that harm individual players. Some examples include: teaching the strikers to always try and kick it high over the goalkeeper’s head, trying to outrun the opposite team instead of building scoring opportunities by passing, having a big legged defender constantly boot the ball downfield on a goalkick, or telling the players never to pass the ball backwards. Sometimes the pursuit of the win can even lead to some ugly behavior, such as recruiting upgrades to the goalkeeper’s position instead of developing the goalkeeper, or outright scapegoating the goalkeeper for a losing record.
It’s a balancing act and it’s important for a goalkeeper’s parent to understand where on the win v. development continuum the coach stands. Go too far on the win at all cost side of the ledger, and the goalkeeper could be put under enormous pressure, making the game more of a chore than something to be enjoyed. Put enough pressure on the goalkeeper and the child will just give up rather than continue playing.
Developing a goalkeeper takes a really long time, and the best coaches will know that development sometimes comes slowly, and that soccer is, after all, a game to be enjoyed. As they get deeper into middle school and high school, there will be plenty of time to pursue trophies. Because being a goalkeeper can be very hard, especially when the goalkeeper is just starting out, it is important for a parent to make sure the goalkeeper is in a supportive environment that puts at least some emphasis on long term development. If a coach is unwilling or unable to discuss these questions with you, it’s time to seriously question whether you are in the best place for your child. But if the coach is open and upfront about things, at least the parent can make a decision regarding the pro and cons of a particular situation, and the risks and difficulties a new goalkeeper might face. If you or your child is new to the position, welcome to the Goalkeeper Union! It can be a magical, challenging, at times frustrating experience, filled with both smiles and tears, but most of all, if the situation is right and the stars align, filled with fun.
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