HOW should we train youth goalkeepers?

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Campos – the ultimate well-rounded goalkeeper.

This question has spawned considerable debate. However, it cannot be answered unless we first consider this:

“WHY do we train youth goalkeepers?”

What a friggin’ stupid question, right? Obviously, we want them to get better. But to what end? WHY do we want them to get better?

I have observed innumerable coaches run countless sessions with players aged 5 to 18, and if the bulk of their practices are any indication, they want well-trained goalkeepers for one purpose: so that they can WIN. Their sessions are so frequently designed with winning in mind that I am sure field player development is also suffering. However, let’s focus on goalkeepers for right now, since they have really drawn the short straw. Put simply, coaches reason that without a good (or at least full-time) goalkeeper, mistakes will be made, goals will be scored against them, and they will lose. Cue the disaster music…

At this point, nobody should have to tell a youth coach that winning is not the goal – that we should be focusing on individual player development. However, that philosophy has so few adherents in the club (and even recreational) coaching ranks that it has turned into one of the great mythologies of youth soccer in the US. The fact is this: winning has trumped player development for nearly every coach I have ever interacted with. Thus, the competitive, win-oriented coach will find one or two GKs on his squad, and then focus their training on winning as opposed to development.

In my mind, the answer to WHY we train youth GKs needs to be very different. For me, training youth GKs comes down to the following desired outcomes:

  • Injury avoidance. Poor technique leads to improper catching, diving, sliding, etc., and doing those things wrong will often lead to injury.
  • Confidence building. The position of GK is more mentally challenging than any other. A well-trained, mentally-prepared keeper will do better a better job handling the inevitable self-doubt that comes from letting in a few goals.
  • Team building. We all know field players play with more confidence when they have a competent keeper behind them. The well-trained GK should eventually become a team leader, and strong leaders are critical for team unity.

With these goals firmly established, how SHOULD we be training young GKs? In a perfect world, where individual player development dictates training, it should be obvious how training should proceed – it should be geared exclusively with the four major pillars of the position in mind. I have written about the four pillars before (Technical, Tactical, Mental, Physical); here I will discuss them in the context of HOW to address ALL of them in training.

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Technical training should ALWAYS begin with the player, the coach, and a ball. Technical training IS NOT throwing the kid in goal and having his/her teammates take shots. That is garbage. Even if the coach runs a well-organized activity focused on finishing, it is no substitute for individual or small group sessions focused on technique. Whether the player is new to the position or is very experienced, technical training needs to surround a set of well thought-out activities aimed at remedying flaws and reinforcing strengths. Importantly, that technical training should dovetail nicely with…

tactical training, which benefits tremendously from the GK being involved in game-like situations with the rest of the squad. How is a player going to learn to organize the defense, make decisions with distribution, or read the game without game-like training? For this reason, the practice of ending every single session with a scrimmage is invaluable for GK training. Let the kids play and put the GK coach behind the goal where the player can be coached in real-time. Situations can be analyzed as soon as they happen and the GK can become comfortable with his/her inevitable role as a defensive organizer and leader. To emphasize a key point here, the GOALKEEPER COACH should be actively involved in both the GK and team training at this point. The head coach needs to be able to communicate with and trust the GK coach to teach things like defensive organization. Unfortunately, it is all too common to see GKs standing alone in goal, uncoached and bored out of their skulls while a coach stops play to discuss a nuance of the field play. I often see this happen in the middle of practice sessions during small-sided games that are focused on the field players. You are wasting a GK’s time in those activities – they would get more out of bouncing a ball off a wall. They should either be doing individual training or be used as field players during the technical parts of a session. Don’t let them rot in goal.

Integration of the GKs into every aspect of team training will help build the self-confidence they need to be mentally strong. The team needs to trust, respect, and rely upon the GK – isolating the keeper or using him/her as training fodder for your strikers does not help. However, team unity and leadership is only part of the battle. The GK coach also needs to a positive role model who is strongly supportive of the player. Young GKs need to learn how to forget mistakes, how to focus on and remain connected to the game, and how to maintain poise in tense situations. Much of this can come from a strong relationship with a positive, encouraging keeper coach.

Finally, the physical aspects of the position have some unique qualities that may require specific training, but for the most part, integrating the GK into team physical training will be more than sufficient for young keepers. If the GK coach is running technical training with the appropriate intensity and speed, many of the position specific physical needs will also be covered.

