When my son was very little, we used to go this park where Ian Feuer (one of the contributors to this article) was training some older soccer goalkeepers. Ian probably doesn't remember this, but my son would plant himself on the grass for 10 minutes at a time and watch, and then announce, "One day I'm gonna be a goalkeeper."
But when he started to play organized ball, I was a little lost in how to help him achieve his dream. Since most of our friends and neighbors involved in soccer had field players, there wasn't a whole lot of advice they could give. Many of the coaches, while eager to help, couldn't offer much by way of guidance. It was in many ways a rough start, and also a bit of a lonely one. The goalkeeper seems to be a very misunderstood position, and the position is unique in so many ways. So, in an effort to help other families that might be beginning the goalkeeper journey, I put questions to three experts to weigh in on.
Ian Feuer is a former professional goalkeeper, having played for West Ham United FC, Luton Town FC, the US National Team, and the 1992 US Olympic Team. He is a former coach of both the US Men’s National Team and US Women’s National Team, and the former head goalkeeper coach for the LA Galaxy. He is currently the goalkeeper coach for the University of Southern California and is the owner/operator of Premier Goalkeeping Academy based in Agoura, California (www.pgka.co).
Erin Lycan Ridley is a former University of Virginia goalkeeper. A co-captain of the 2004 ACC Tournament Championship team, the Chattanooga, Tennessee native graduated from UVA in 2005 and then spent almost 12 years coaching in the NCAA D1 ranks. Along the way, she also spent time coaching and developing youth goalkeepers at the club, ODP, WPSL, and Youth National Team level for US Soccer. She is currently the head coach of the U-14 San Jose Earthquakes Boys MLS Next Team.
Jeff Tackett served as an ODP coach from 1995-2003. He has been the director of coaching and director of goalkeeping for various youth clubs. He has served as a coach for California Baptist University and Cal Poly Pomona and is currently 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).
At what age to you think a child should start goalkeeper training? Is any age too young? Is any age too late?
Ian: It depends on each child’s ability to process information. I have had 8 year olds who can better process information than some 12 year olds so this is a key factor. So far around age 8 onwards I have had great results. Pre-age 8 it becomes very difficult unless the child has a good mental state of mind. I look for how they respond to me, how they take instruction, and how focused they are. Sometimes I have had to tell a parent maybe we should put a hold on this for a year. Is any age too late? It depends on what level they want to achieve although I have a couple of keepers who started age 17 and went on to become professionals. They also had a very good mindset to process information, so their development was very rapid.
Erin: I think all young athletes benefit from introductory goalkeeper training—in general it’s great for players from 8 to 18 to have a basic idea of how to move, catch, distribute, and dive safely. I encourage youth coaches to introduce their athletes to elements of playing in goal so they can appreciate it from the beginning, even if their players choose to play another position. I’ve found that in terms of a developmental window for high level goalkeepers, it’s better to have players who initially are quite the generalists—taking up martial arts, gymnastics, or participating as a multi-sport athlete as a young player up until about age 12 – who can acquire a broad base of athletic skill early on and then begin their specialization a bit later.
Jeff: If a team has formed and they use a goalkeeper, the goalkeeper at that point should be trained. I do not like that clubs continue to start younger and younger, but if they are going to put in a player in goal, it is important that they be trained for safety reasons. The goalkeeper must learn how to catch a ball so their fingers/hands are not injured. They need to begin to learn how to hit the ground when they dive so they do not “belly flop” and get hurt or fall wrong on their arm/elbow and injure it. They need to know how to come out on a 1v1 challenge so they do not get kicked in the head. All this falls under learning technique but its primary function is so we have created a safer environment for the player to not be injured. If it was up to me, I would say no goalkeeper in goal until 10 years old, but since I do not have a say, I will train them as soon as it needs to be done.
I hear many goalkeeper coaches say it’s important for a young goalkeeper to keep playing on the field too. Do you agree, and if so, at what age is it ok for the goalkeeper to play full time between the sticks?
Ian: I feel it is important to understand each and every position on the field even if from day one the keeper knows they want to play in goal. Playing as a forward will help you in goal to realize what a forward is thinking and vice versa. It is also very important to be good with playing the ball with your feet so playing on the field will help with this development. At what age is it good to go full time? For me it’s when they are ready to commit to the position, similar to a quarterback in football. When it comes to goalkeeping most love it or hate it from the first time they step in goal.
