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Challenges and Triumphs for Developing Goalkeepers

Navigating the Challenges and Triumphs for Developing Goalkeepers

Middle school is a tricky period for youth soccer players, especially goalkeepers. It's the position that many players run away from - literally. Soccer Parenting wanted to shed some light on this position, and how you, as parents, can help navigate the world of youth goalkeepers. Luckily guest contributor Yesenia Torpoco has some great experiences to share with us, along with the help of some goalkeeper expert friends of Soccer Parenting: Neil Thompson, Jill Loyden and Jeff Tackett.

It was the closing days of summer, and my goalkeeper son, then age 11, stepped onto the field for his first game of 11v11. He looked so tiny in comparison to the size of that field and the size of that goal. The whistle blew and within the first five minutes of the game, a ball was whacked from about the penalty spot over his head. He jumped up to catch it, but he didn’t even get a finger on it, and the ball sailed into the goal just under the crossbar. His teammates groaned: “Why didn’t you get that one?”. He looked over at me sitting on the sidelines, asking me with his eyes, “What happened? Last year I could get that one.”

The middle school years (ages 11-14) are times of change. Kids are making a lot of adjustments as they grow up, whether it’s dealing with changes in school such as more complex schedules, or the changes that come along with puberty. And goalkeepers are not exempt from those changes. In the middle school years, kids change to a large field and begin playing 11v11, new soccer options open up such as with the arrival of letter league options like MLS Next and ECNL, and goalkeepers begin to learn new techniques and encounter new expectations.

In a prior article in this series, I explored the challenges and questions faced with developing younger goalkeepers that are just starting out. In this article, I asked goalkeeper coaches Neil Thompson, Jillian Loyden and Jeff Tackett about the trials and tribulations faced by middle school goalkeepers and their parents.

You can find their bios at the end of this page.

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How to Handle Competition Between Goalkeepers

"Coaches, is it better to play on a higher-level team where play time may be split between two goalkeepers or where a player may have reduced time as a number 2, or is it better to be the undisputed No.1 on a slightly lower team?"

Neil: I think it’s very important to assess the total environment. For both the parent and the player, you have to look beyond the badge, take your pride out of the equation. What, for example, are your long-term objectives? Where are you at right now? What is the proof of concept for the club I’m looking at? Are they developing goalkeepers that are moving onto college or professional careers? And what are the qualifications and personalities of the coaches? What’s the goalkeeper training like? Being the No.1 may not be the end-all, be-all of the equation. If the club is getting goalkeepers into college, then that’s a good indication that, irrespective of what happens in the game on weekends, players are developing Monday through Friday.

Jillian: I agree that the best team to play on is where you have the best environment. You need coaches that care about you, and that are going invest in developing the player. They need to really care about the player’s development, make the investment of time in the player’s development, and speak to the player correctly. It should be an environment the player enjoys and that you can be your best self in. You should be able to explore different things without fear of getting yelled at or letting the team down. The best team isn’t necessarily about the most elite level or the most playing time.

Jeff: If you are scouted to make an MLS Next or high level team from 11-13, and you are going to split time, I think you are ok to go.  The missing variable is what the development of goalkeepers looks like. Are they teaching them during practice and giving true input during games? Is the goalkeeper coach training and coaching, or only training? Does the goalkeeper coach do game assessment, either by coming to the games or by utilizing one of the video platforms?

"What advice would you give to a player that is in that alternate spot, and is not getting too much play time?"

Jeff: At this age range, they need to be playing.  If they are not getting playing time on a “high level” team, then they need to leave. They are not being seen as “ready” by the staff so there is no reason to stay and sit the bench for every game, just so you can train and the pride of being on a “top team”.  Find a team that needs a goalkeeper and is still at a decent level for the goalkeeper to play in.

Neil: I disagree somewhat. The biggest question is whether the environment Monday-Friday is making me a better goalkeeper. If so, you’ve got to stick with it, because as you get a higher level, the competition is fiercer. And you aren’t just competing against the No. 1, but you are also competing against the goalkeepers from lower-level clubs that are trying to break in. However, if you aren’t progressing in your development, it may be time to step back and evaluate where you are. It may be you’ve bitten off a little more than you are capable of at the current time. It’s sometimes hard to know what exactly you’ve signed up for, but that’s an important life lesson too. And ultimately, it’s a long game. You don’t necessarily have to be the best 14 year old. Your goal should be to become the best by the time you are 18 years or older.