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Ok, so the above was a rant on how to coach a GK – when individual training is needed and when team integration is critical – what activities are a waste of keeper time and what activities are critical for development. I hope that much of it sounded like common sense. However, it is worth asking why more coaches don’t follow this kind of approach. There are a few possible reasons – one is the focus on winning I described above. For most coaches, it is challenging to get their team prepared fully within the allotted weekly practice time. They feel there is no time to devote training sessions fully to GK development. A second reason relates to a coach’s lack of comfort with the position. Even if they feel good with the technical aspects, coaches may not have the game experience needed to coach tactics or reading of the game. Finally, it comes down to training and expectations of the coaches. Too often, coaches don’t seem to think very carefully about the WHY or HOW of GK training, and they may also not be well trained in best practices. The best coaches seek out new educational opportunities, but far too few of the rank and file learn how to work with keepers, preferring instead to send them off to separate GK training, hoping that they return ready to be the team’s savior between the sticks.

Given this notion, let’s have a look through some common materials that are (should be?) provided to US coaches. A good place to start is the U.S. Soccer Coaching documentation. Surely U.S. Soccer has pearls of wisdom to impart to coaches so that they can effectively train young goalkeepers.

U.S. Soccer publishes a document called the U.S. Soccer Coaching Curriculum.  There, we find a list of attributes and skills that should be taught to GKs, and some thoughts as to which field player activities could/should employ a GK (and GK coach, if available). However, there is not a single word devoted to how to coach the position, or any mention of what the goals are for our young GKs. In total, barely more than one page of text (out of 123 pages total) is devoted to the position of GK in the curriculum document.

Well, that is just the curriculum – it is WHAT we should be teaching. To get an idea for HOW to teach, you need to delve into a coaching course, correct? Let’s have a look at the “D” License, which is the minimum recommended license for coaching competitive club teams below the age of 14. Here we find some more technical information (one whopping sample GK training session – sarcasm noted). However, the document again contains nothing about HOW to coach a keeper or how to develop GKs using standard coaching sessions.

Finally, we have the Best Practices for Coaching Soccer in the United States – a 71-page document that presents U.S. Soccer’s philosophical views on soccer education. Here we can find suggestions about whether or not a GK should be used in different age groups, and advice on rotating players at the position. This is good stuff – I agree that we should not be turning players into full-time goalkeepers before they are 16 or 17, and I agree that GK-specific training is probably not appropriate below the age of 9. Most will also agree, however, that the Best Practices document reads like a fantasy novel when compared with the reality of most youth soccer setups. Best Practices is based on the notion that we should be developing players, not worrying about winning games. On that basis alone, the document is good in principle but ignored in practice. In fact, I would wager that the vast majority of coaches are unaware of the document’s existence.

Nonetheless, we finally find the following nugget in the document’s Appendix:

DEVELOPMENT OF GOALKEEPERS

  • The implementation of goalkeepers within youth soccer is an issue that creates considerable discussion among coaches. Restricting a player to the position of goalkeeper at too early of an age may have a negative effect and eliminate them from future participation in soccer
  • Children grow at different rates and times. It is impossible to predict who will develop into the best goalkeeper when they are ten. Early selection as a goalkeeper may not be in the player’s best long-term interest.
  • Development of a goalkeeper must be carefully monitored and conducted. The progressive teaching of technical skills is important given the concerns for safety within the position.”

We can also go to US Youth Soccer for information. In the Skills School Manual, for example, we find more technical information on the GK position, but it is not until we get to a document called the US Youth Soccer Player Development Model that we find substantial advice on GK training. Quoting the position statement of the State Association Technical Directors found in that document:

“We believe goalkeepers should not be a feature of play at the U-6 and U-8 age groups. All players in these age groups should be allowed to run around the field and chase the toy – the ball. For teams in the U-10 and older age groups, goalkeepers should become a regular feature of play. However, young players in the U-10, U-12 and U-14 age groups should not begin to specialize in any position at this time in their development.”