Erin: Around age 13-14 is when I think it’s more appropriate for players to make a full-time commitment to the position. By this time, a passion for the position is vital for the developmental pathway, and from about 14 to 18 goalkeepers are likely making their biggest strides in the technical proficiency of the position: general coordination and footwork, shot-stopping, set-position, handing, diving, 1v1s, distribution, communication, etc. Prior to that, I would encourage them to continue to be exposed to acquiring a broad range of athletic skills and to play on the field in both training and games and not to specialize in just goalkeeping.
What do you think is the most important skill a new young goalkeeper should learn first? Where do you usually start?
Erin: Depending on the age and skill level, I think one of the most important skills for a new young goalkeeper is learning how to move in and out of a set position, how to visually track and catch a ball, and how to dive safely. I usually begin with movement in and out of a set position and incorporate tracking and catching first, and then progress into low diving. I also think it’s really important to have age-appropriate soccer balls—it seems obvious but sometimes goalkeeper coaches don’t have access to a ball bag full of size 4 soccer balls and they’re using size 5s with a 10 and 11 year old players who have smaller hands and struggle with catching the larger surface area of a full sized ball. Players who are confident at catching with the right shape make progress much quicker than those who are uncomfortable about how to secure the ball.
Jeff: I think any time you are new to the position, the same rule is applied for me. Safety first. Phase 1: safety training. By safety training I mean to teach specific topics that will help reduce injuries to the goalkeeper, such as how to catch a ball properly to lessen the risk of an injured finger, hand or wrist. For diving, a goalkeeper needs to learn how to avoid hitting the ground in the wrong way (i.e., on stomach, joint of the shoulder, elbows or on their knees). On the 1v1, a goalkeeper must learn how to protect themselves properly so they don’t get kicked in the face/head. Phase 2 is technical training, followed by phase 3 technical training with tactical aspects of the game. Only later does the keeper reach phase 4: tactical training with detailed techniques added to target the individual player.
Ian, I know you emphasize catching in your training program. With the ball being ever lighter and faster, and with European keepers being taught to push the ball wide, is catching still even relevant?
Ian: Catching the ball is becoming a lost art. Sometimes the ball is just moving with with too much pace, but too many people are quick to push it out now days. But if you can grab the ball in your hands, that’s just so much better and safer than potentially giving up a goal by pushing it wide. Catching it raises the level of safety and prevents goals.
It seems to me that a lot of parents and some coaches have unrealistic expectations about what a goalkeeper should be able to defend, particularly if the goalkeeper is just starting out. Some seem to think that if the goalkeeper even lets one in it’s somehow the goalkeeper’s fault. What is the goalkeeper responsible for defending and at what ages?
Ian: It is insane some of the comments I hear during games and training session by some coaches and parents regarding their goalkeepers! As goalkeepers, we have a millisecond to cover the whole goal and to make a decision that usually is very cut and dry: a goal or a save.
Field players don’t have this same pressure and can get away with so much more. It blows my mind when during the week the players work on passing and shooting all week. Then, during the game a player will pass directly to the other team or shoot wide from 8 yards and everyone says, “good try, keeping going”. But when the goalkeeper who never gets to work on game-related situations with his team during the week’s training session (for example, a ball over the top of the backline from high up the field where the keeper has to decide whether to come out and clear the ball or drop off and let the defender deal with it), gets yelled at for making the wrong decision. So backwards if you ask me!
There is such a void in this country where coaches don’t involve their keepers within team session in a way that develops the entire “defensive unit”. Instead, we have defenders, and only then a goalkeeper. It should all be trained as a cohesive unit that works all the time on different situations.
Erin: A healthy goalkeeper culture supports a robust and resilient mindset for our young goalkeepers. We need to move away from the blame game that can be rampant in youth soccer. There’s no question that goalkeepers are in the spotlight, and their mistakes will be obvious to everyone. At every age, there needs to be a balance between taking ownership and avoiding the blame game. Young goalkeepers need to understand that goals are feedback mechanisms and that everyone on the team has a role within scoring and defending them. Here's a quick blueprint for helping goalkeepers, parents, and coaches cope with mistakes and frustrations:
- We don’t blame others for our mistakes. The temptation is huge to point fingers elsewhere when you make a mistake. Resist it. Own it. Not only will you gain respect and loyalty from your players or teammates, you’ll also help prevent a culture of blame from emerging.
- When we do point out errors, we do so constructively. There are time when mistakes do need to be examined in public. In these cases, we make sure to highlight that the goal is to learn from mistakes, not to humiliate those that made them.
- We set an example by confidently taking ownership of mistakes. Findings show that blaming can be contagious, but not among those who feel psychologically secure. So, try to foster a steady sense of inner security to avoid lashing out at others.