"Neil, but isn’t the game the best teacher?"

Neil: Yes, but it’s not the end-all of everything. You have to look at ways to supplement the game, and one of the ways is going to a club that has a very good goalkeeper coach. I think the job of the goalkeeper coach specifically is to give you the tools necessary to perform at the best of your abilities. It’s up to the goalkeeper coach to create a training environment that gives the goalkeepers the tools necessary to perform at the highest levels. They should create training environment that recreates the competition of the game, so players can figure out how to problem solve and identify the strengths and weaknesses of an opponent. That’s why games like goalkeeper wars, where players are encouraged to come up with their own solution to split second problems, are more useful than set activities where players know exactly what type of ball they are getting.

Is an Academy Better for the Developing Goalkeeper, or Grassroots?

"Is it important to try and grab that academy, MLS Next, or ECNL slot right away from the get go, as soon as letter leagues are offered, or can you wait and jump in later?"

Jillian: This is specific to each individual and it depends. But I think the most important aspect of playing is that you enjoy it, and that you want to keep showing up and fueling your passion for the sport and the position. So, I say you lean towards whatever environment is going to be able to do that. And maybe someone’s passion is to be the best player they can be but not necessarily play at the highest level. A
level that is both challenging and enjoyable is going to be most beneficial.

It’s important to do things on your own timeline. If you are an 11 year old, being MLS Next or ECNL may not be everything at this point. You have to look at where the player is in their development, and where they are in their interests. Playing at the highest levels is a huge time and emotional commitment. Players have to be comfortable with it. If you aren’t 100% in, it might not be a good fit. For example, if you are interested in doing multiple sports, the highest levels might not be right for you, because at the highest levels football can rapidly become your entire life. Slots open up. You shouldn’t  feel pressured to jump into it. If you are a player of quality that has a dedicated work ethic, you can get selected eventually.

Growing Goalkeepers

"Puberty begins to hit at the middle school ages. The girls wrap up their growth in height but their bodies begin to change shape in other ways. The boys still don’t have their mass, but their height begins to take off. What impact does this have on the coordination and abilities of goalkeepers at these ages?"

Jeff: This age can be very tricky for the goalkeeper.  Some take off in height, and others do not until later.  Either way, it is important to continue to work on your foundations of footwork, catching/holding, and diving.  If you are able to keep up with the similar training, you muscle memory should continue to flourish as your growth continues.  During this time the muscles are also developing.  The negative part of this age range is many teams are ONLY looking at the size of the goalkeeper and want the bigger one, now.  This is why it is important to keep to the process, and to control what you can control and do not worry about what you cannot control.

Jillian: So, for me, my mentality is that we aren’t going to go too too deep into the technical side with 8, 9, 10, and 11 year olds (with an emphasis mostly on techniques to keep them safe), because your body changes and the way you manipulate your body is very different. We try to teach principles of the game to help understand why we do certain things and to allow goalkeepers to explore decision making based on what their individual constraints are. So we are really forced to consider with the younger goalkeepers that they are going to grow, their hands are going to get bigger, and they’ll be able to push more. They’ll be doing less running to cover the goal and more explosiveness. So until this age, we try to focus on the principles of the game for this very reason.

"Jillian, in the middle school years, do you think girls should be trained differently than boys? I’ve noticed with the boys some coaches start being more severe with them at these ages, both in terms of strictness and expectations."

Jillian: I’m really passionate about this issue. I do everything the same for female and male goalkeepers at the middle school level. I don’t believe that males can take harsher criticism, or that females are softer. I think this is a really big misconception. I think we are all humans with the desire to be cared for, stretched, seen, supported and to be in a good environment. I don’t think we need to be harsh to help people develop or get the desired outcome. Our job is to help each person grow individually and as a player.

How Goalkeepers Handle the Transition to 11v11 Pitches and Goals

"The middle school years are also the years players move from small-sided games in smaller goals to 11v11 in full-sized goals. What considerations does this present for youth goalkeepers?"

Neil: One other challenge is how keepers explore a bigger box. They now have 18 yards to cover and may have to run farther and start with a higher line. It causes the tactical concepts to really come into focus. If a player has learned properly in the smaller goal, they should have the basics of tactics. But a coach is still going to have to translate this into the larger area, and the coach needs to give the goalkeeper guidance and room to adapt. Coaches also need to start engaging the goalkeeper on offense and giving them the best tools to start building the attack with the goalkeeper.