This is great advice that, in my experience, tends to be rarely followed. Again, the Player Development document is an excellent one, but many youth soccer coaches probably do not know it exists. That is unfortunate, because we find the following pertinent info in its pages:

U10 age group

“The position of goalkeeper is new to their soccer experience at U-10. The policy of US Youth Soccer and U.S. Soccer is that through the U-14 age group all players get exposed to playing all positions on the team. This is true also for playing in goal, so take time at training now and then to teach basic goalkeeper skills to all of the players. In training sessions, have the players take turns playing in goal. Two training sessions per month should be devoted to goalkeeping. Over the course of the soccer year, every player must have the opportunity to play in goal. The players won’t know what their best position may be once they are teenagers unless they are given the chance to try them all.”

U12 age group

“At a minimum, devote two training sessions per month to goalkeeper training where the rest of the team assists their goalkeepers in training on tactics. Specialized goalkeeper training may begin with the U-12 age group; though, it is still important that all of the players are exposed to this position.”

U14 age group

“Goalkeeping becomes a much more specialized position and demands more quality training at this age. The players should continue to train as field players to keep foot skills at a high level, but specific goalkeeper training should occur with a qualified goalkeeper trainer. At a minimum, devote three training sessions per month to goalkeeper training with the team.”

U16 age group 

“The U-16 age group players will likely be either a goalkeeper or a field player. As a field player they are expected to be able to play a number of different positions. As a goalkeeper, specialized training should be a regular feature of their development. Their training should consist of a combination of specialized training with the goalkeeper coach and training with the team. The coach should, at a minimum, devote three to four training sessions per month to goalkeeper training when the rest of the team assists their goalkeepers in training on tactics.”

U18 age group 

“The technical demands on defenders are increasing as is the need for goalkeepers to be able to become attacking players. Goalkeepers should be included with some of the outfield player training activities. Since pressure from opponents will occur more consistently and over larger portions of the field, the goalkeeper’s ability to play, using his or her feet is important. Receiving back passes, making clearances and passing the ball up field are requirements of the modern goalkeeper. 

Remember that the goalkeeper is the last line of defense and the first line of attack. The attacking role for the goalkeeper takes on greater significance. Distribution of the ball by the goalkeeper with a real tactical sense greatly influences the team’s attacking success, and must be merely punting the ball downfield. When distributing the ball by rolling, throwing or kicking there must be a good tactical decision for it. Typical decisions for the goalkeeper to make on the attack are when to play short for build-up play, when to distribute toward the flanks or when to start a quick counterattack. 

Goalkeepers no longer stand in the goalmouth waiting to stop a shot. They act as sweepers and remain connected to their backline. They frequently move outside their penalty area and must be able to use their feet either to receive back passes or to launch counterattacks. Goalkeepers must be used more often in passing and receiving activities. At a minimum, devote four training sessions per month to goalkeeper training when the rest of the team assists their goalkeepers in training on tactics.”

Again, this is all excellent, detailed advice on HOW to coach youth GKs, but it is contained in a document that I would bet very few coaches have read. If they have looked at it, the document’s advice has been forgotten or ignored.

You can also find excellent info from US Youth Soccer in their Coaching Manual:

“Many of the law changes in soccer have been centered on goalkeeping; how quickly the ball is released, what is allowed in the passback, etc. All of these new laws have forced us to reconsider the overall dynamics of goalkeeping. More than ever before, modern goalkeepers cannot detach themselves from the game. They have become vital elements of the attack as well as their more traditional role as the last defensive stand. They must be accurate passers of the ball during distribution, reliable receivers of the ball under pressure and even show deftness at heading when clearing errant back passes. 

This means that the youth goalkeeper must be competent in field skills. Most goalkeeping skills are specific to the position (catching low, medium and high balls, diving, throwing). Older players are more likely to embrace goalkeeping as a more or less permanent role. How well these players incorporate the physical and mental skills of both field player and goalkeeper will determine the true effectiveness of their jobs as the first line of attack and the last line of defense. 