- We always focus on learning. Creating a culture where learning (rather than avoiding mistakes) will help ensure that people feel free to talk about and learn from their errors. We want players to explore their range and test their limits by making productive mistakes.
Remember, feedback isn’t failure and failure is only feedback.
Jeff: This is the golden question and one that is hard to answer due to the variables involved. I tell my goalkeepers, parents, and coaches that, “I am training the goalkeeper for 5 years from now, not 5 days from now”. There is so much to learn that we need tons and tons of time to make it meaningful and for it to sink in. From ages 8-10 (grassroots level) goalkeepers are learning how to stop the ball from going behind them into the goal. They must learn all the different tools of the trade on how to do this. Much of the technical training does not involve angle play, which the coach needs to happen right away because if the keeper is positioned wrong, the ball will go in whether they know how to block it or not. So, here you see the first dilemma of the goalkeeper coach and the fight we have with the coaches. They need the “now” and we want the “process” (and this is just the grassroots level).
At ages 11-13 (youth level) we are introducing how the techniques are used in a bit more of a game format, such as positioning and timing. We are also making sure they begin to communicate to the team on direct commands (“keeper” & “away”) and defensive commands (“pressure”, “step”, etc.). But at this point the coach is already expecting them to come off their line for the breakaways, but don’t come too high off their line to get chipped, but high enough off their line so they can receive through balls and stay connected to the defense for the back passes. Once again, we have a fight as to what we as the goalkeeper coach “needs” to happen and what the field player coach “expects” to happen.
At ages 14-19 (higher levels), the goalkeeper coach is now teaching full team tactics and how to understand multiple situations that occur in the game, such as set plays, crosses, and distribution. Oddly enough, as we are trying to get the goalkeeper ready for this part of their development, the field player coach tends to not speak to them much about it and gives false advice or orders as to what they think the goalkeeper should be doing. So, the goalkeeper coach needs the head coach to give them tactical insight as to what should be done on the field, but the head coach is not knowledgeable enough to give input so it becomes redundant or naïve information such as “you need to catch that” or “you need to come out and save that”.
Erin, a lot of coaches sometimes seem confused about what to do with their goalkeepers at the younger ages. For example, I see some coaches putting their least athletic kids in goal, simply because they are big. What’s the main piece of advice you’d like coaches to know about younger goalkeepers?
Erin: I think it’s really important to recognize that like field players, great goalkeepers come in all shapes and sizes. I think coaches should recognize that every position on the field has key attributes that suit the position and I personally look for the qualities of someone who moves well, has obvious athleticism, bravery that can’t be taught, and quality distribution ability which are all key qualities for me in the goalkeeping role. For young goalkeepers, coaches need to recognize that just putting one type of player in goal can limit long term development and that coaches should always be on the look out for field players who exhibit strong attributes for the goalkeeping position who might not have considered it otherwise.
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What advice do you have for parents in dealing with coaches that might not understand the position, particularly if the coach is asking them to do something contrary to what you might have taught your goalkeeper?
Ian: This is a tough one. At first, I tell my keepers to just give a thumbs up and agree. Most coaches have an ego so if you as a keeper or parent question the coach, they can most often get their ego hurt and sometimes make things even harder for the goalkeeper. If it is a common occurrence, then I would address it with the coach but in a way that feeds the coach’s ego. So, put it in a way where it is not questioning the coach but wanting his advice. If it remains an issue, then I would seek out a knowledgeable keeper coach who can help with what to say and how to say it.
Jeff: No, this is an easy one. 95% of the time the field player coach is telling the goalkeeper the wrong thing. This is why it is so important for the goalkeeper to learn the game and not just be a shot blocker. The more when understand the “when, where, why & how” of doing things in goal, the better it will be for us when the coach tells us to do something that may be wrong.
Many times the situation is different and calls for a different outcome. The field player coach does not understand this. They forget that our primary job is to protect the goal so why (for example) should I go get a through ball that is moving away from me, towards the outer part of the 18-yard box, when it is no longer in a dangerous situation? However, if I commit and go for the ball and do not get there first, the attacker has many options to score. If I stay and wait, then I delay play, assess the situation, and can figure out if they are going to come towards me for the breakaway, stay outside for a cross, or pass it back to set up a shot. If the goalkeeper knows how to speak to the coach on the “why” he/she did not go to the ball, the more the coach becomes aware that the goalkeeper is in charge and knows what they are doing The coach can then pose questions, and together the coach and player can figure out if anything could have been different during the applicable situation.
Keepers need the right equipment….what do you recommend by way of gloves for younger keepers just starting out?
