The coach to player ratio for most football coaches in Malta is around 1:10. Not for me. I am a Goalkeeper Coach. Most of my time on the pitch is spent with just two guys and, on the rare occasion, two U/19 goalkeepers are also available, so I get to work with four.
Goalkeeping is undoubtedly the most specialised position in the sport, justifying the specific attention that goalkeepers receive both on and off the pitch. While the goalkeeper’s primary role is to prevent the opposing team from scoring, it is far more complex than it sounds.
It’s Monday morning. Yesterday was a good day. I enjoyed a lovely breakfast with my wife before heading off to the Ta’ Qali National Stadium to see the team gain another invaluable three points. With less than ten matches of the season to go, we are in and amongst the front-runners; however, with no less than six clubs battling for the Maltese Premier League title, all of which must get into Europe to balance out their costs for the season, nothing is guaranteed. We can win the league, we can finish in a European slot, and we can finish in mid-table.
As I step out of the shower and tie a towel around my waist, preparing for a new week of work, my phone goes off. “Coach, I’m disappointed that I didn’t make the team yesterday. What can I do to improve my chances for the next match?” Sometimes, there are real reasons – prolonged poor form; specific tweaks to style of play for a particular match that require certain traits; physical concerns/injuries. Sometimes, it’s an educated guess by the coaching staff that the team would be in a better position with one goalkeeper over the other – not that I advocate for switching goalkeepers every weekend, but you need to earn your spot on the pitch. Honest feedback is the best feedback. It’s a tough position to be in as a coach, as you are expected to have all the answers – but there are times when you don’t, and the reply to that message in such cases would be the clichéd, “I understand your frustration. Keep your head up, stay focused, work hard, and you’ll earn your spot back” – as if they haven’t heard that enough before!
The thing about goalkeeping is that there’s just one position on the pitch, which means that 50% of your workforce may not be happy. I work with two great professionals in their mid-twenties (as do they!) on a daily basis. Both are highly competent – the technical and physical differences are minimal. We knew this when signing them in summer. Both deserve to play regularly at this level, but only one can actually do so at any given time. They can be leading a top Premier Division club from the back and throwing their body like crazy into a crowd of six-foot-four strikers and centre backs from a set-piece one day, and they can be throwing their toys out of the pram the next. We’re all on good terms, which is the only way we can succeed in such a competitive setup. Our jokes are hardly mature… they’re actually borderline bullying… but that’s synonymous with professional football across the globe. In all of this, come Sunday evening, one of my goalkeepers is struggling to get sleep as a thousand questions are passing through his head, while the other is eagerly awaiting to receive my feedback on his performance together with the video of the match – the best saves from which will shortly make it to social media.
Monday was an off day, except that, based on the above, it clearly wasn’t. We’re back on the pitch on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. These are the most crucial days between matches, with morning gym sessions, pre-training foot-tennis competitions and a few minutes of match performance evaluation prior to making our way onto our glamorous pitch. This is when the lads go through the motions, throw themselves around, get sweaty and muddy, block shots with every body part, concede soft goals, get little knocks (you’d be surprised to know that they’re very rarely 100% pain-free during a match, but that’s the magic of match-day adrenaline!), moan about silly things, produce spectacular moments which make them regret that training isn’t being filmed, and lots more. My primary job is to coach them throughout these sessions, with our sights set on the following weekend. This is when I earn my money, or otherwise. If my two goalkeepers are at their peak during the upcoming match, I’ve done my job. Today, I have enough experience to not need to draw up sessions in advance – but I always know the outcomes that I’m after while walking onto the pitch. I have no problem with adapting to the team’s requirements during sessions, because my outcomes are never tied to the technical element; because, at senior level, so much about coaching goalkeepers is not about goalkeeping.
Goalkeeping training at this level, when observed from the outside, is deceptive. A quality session can be heard far more than it can be seen. This is why the over-dramatised drills you see on social media nowadays are a whole lot of nothing and, unless you can actually hear the sessions, don’t do much to enhance your coaching education. My boys themselves are exposed to situations that give them the impression that they’re undergoing a goalkeeping session, but they’re not. They’re in a practical psychology class which is more science and art than sport. A 25-year old professional goalkeeper already knows the technical stuff.
- High-quantity exercises mimicking ‘handling’ drills are not really about handling (‘M’ shape or ‘W’ shape anyone?), but about maintaining concentration and consistency. How long before the first ball drops? Is the goalkeeper taking up a lazy shape prior to dealing with a shot? You need to want to catch a ball in order to do so. No matter how you place your hands, if your focus coupled with a strong desire to catch the ball aren’t there, you won’t succeed.
- ‘Diving’ sessions in which I hit the top corner more often than not are neither about diving, nor are they about me showing off. It’s all about the experience of conceding a goal. How do my goalkeepers deal with failure? How formidable are they? Do they persevere, even at the worst of times?
- Dealing with high balls tossed into the area is not about receiving a high ball, but about decision-making, anticipation and leadership.
- Any exercise in which I create a high success ratio doesn’t have much to do with the technical element, but is aimed at building confidence. Those in which the goalkeepers are worked for relatively long periods at high intensity are testing them under fatigue.
Small adjustments to exercise success ratios within sessions are the make or break for a goalkeeper. Many of them are said to be crazy, and if they find any genuine satisfaction in being goalkeepers, then I agree (which is why I spent my last season before calling it a day on my playing career as a midfielder in the Maltese Third Division!). Many of them are fragile, which is expected when considering the pressures they are constantly exposed to. Your responsibility as a coach is far wider than ensuring that their catching and kicking techniques aren’t off. This is their lives, their primary, and sometimes only, source of income. Finding the right balance between teaching, coaching and managing is crucial.
Every interaction with your goalkeepers requires lots of thought. Giving the right input and recognising the right triggers are key to maintaining high performance. Choose your words and tone wisely.
Goalkeeping is often condensed into the technical, tactical, mental and physical elements. A whole lot of goalkeeping at senior level is in the mind, and I can’t stress this point enough. The physical element is important as it ensures that the body has the capability to achieve what the mind wants to. The technical element is undeniably important, but a lot of it is developed at the younger ages, so less focus is required at senior level. The tactical element is critical and is further developed by a goalkeeper’s experience, which can be gained both through match practice as well as match-realistic training, together with the analytical work – much of which takes place off the pitch. A substantial amount of the tactical element also takes place in the mind and is closely related to decision-making and positioning in varying circumstances.
It may sound obvious by now, but you put yourself in a better position to achieve positive results if your sessions are structured around developing and strengthening attributes such as concentration, attitude, adaptability, work rate, decision-making, leadership and communication, being formidable, and other areas that develop mental strength and mind-set, than by reminding them things that they already know. Your job is to maximise potential, not to dictate or enforce anything. Give them the freedom to explore different styles, experience different situations, and push them that little bit further outside their comfort zones. This is about them, not you. Get their minds right, support them to maintain their physical peaks, and remind them that they are kings – which they are, and that’s why they earn so much more than you!
This is the life of a Goalkeeper Coach. I do not coach goalkeepers. I coach humans. If I can make a better man, I have made a better goalkeeper, and I’ve done my job.