Jillian: It really is a big jump. How does the goalkeeper cope? The answer is to dive into as much training as possible and to surrender to whatever outcome that training produces. You are going to give up space over the top of your head when you are still growing. You are trying to protect this massive goal. And there may be things that we can do to adjust, so working with the goalkeeper coach is key. For
example, if you are a little smaller, and there’s a lot of space over your head, maybe we need to adjust your vertical positioning. The goalkeeper coach should help the player to figure out the ways to manage that bigger goal.

Jeff: This time period, going from 9v9 to 11v11, is the hardest in my opinion.  The goal gets larger, the box gets larger, and the field becomes longer and wider.  This forces the goalkeeper to almost have to relearn everything.  They have new angles on shots, they need to take up higher positions during balls in the middle 1/3 to stay connected to the defense, and they have to be aware of through balls. The crossing angles become different due to the width of the field which means the goalkeeper’s positioning is going to be much different from a 9v9 field.  The goalkeepers are in a bit of a catch 22: they need to be higher off their line because the goal area is bigger, but so is the goal, so this can create many opportunities for the goalkeeper to get chipped. And when they get chipped, the coach yells to “get back onto your line”, but now this leaves space open for the balls to be played through and the goalkeeper is nowhere near the position to attack the ball on a 1v1. The end result is just confusion for the goalkeeper, which can only be resolved by experience and development. But many teams are not willing to wait for this development to happen. Many goalkeepers get lost in the mix because they may have fallen a bit behind while they learn the new dimensions and sizes.

"Jeff, what if the goalkeeper needs some extra work at this point? Is this the time to consider private goalkeeper training, in addition to whatever the club might be offering?"

Jeff: I think it's fine to get private training at those ages, but I think one on one training should only be done when you need to fix details about your game (e.g., fix diving to a side, goalkicks, etc.). Ideally, the outside training should still be in a group to enable the goalkeeper to work on game-like issues. As an outside trainer, I try very hard not to undermine the club goalkeeper coach. I do make sure that when I see the goalkeeper doing trendy saves (e.g. 1-hand save/hold, kick saves, etc.) that the goalkeeper understands why they are doing the technique, and when it is and is not appropriate to use. Other than that, my focus is to make sure YOUR style is better, and not to make you into a robot of my style. I send my goalkeepers to other coaches all the time when I know they can teach something better than I can, and I know several of my colleagues will do the same thing with me. When we work together, we are making these goalkeepers better!

"The big goal is awfully huge those first couple years and coaches seem to have unrealistic expectations for the ability of keepers to be able to cover the larger goal. What would you tell players about managing such expectations from coaches, teammates and parents?"

Jillian: I think it’s important to praise intent over the outcome, so maybe the goalkeeper has a really good idea and they try something, but it doesn’t come off. The idea is there, but the execution isn’t.
These are young goalkeepers still trying to learn the basics and fundamentals of the position, so it’s important that the environment around them be kept positive, to continue to fuel that passion and joy for the position.

Neil: Ideally, a coach should give the player support and encouragement. If the ball goes over the keeper’s head because of the higher cross bar, the coach should tell them: “Hey you did the right thing, but time was against us in this situation. In six months, you save that.” But if the coach isn’t supportive, I would encourage the player not to pay too much attention to the negative feedback. In the end, criticism is a part of the role. Goalkeepers are going to get criticism from their teammates. They are going to get it from the crowd. Now they even get it on social media. Unfortunately, it may not be fair, but it is part of the job. And the player is going to have to learn to deal with that sooner or later. It’s important to recognize that the moment will pass and they need to be ready to go on and think about the next play.

"Height begins to become an issue in these years. Should coaches only put tall keepers and early bloomers in goal?"

Neil: No. A late developer might become really successful because when they were younger, in order to compete with the taller kids, they had to master certain things (like footwork), were forced to come up with creative solutions, and therefore became top students of the game. If it’s truly about development, and not the coach wanting to get the short term win, a late blooming player should be getting a chance. I’ll use USMNT selectee/FC Cincinnati goalkeeper Roman Celetano as an example. He
was always an undersized goalkeeper growing up, but very talented. He played in what would be now MLS Next but was then known as the DA. At age 16, he got a growth spurt come on. If size were the only issue, he would never have gotten his break.