Erin: There are many options out there for gloves, and each goalkeeper is best served finding what works best for them. Don’t be swayed by the idea that the most expensive gloves are always the best ones. I personally recommending avoiding gloves that have “finger savers” technology—they often give the illusion of safety without real protection. Because gloves are constantly in a state of breaking down, I recommend keepers invest in a pair of “games gloves” and a pair of “training gloves”. Once the game gloves begin to wear down, they can be transferred to “training gloves” status. HPG does a great job of offering high level gloves at affordable prices.
Jeff: They should not be skin tight and there should be some room to move. There are so many different “cuts” (e.g., negative cut, hybrid cut, rolled fingers, etc.), so it’s up to the individual to see what feels comfortable to them. I do not recommend finger saves at the younger ages. One, they do not allow the goalkeeper to have a natural circular curve to their hands when the ball is kicked at them, or to make a fist to punch a ball. Two, the younger size gloves tend to have the stiff finger savers whereas the bigger and more expensive sizes tend to have more natural flexibility. And if you buy Reusch gloves, they have a zipper to take out the finger savers for each finger. Reusch has sooooo many sizes and styles that it may be overwhelming for a new goalkeeper, but as you go older and find your preferences you can’t go wrong with Reusch.
Ian: I prefer Aviata gloves because the price point and quality are amazing, and they also have removable finger savers.
They say it’s very important for a goalkeeper to learn to play with their feet, but at the younger ages, a lot of coaches consider the back pass too dangerous to execute. Do you train younger goalkeepers to play with their feet, and how do you deal with their frustration when they aren’t allowed to practice the skill on the field?
Ian: I start from day one and every session will have at least one aspect of dealing with a back pass, regardless if the keeper’s team uses the back pass during games yet or not. At some point down the road, the goalkeeper will be required to handle the back pass, and the keeper will be ahead of the game if they have already been working on this topic.
Erin: It’s massively important for the goalkeeper to be comfortable with the ball at their feet. The modern goalkeeper must be a fully integrated field player capable of distributing the ball, relieving pressure, and starting the attack. This starts with having them play in exercises in training that demand that they are able to use their feet like their teammates and also to reinforce the use of the goalkeeper in the build-up. Coaches are depriving goalkeepers of proper development if they do not ask them to do this when they are younger.
Jeff: We practice this as often as we can. Even if it is during the warm up, we play 1-touch, 2- touch, and 3-touch to get more and more familiar with the ball. We try to teach the options of the back pass so the goalkeeper has an idea as to what may happen. However, this needs to be trained with the whole team. If the coach wants to give the goalkeeper the ball, they need to have all the options worked on so they limit any surprises that may come in the game and it gives a goalkeeper and field players many options to be prepared to use. When a team does not use their goalkeeper on a back pass, it hinders their development. If the team is not capable of keeping the possession, then it may be time to look for a new team. If at least the team can play it back, then the goalkeeper can clear it back up the field which is also an important skill for the goalkeeper to learn (just as important as possession). This is a very, very frustrating situation that I see all the time, at all levels.
Jeff, what about goal kicks? Too often I see coaches put in the kid with the biggest leg to just “send it” even if the goalkeeper is capable of executing a decent enough long goal kick. Do you think it’s time we have a rule that keepers should take their own goal kicks?
Jeff: As much as I want to say yes, I would still say no because the Federation keeps making up these “development rules” but they tend to backfire. People will always find loopholes. I wish coaches would understand that teaching a goalkeeper to take their own goal kicks will be a process and can hurt the team at times. However, if they would work on this during practices and have options for the goalkeeper to play short/medium/long balls, then they will get better. The brutal truth: 90% of the time a player is put in the goalkeeper role because they just are not “cutting it” to the level of other field players in regards to their footwork so they get pushed to the goal. Goalkeepers need specific goal kick practice where the scenarios are set up to play short if it is on, and be able to have a passing lane to play it long….but that’s another talk in itself and I can go on for hours but I better stop!!!
What advice do you have for families in helping their young goalkeeper deal with the mental aspects of the game, particularly when coming back from a loss or mistake in goal?
Ian: The goalkeeper position is very unforgiving. Here’s what parents and coaches need to understand. If a keeper gets a shot from outside of the box, and lets it go in, that just looks disastrous. But it’s the same thing as a field player misplacing a long 10 yard pass. Stopping a shot from the top of the ’18 is even more difficult than handling a 10 yard pass. But the goalkeeper gets yelled at, while the field player’s mistake is overlooked.
