The role of the goalkeeper is never well understood by most, except by other goalkeepers. Goalkeepers are lonely specialists, put in a position that is mostly a setup for failure. They do not touch the ball, as often as field players and when they do it they have the entire spotlight. Saves are expected to be made , and mistakes are always very costly.
Why therefore would anybody want to be a goalkeeper? Because it is a beautiful place to be. You see the whole game, you command your defense, and you can save your team. You are in charge. But is this something that coaches understand, especially at the youth level?
In today’s football game, the goalkeeper is the last defender, with the advantage that he can use his hands. He is part of the team spine – the keeper, the central defender, the holding midfielder, the playmaker, the striker. The best players must play in the middle, and the keeper is one of them. So goalkeepers need to think both as a player and as a keeper. It is a much more complex task than what the average field player has to accomplish.
However, despite this difficulty, goalkeepers are typically an afterthought for the coaches. Watch any practice, what do you see? Plenty of drills and exercises where keepers are just another player, with very little – if at all – dedicated attention to them. You will hear all the time coaches say: “ I have 16 players on my team I do not have time to dedicate just to the keeper.” There are plenty of ways to integrate the goalkeeper in team exercises. Do goalkeepers play in midfield surrounded by other players? How does the goalkeeper contribute to the game with his feet? As a target player, in fact, always being the last resort for a back pass. Integrate the goalkeeper in the exercise in his position, and coach it properly. Make him a two-footed player; coach him to receive on the back foot and always-thinking first of changing the point of attack when he receives the ball. Practice always has to be tactical, and for goalkeepers it is not an exception.
Here is another example. Dedicated goalkeeping training typically implies taking the keepers away from the team to do “keeper practice”, often at a different time and location. Specialized training is always needed, and keepers do need to train in the goal. But what kind of message does this send to the team? Essentially, the message is “those are the odds guys’. Yet a key feature of a good goalkeeper is his ability to command and organize his defense. Do you treat the odd guys in social groups with respect? Change this dynamic and make up for their absences. Empower the goalkeeper at practice. Make him the leader of the warm-up, or the cool down, for example. Teach him to lead the group. Always involve the keeper in the tactical discussion; he must be able to correct problems on the field. This leadership training is a critical part of the goalkeeping education. We typically see keepers on the field as those guys in the goal scared to rush out of the goal, scared of telling anything to their teammates. They are mentally weak, and that is a recipe for failure, no matter how athletic they are in goal. A good goalkeeper must be a strong leader, and that must be trained. Teach them to handle failure in a positive way.
Goalkeeping is a mental game. Coach the keeper’s mind. Make him part of the team. Make your keeper mentally strong.