Jeff: No, this will happen more than it should, but being tall only gives one dimension of being a goalkeeper.  The “eye-candy” of being tall gives the impression that the goalkeeper can save the high ball and the cross.  This is not the case.  I see many goalkeepers that are tall that still get chipped and are not able to come out to claim crosses.  It still comes down to your foundations and techniques.

When to Dedicate Time to Becoming a Goalkeeper

"When they are younger, goalkeepers are sometimes encouraged to split time on the field with time in goal. Are the ages 11-14 the proper time to go full time in goal?"

Jillian: I think players should be allowed to do what they want to do. If they want to continue to split time, great. If they want to play full time in goal, great. But I do think even at the younger ages that players should be encouraged to play on the field as much as possible, even if not in games, then in training at least. It helps develop their game understanding and different techniques, as well as being comfortable with the ball at their feet.

Neil: Yeah, but kids shouldn’t feel pressured to rush that decision. My background was that I started playing rugby and I transitioned to soccer at around age 11. That was ample time to become a really good goalkeeper. The only thing I’d encourage all goalkeepers to be a football player first, and a goalkeeper second. Don’t get pigeon-holed too quickly or you’ll miss out on a lot of things such as balls skills by not playing on the field. Camps are also a great way for players who are experimenting with goalkeeping to decide whether the position is right for them.

Jeff: This is an individual decision.  If a goalkeeper plays on the field and is a valuable player in both areas, then maybe they should continue to play both until they figure out which position will become the one that sticks.  I would say if you are only playing the field because there are two goalkeepers, you are not a field player, you are just trying to get minutes when you are not in goal.  I think it is ok to become a full-time goalkeeper by the age of 11-14, if the goalkeeper wants to play that position.

"What role should the parents play in their young goalkeepers career at this point? Is it, for example, time for them to back off in dealing with the coaches on such things as playtime and development expectations?"

Jillian: I think parents have a really difficult job these days. And I think that the less coaching information they can give, the better. They should let the coaches do that. Parents can ask their player what’s the best way to be supported. What does the player need? One topic that always comes up is the car ride after the game. Maybe after the game the player needs a little time to decompress, rather than discuss what happened. Maybe the player needs some time to not talk about soccer at all. Or maybe the player needs ice cream! Parents should listen to the needs of their players and trying to meet those needs. In terms of playing time, there is a certain age when players should speak for themselves (or together with their parents). But if there is an experience the player is having that is maybe a negative one, or the relationship with the coach is not going well, it may be beyond the player’s ability to cope on their own, and the parents might need to speak for their kids.

Jeff: This is a tricky question. This is the age where a child should begin to advocate for themselves; however, they will be set up for failure unless they have the support of both the parents and coaches. Many of the coaches do not understand the child development process and have unrealistic expectations of the child being able to handle these issues on their own.  A culture has been created in club soccer where some coaches insist that they will only speak to the player about development issues, and take questions raised by the parents as interference. Many times, the only interaction the goalkeeper has had with the coach is during a mistake or negative situation such as in the example the question raises (i.e., the amount of playtime they are getting).  The goalkeeper must be groomed, with their parents’ help, to speak to the coach in positive times, so they build a full relationship.  Parents
should encourage and teach children how to advocate for themselves. Coaches and clubs need to understand child development and teaching models before creating absolute rules such as only discussing development concerns with the players. So, I am a big believe that the parent needs to be involved, so they can help the children learn how to listen, what questions need to be asked, how to ask them, and how to recall the info that has been given to them. If a child has not been taught how to deal
with an adult and ask adult questions, they will fail in the process.

Neil: One small note. In addition to giving the goalkeeper lots of support and empathy, one of the things parents can do is to not inadvertently make things harder for their player. For example, some coaches hold things like punctuality against a child, even though the player has very little control over their transportation.

What Skills a Goalkeeper Should Focus On

"What skills should the middle school goalkeeper be looking to master before heading into the high school ages?"