Field players make this mistake all the time, but the difference with the field player is when he/she makes a mistake, play continues. If the goalkeeper makes the mistake, play stops, he/she has to go fish the ball out from inside the net, and the goalkeeper has to deal with the moans and groans from the parents on the side lines and the unhappiness of the coach. And the keeper is expected to come back from that and play on. The physical skills required to deal with a shot from the top of the box and a 10 yard pass are no different, but the mental skills required of the goalkeeper are so much more demanding.
For parents of goalkeepers it is imperative that regardless of the mistake, that they support their keepers and are calm and positive. If the keeper feels that you don’t have their back, they will eventually quit when they get older. No matter what mistake is made, I can show you a pro making the same mistake. So, as a parent just sit back, relax and simply cheer on not just your kid but all the players on the field. Then, when you get in the car to drive home, just say I love watching you play and ask where they want to go eat!
Erin: Cultivating a love for the game is the most important thing a parent can help with their goalkeepers. Simply telling your player how much you enjoy watching them play without dissecting the game can go a long way towards helping them feel secure with the pressures of the game. Goalkeepers are vulnerable to psychological stress and perfectionism and many young goalkeepers can be distraught when conceding goals. Parents are the safe space to remind them that there are many things they can’t control. We always want them to be able to refocus on the things they can control: namely, how they respond to adversity and success.
Mental resilience comes from many places. In part, for goalkeepers it comes from the feeling of preparedness from training and the ability to transfer the lessons of training to the game. Consistency is required in cultivating this skill. If they are successful in a game, their response should be to go back to training and work hard. If they concede a goal or lose a game, their response should be to go back to training and work hard. We can take the mystery out of it for them—they will be successful at times and they will make mistakes. The key is for young goalkeepers to be able to face their fears and their “what ifs” and have a clear sense of passion, joy, purpose, and meaning towards their soccer journey in goal.
Erin, you talk about fear. In my experience, keepers can go through moments of fear, say if they are learning a new skill (like the 1 v 1) or are coming back from an injury. It can be very debilitating as a parent to watch your child go through that. Do you have any tips for us in helping the child cope with the challenge of fear?
Erin: Fear can be a heavy burden for the young goalkeeper: fear of making mistakes, fear of failure, fear of letting people down, fear of not being good enough and fear of getting hurt. But these fears, if properly addressed, can spur great internal growth as players can develop positive life-coping mechanisms such as grittiness, leadership, tenacity, passion, and compassion, just to name a few. As coaches and parents, we must guide young goalkeepers toward cultivating a growth mindset which approaches the idea of confronting failure and pain by knowing that mistakes and setbacks are necessary parts of the growth process. Players cannot go from one developmental stage to another without experiencing some discomfort, and we need to have patience favoring the process over the results, especially when we see the goalkeeper is struggling.
We must make sure that players understand the difference between what they can control and what they can’t. Elements that a goalkeeper can’t control: their playing time, weather, referees, the expectations of others, shutouts, inexperience in new topics, mistakes and injuries. Elements they can control: how they respond, how hard they work, how they treat others, how studious they are in how they watch the game, how intentional and respectful they are towards their training environment, and how much joy and passion for the game they bring and share. These controllable factors are always the answer to their fears. It takes bravery and courage to play the goalkeeper position and it takes bravery and courage to be the parent of a goalkeeper as well!
Great article… Great questions!! I loved reading the answers from Ian and Erin. This is very valuable to the GK and the parents.
Thanks Jeff so much for participating! Lots of useful info.
Great info here! i agree with 98%
Good article. It might be helpful to have some specific pointers on how goalies can avoid injuries, like hitting their head on the goal post.
I have a great goalie playing for us at a u12 soccer team. She loves playing it and enjoys it. But her parents do not want her to play that position and her mom gets mad when we play her at goalie . What should you suggest?
that’s a great question for the coach section on the community….post it there and I’m sure you’ll have some great responses. Personally, I think at this age the daughter is going to have to stand up a bit for herself to her mom. Maybe also set some clarity around the amount of time she will play in goal and on the field (1/2 of every game in the goal and 80% of the other half on the field — or 1/2 of every other game in goal and then in tournaments 1/2 of every game…??? something like that….) I wonder why the mom gets mad….that’s probably an important thing to understand….maybe she feels a lot of personal anxiety when her daughter is in goal!?
Professional answers to questions that we all need to deal with sooner or later!
What is the correct decision that a 17year old young goalkeeper should take between being in a team where they train in the highest level but has to compete with two other goalkeepers or being in a smaller team and be the main goalkeeper.
Is it better to train better but play 6-7 games or play 20 games with average training sessions?