Five mistakes coaches make with youth goalkeepers

Oh what has happened to goalkeeping in this country? I look at five common coaching mistakes.

For a solid 15 years of my soccer playing life, I was a goalkeeper. At every level I reached, everyone had a different perspective on goalkeeping. I trained under the Dutch method, the English, the German, South American styles; needless to say, I got a well rounded education of just how many different schools of thought there are in goalkeeping. Trust me, there are no lack of them.

Having spent a large part of last summer traveling to various coaching clinics and spending a great deal of time observing training sessions, I have come to the following conclusion: coaches understand very little about how to train goalkeepers (it’s not necessarily their fault mind you, see side note at end of article for further explanation).

Since no one knows anything, lets look at five common mistakes that coaches make with their young goalkeepers (and some suggestions to make things a little better).

1. Your emphasizing diving when you should start on falling

It annoys me to no end to see coaches push their goalkeepers to a point they are not ready for. Nine times out of ten, it’s diving. Coaches throw or kick a ball to the side, tell the kid to dive. This is not training. This is simply a recipe for bad habits and injury. At the youth level, a fair number of kids are afraid of diving because it hurts. That is a surefire tipoff that they need to be training to fall before diving.

Start off with your goalkeeper sitting down, legs out. With their arms outstretched have them fall to the side. I’d say six or seven times out of ten for young keepers, they’ll bend their arms and land on their elbow. Quick trick to get them to stop? Remind them that landing on their elbow not only hurts, but will cause a broken or dislocated collarbone (seen it, not pretty). They’ll pretty much stop immediately.

Next step? Give them a ball. Tell them to hold in their hands, and fall again.

Next step? Throw the ball to the side and have them catch and fall. Not getting it? Go back a step.

Think this is too basic? I’ve seen goalkeepers as old as 16 improperly diving to the point they beat themselves up and end up hurt. You crawl before you walk, you fall before you dive. Your talented goalkeeper is not immune.

2. That one handed save or punch was great…except it wasn’t

I’m not exactly sure when it became acceptable to punch or parry the majority of shots away. To some extent I think it’s because what a lot of coaches and kids see on television from the professional leagues and they think that translates to the youth level (I argue that it does not). When I was younger, I got a very rude awakening from Frans Hoek as to him yelling at me about flipping a ball away off my finger tips because it was out of reach. If it hit your finger tips, you should catch it he told me; it’s a matter of positioning and I should have taken a better angle.

Stop teaching your kids to punch everything. What about crosses? Work on better positioning and taking angles. What about those corner shots? Say it with me…angles and positioning.

A lot of kids I talk to complain that they often parry balls away or punch because catching the ball hurts. I like to call this brick hand syndrome. Soft hands allow goalkeepers to catch most any rocket of a shot. I should know, because soft hands saved me time and again in college, where its open season on goalkeepers during 6v6 training. Proper catching grip along with catching with the finger tips instead of the palms will greatly increase their ability to catch (you don’t want your hands flat slapping at the ball).

[Justin Notes: I’ve trained with two goalkeeping coaches who emphasized punching to the point of absurdity (I actually was yelled at for catching a crossed ball by one of those coaches). I understand that there is a time and place for a punch at the professional level (it makes me cringe mind you) but don’t use that as an excuse to not teach your keeper proper catching and finishing technique].

3. You forget your goalkeeper has feet

While diving may look cool, footwork can save your goalkeeper a lot of wear and tear by moving to get in front of a shot that would otherwise need a fall or dive. When I first explain this to coaches and kids, most do not understand that diving should always be a last ditch effort. It should never be your first line of defense.

Get your goalkeeper off their heels, get them shuffling correctly (for the love of Pete, do not let them click their heals), stop crossing those feet when moving side to side. Quick feet makes for not only easier saves, the training required will increase leg strength needed for when you really have to dive.

Ah, but this is a two parter. Your goalkeeper has feet, so make sure he get the skills needs to control that back pass. I see it at the youth level constantly; the back line is in a pickle on the break, and they kick the ball out instead of playing back to the goalkeeper. Not only is that a sign they don’t trust the goalkeeper…they also don’t trust their own skills to get that ball back to the goalkeepers. Skills coaches, give your kids confidence by giving them skills!!!

4. Pinging shoots at your goalkeepers is not a warm up

I was recently watching a coach warm up his 10 year old goalkeeper before a match. He had this kid diving every which way and with the young goalkeeper at full stretch, he made few saves. His coach was on his case, his head sunk lower with every shot. Broke my heart because that coach was taking the fun out of the game for that kid.

Warming up your goalkeeper, either before a match or a practice session, should not require them to take a smattering of shots from either players or coaches. Ideal situation, you have two goalkeepers who warm each other up by throwing and volleying balls back in forth with some side to side movement and maybe a few falls (but no dives). You want to ruin their confidence? Have kids take shots on them before a match; every ball that hits the net is a seed of doubt in that kids mind. Want them to pick up bad habits? Have kids ping balls at them before practice starts.

5. You don’t keep their head in the game

Young goalkeepers are at the whim of the pace of game just like other players, but unlike a field player they don’t get as many chances to change the pace. Because of this, most drift during matches or stand almost statuesque and aren’t in the game. This leads to not only slow reaction time, but also poor positioning.

As hard as it is (and I’m not convinced that all coaches have this knowledge), you must impart into your goalkeeper the ability to read the game and move with it. Some kids pick this up quickly, and they’ll bark commands at their players, and you’ll see them aware of their position even when the ball is outside of their defending third. It may not seem crucial but better positioning and being more aware of what’s happening in the game will allow them to make saves they’d otherwise not.

Make them successful

When people ask me what the one thing you should always do for goalkeepers or field players alike, I always say the same thing: make your kids successful by imparting confidence through skills.

Next time….

In our next installment, we’re going to dive into the nitty gritty of falling technique.

The Side Note

Having spoken to over 50 coaches at coaching licensing clinics last year, my understanding of their feelings was this: no one ever showed them how to coach a goalkeeper. Most were very eager to learn the at the very least the basic techniques that most goalkeepers at the youth level should be learning if only to keep their kids from getting injured. Yet the instructors at these clinics (with USSF A and B licenses) knew little. Sure it’s a specialized subject, but not even the basics? The one’s whom claimed to have the proper goalkeeping license either made it so complicated as to be useless or made me cringe at the misinformation they spewed forth. So much for licensing courses. I didn’t find a single coach who was pleased with the “training” and “education” they received (their air quotes, not mine).

The general consensus I received from various people who wish not to be named is that here in California is they simply do not have the people with the expertise to teach coaches how to coach goalkeepers. The goalkeeping licensing they do at the state level is little more than a two day course that rarely offered and no one can provide me with the materials they’re teaching. What’s a coach to do? Quite a few send them off to former goalkeepers running session’s (which I’ve seen cost as much a $75 for 45 minutes locally), some resort to DVD’s, other’s send them to camps as far as four hours away.

Why aren’t there more goalkeeper instructors? Because getting the licenses is a pain in the ass (not cheap either) and there is more money to be made running sessions then teaching coaches. Many of the best coaches I’ve had wouldn’t even be allowed to coach now…because they’re not licensed.