Some Key Considerations

  • Players at the U-10 level and older should be encouraged, not forced, to be exposed to goalkeeping roles in practice. Many players develop goalkeeping skills at older ages. Exposing many players at U-10 and U-12 to the position could help identify a hidden talent. Further, exposure to the rigors of goalkeeping may help field players understand the difficulty of the position.
  • Goalkeeping should become an active part of every practice. Unfortunately, many coaches incorrectly set up practices where goalkeepers work mostly by themselves and call on them only for shooting exercises. Goalkeepers should be used early in practice in technical development with the ball at their feet, and either as targets or in their primary role in front of the net to solidify their importance. They should not only play as shot blockers and distributors of the ball, but as active communication links with the rest of the team.
  • The role of the goalkeeper needs to move beyond that of a shot blocker during shooting practice. Coaches should permit goalkeepers to distribute the ball, which increases their decision-making and communication abilities. The goalkeeper’s offensive role should develop in concert with their defensive role.
  • Be Active. Concentration by the goalkeeper is vitally important to their effectiveness. Goalkeepers who stay on their line or who are not attached to the rest of the team will soon be reacting to a desperate situation instead of a relatively safe one. Encouraging goalkeepers to be involved and ready goes a long way in reducing dangerous situations.
  • Goalkeeping is a tough job. Much is expected of goalkeepers, but they receive very little praise. In many ways, goalkeepers are subject to open
and unforgiving exposure. Mistakes are clearly showcased and become
very personalized, and psychologically deflating. Mistakes will be made. Encouragement and understanding mixed with sound coaching advice will go a long way in creating a stimulating playing environment.
  • When to begin as a goalkeeper is a question asked by many coaches. The authors believe that initiating goalkeeping in games prior to age nine is inap- propriate. Children should be exposed to body movements that simulate what goalkeepers do, but to put them under the pressure of being a goalkeeper before they have developed some basic psychomotor and cognitive skills is inappropriate.”

Ok, so the info is there if coaches want it.  US Youth Soccer, and to a lesser extent, U.S. Soccer have provided plenty of advice on how to develop young goalkeepers. Additionally, NSCAA offers goalkeeper coaching diplomas that reinforce much of this information. Finally, I should note that US Youth Soccer shares information from coaches all over the country on a variety of subjects. Some examples:

If you made it this far, you must (1) have tons of free time and (2) really care about GK training. Thanks for taking the time, and please feel free to share your thoughts.

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4 thoughts on “HOW should we train youth goalkeepers?

  1. You just confirmed my frustrations as a parent of a U11 player not allowed to play other positions. Son enjoys playing soccer but as a GK for entirety of games and tournaments he’s not playing the same game of soccer as rest of his team.

    • Indeed – this can be very frustrating. It is important in cases like this to engage the coach in a discussion about how to best develop your son as a player. The coach may see a bright future for your son as a GK, which may be the source of that coaching decision. However, U11 is far too early to be dictating the specific position for a player, and the coach should be aware of the (potentially negative) impact of early specialization. Good luck with this!

  2. This is interesting as my son (10 year old about to be 11 playing up on a U14 team) has become focused on being a goalie to the exclusion of other positions. He realizes he is pretty good at it (hence playing up on a U14 team) and has been encouraged by his coaches as to his above average ability. The coaches have been very good about making sure he practices in field as well, especially when he was on the U10 and U12 teams last year and earlier this year before promotion. My question is this: in your opinion is this too soon to be focusing on becoming a goalie at the exclusion of other positions. He likes soccer. He loves being a goalie. I am a baseball guy and know nothing about soccer but from a baseball standpoint, age 10 is usually too young for kids to specialize in a position (every kids wants to be a short stop in baseball anyway, so it is easy to move kids around and gives all capable players time at this position). However since it is his desire and he thinks he is pretty good (he seems to be pretty good to my novice eye), is this ok or too soon or hard to say as decisions like this are inherently subjective in nature?

    • As adults, we are conditioned to push in the directions that are successful for us. We then tend to encourage our kids in the same manner. However, we need to remember that a 10 year old has a ton of physical growing and emotional maturing to do, so it is helpful to let them explore things (like a sport) more organically at this age. Like you say with the baseball analogy, it is too early to specialize. For kids younger than high school age, my rule of thumb is that they should be playing on the best team possible IN THEIR OWN AGE GROUP, and they should be playing for a coach who is willing to give them time at lots of different positions. One approach I have used for particularly talented goalkeepers is to play them at GK on my A team, and then give them field time on my B team (often in back to back games, assuming they weren’t beaten up too badly in the A team game).

      As I suggest above, it is also sometimes difficult for kids to grow into the sport appropriately if they are playing up at a higher age group. I have seen this with my own son when he played u17 as a 14 year old – it challenged him to become better, but it forced him to play a position (CB) with a level of physicality that was probably unnecessary for a kid his age.

      Good luck with this. One doesn’t want to hold a kid back if they are really that talented, but getting him an age appropriate, development-focused environment will likely pay dividends down the road.

      Thanks for reading!

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