Neil: By high school, a player should be well-equipped from having faced so many shots by this point in their career. Their technique should be good in all areas: handing, shot stopping, diving, 1v1s and crosses. However, these areas by this point don’t need to be completely mastered. Tactically, the goalkeeper should have been exposed to playing out the back, and should be developing their passing and distribution abilities. Remember, a goalkeeper is a football player first. But from a larger point of view, by this point, the goalkeeper should be exposed to a variety of environments. They need to have faced both wins and losses, because how you respond to each varies. And if they haven’t been challenged, it’s important for the goalkeeper to begin to seek out such opportunities: even if they are No. 1 at U14 and getting national ID. Maybe even look at playing up a year if necessary. It’s important
for the goalkeeper to find the environment where they struggle a bit. It forces them to find a solution in order to succeed. Over time as they face risks, they’ll develop more and more tools to be successful. Putting a goalkeeper in a low-pressure environment allows the goalkeeper to take a leadership role and gain confidence. But if that’s all a goalkeeper has by high school, their education will be incomplete. For example, if he makes a mistake, because his team is so good, he might not be punished for the mistake, and therefore doesn’t learn from it. It’s important by high school for the player to have experienced both environments, because only then will their development really begin to take some leaps and come into its full potential.

Jillian: I think this is relative to each individual goalkeeper. But three things which we’ve been trying to think about a lot at The Keeper Institute are: 1. The athletic component: helping to develop athletes with a really strong athletic base so that the player can recruit those athletic movements to be more specific to goalkeeping.
2. The in possession piece: This is something that goalkeepers are having trouble
with at the highest level—being in control of the ball at your feet, breaking lines, scanning, having the tactical awareness to find an open teammate, and making high value passes and 3. Game understanding: understanding what a player’s strengths are, understanding where the player can continue to improve, understanding tactical issues like when to come out or when to stay, and playing to one’s strength as much as possible. Those are the three things that goalkeepers should really focus on at this age.

Jeff: At 11 – 12 year old, goalkeepers are still learning to master the technical abilities.  Depending on how quickly they develop these abilities, you can begin to introduce the tactical aspects of those techniques. This is how the goalkeeper can learn about the “WHY” in the game, and not just be someone that saves shots.  As they move into the high school ages, the focus flips where they should be learning tactics with technical aspects.  The game has evolved and the goalkeeper needs to become an overall player and not just a shot blocker.  The goalkeeper needs to become a student of the game and understand what the team is trying to do, just as much as what they need to do in their individual position.

Neil Thompson has had over 20 years of professional experience in soccer and now serves an agent for some of the best young talent in North America. Neil is the founder of Big Cat Goalkeeping, has coached for US Men’s Youth National Team for the u15s, u16s and u19s, and has coached at the NCAA level at Loyola University in Chicago. Neil has worked within the MLS system with LAFC, where he was the Head of Academy Goalkeeping.  His goalkeeping academy, Big Cat Goalkeeping, has had over 200+ goalkeepers pass through that have gone on to the college game, or become professional goalkeepers that now play across Europe and in North America.  Currently Big Cat works with multiple youth national team players, both girls and boys.  Neil prides himself on traveling the world and learning from some of the worlds best coaches and clubs while spending time in their environments. Neil has shadowed, had formal club visits, or taken players to: Manchester United, Atletico Madrid, Barcelona, Newcastle United, Sporting CP, Benfica, and others.

Jillian Loyden founded The Keeper Institute, based in New Jersey, in 2013, towards the end of her professional playing career. She is a former member of the U.S. Women’s National Team, and Sky Blue FC of the National Women's Soccer League (NWSL). She played professionally in the Women’s Professional Soccer league (WPS) for the MagicJack, Chicago Red Stars and St. Louis Athletica. In the collegiate game Jill was a standout goalkeeper and four-year starter at Division I Villanova University, where she earned Big East Goalkeeper of the Year honors three consecutive seasons as well as NSCAA First-Team All-America her senior year. In 2014 Jill retired from playing professional soccer and began her coaching career as she opened The Keeper Institute headquarters in summer of 2015.
Jill was the goalkeeper coach for Sky Blue FC (NWSL) for the 2016 and 2017 seasons, worked with our youth US National Teams as a goalkeeper coach.

Jeff Tackett served as an ODP coach from 1995-2003. He has been director of coaching and director
of goalkeeping for various youth clubs. He has served as a coach for California Baptist University, Cal
Poly Pomona and as the men’s assistant coach/goalkeeper coach for the University of La Verne. He has served as the goalkeeper coach and head coach for the Anaheim Bolts Professional Indoor team,
and as goalkeeper coach for the Ontario Fury. He is the director of the Southern California School of
Goalkeeping, based in Claremont California (www.scsg.fullslate.com).

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    Yesenia Torpoco

    Yesenia Torpoco is the proud soccer mom of a goalkeeper, and AYSO and club soccer referee.