Selsport 2013/14

Monday, February 24, 2014

The Ball Moves - Deal With It

Hakan Calhanoglu of Hamburg did this on Saturday:

How does a goalkeeper as talented and experienced as Roman Weidenfeller get beat from 40 yards - with the ball hitting not the extreme top corner, but a part of goal you'd expect a top-class keeper to reach?

Because the ball moved. A lot.

On first and even second viewing, I thought Weidenfeller was guilty of being flat-footed. And, technically, he is. But still images make it easy to understand why.

This picture (click to enlarge) shows that halfway to goal, the ball has traveled on a straight line, from Hakan's foot toward Weidenfeller in the middle of goal. It has no spin, so it isn't bending predictably to the keeper's right. It is flying straight at him.

What this picture doesn't show, but action replays do, is that the ball is also traveling in a severe arc. So not only does it look to Weidenfeller that the ball is coming straight down the middle of goal, it probably also looks to be going over the bar at this point.

Now look where the ball ends up, compared to its original line of flight.

A late swerve of a full six feet to the left, coupled with a vicious downward dip, leaves Weidenfeller helpless, despite his best efforts.

The lack of spin, of course, explains why the ball swerves and knuckles so deviously. If you'd like a scientific explanation of why this happens, you can read it here.

This free kick, effectively, is like a deflection. The keeper is set and tracking a shot going to one place (middle of the goal), only for it deviate to another late in its flight. It's irrelevant how far away Calhanoglu was when he struck the ball; all that matters is the time Weidenfeller had to react when it deviated from its original course.

So how to deal with these situations?

Footwork is key. If we're going to be at all critical of Weidenfeller here, we might look again at the first picture. There's a clue there:

We can see that he has got into a set position with his feet significantly wider than the width of his shoulders. When you split your feet this far apart, it consumes precious fractions of a second to get your center of gravity and weight to the outside of your foot, which is where you need it to be to dive. It also means he has to dive without the benefit of a couple of quick, small shuffle steps, limiting his range.

Ideally, in training we reinforce our set position and footwork hundreds of times. Still, we have these reactions in games. Splitting the feet wide is a natural response when we feel we need to brace ourselves for powerful shots struck right at us. The problem comes when it turns out they're not right at us.

I'll say again that because of ball movement, long-range shots demand much the same from keepers as deflections. Training for one, therefore, is useful for the other. Activities incorporating redirected shots, an unsighted keeper, or using balls designed to move unpredictably like the Responseball can all help.

We also must understand that you have to keep 'fighting' a moving ball throughout its flight. Dealing with a shot that moves like this demands multiple technical adjustments in our footwork and body shape, but just as importantly, it demands competitiveness. You have to be simply unwilling to be beaten, and do anything you can to prevent it. You have to also accept that these shots will always be much harder to deal with than your coaches, fans, and teammates may understand. It's just another challenging part of the special job we do.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Why Do Goalkeepers Stop Improving?

I recently took part in a three-day goalkeeper camp for boys and girls aged 14-17. The players worked hard, listened intently, asked questions, and in some cases, displayed real potential. The only concerning aspect of it is that several of the kids had been at the same camp back in July, and had not improved.

They were all much better than this guy, though

Now I wouldn't expect extraordinary improvement in just under six months, but 14-17 is a prime developmental period for goalkeepers. Some of the coaching points I made were very basic, and I'd made them multiple times back in July, but many of the goalkeepers still struggled. I'm not talked about advanced concepts; I mean basics like stance, posture, balance. So why weren't they getting it right?

Is it coaching? It could be. I'm not the world's best coach, but I'm not taking the blame for this one. I had these kids for a few sessions six months ago, and hadn't seen them since. The most likely answer is that in the intervening time, they simply hadn't had proper goalkeeper coaching, and slipped back into bad habits. Kids tend to focus just on stopping the ball, rather than worrying about technique. This is good in some ways, but not so good if the proper technique is not yet ingrained. There still aren't that many qualified goalkeeper coaches around. Most players have to make do without one.

But there are goalkeepers who DO get proper coaching, and still struggle with technique. Obviously, everybody has a talent ceiling. Some keepers are simply never going to have the athleticism or coordination to make a blinding top-had save or ping a side volley 60 yards. What's important, for serious young players at least, is maxing out whatever talent they do have. What I'm seeing is young goalkeepers who want to be excellent, and have decided that things like hand position and footwork 'don't matter.' What matters is spectacular saves. Fair enough; but my job as a coach is to make them understand that you need the stance, the footwork, the hand position to be right before you can consistently make those saves.

Coaching or not, goalkeepers who want to continue improving have to train. They have to play. This is the problem with organized soccer in the U.S, and increasingly in Britain. Everybody plays year-round, but only in an organized setting. That amounts to only a few hours a week. You've simply got to play more than that if you want to be truly good. You've got to play a frankly unreasonable amount, much more than the organized structure allows for, in parks and streets, in pickup games with your friends or neighbors of whoever you can convince to play. I built a pitch in my back yard when I was 12. We played on it so much that we churned away every last blade of grass, and soon nicknamed it the Dust Bowl.
It wasn't quite this bad

This is such a basic idea - train hard and you'll get better - that it seems silly to write a post about it. But it contradicts what has become the accepted model of improvement in the US: spend more and you'll get better. Parents send their kids to camps, pay for private training sessions, and buy them gloves and equipment. None of that is bad. But if the player isn't playing and training on his own or with their friends in between these financed sessions, he's not going to get much better, no matter who the coach is. 

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Coaching Male and Female Goalkeepers - Differences & Similarities

Sorry for the long hiatus from the blog. I returned to full-time coaching this summer and the combination of preseason, travel, and a packed schedule has meant this update is long overdue.

I've coached both male and female goalkeepers, as have most goalkeeper coaches, and I suppose I always subscribed to the common conceptions about their differences and similarities. But the last two months have caused me to re-evaluate some of these points, and the simple reason is that the standard of women's goalkeeping, at least at the higher levels of the game, has improved tremendously in the last decade. Many of the commonly accepted orthodoxies about female goalkeepers are simply no longer valid.

For example, saves like this...

Nonetheless, women are still playing in a goal with dimensions designed originally for men. Women tend to be shorter and have a little less explosive jumping ability than men, and so what has always been true remains true: female goalkeepers need to play a little closer to their line than men, to reduce the likelihood of getting beat over the top.

In some respects, this is a similarity too, because I believe most male goalkeepers also play too far off their line, even at the highest levels. Petr Cech, for instance, never stops moving forward when the opposition is in shooting range, and will often be a full seven or eight yards off his line when a shot is struck from the top of the box. This narrows the angle, you say - but it also reduces his reaction time, and leaves him vulnerable to high shots looping in over his head. Mario Balotelli scored one such goal against Brazil in a friendly last summer, a well-struck shot that was nevertheless nowhere near the corner and would have been comfortably saved, had Julio Cesar been within a couple of paces from his line.

This should not happen.

Kicking and distribution has long been substandard in the women's game, but this too has changed. The female goalkeepers I coach at NC State can easily hit midfield with goal kicks, and so can most of the opposition keepers we've faced this season. I haven't yet seen a female keeper comfortable with side volleys, but have seen plenty of half volleys, which gives the same preferable lower trajectory.

Apart from stature and slightly less explosive jumping and diving ability, the technical area where female keepers are somewhat disadvantaged is, in my experience, core strength. Strength through the core, shoulders, and arms helps keepers hold shots and crosses when challenged and when falling to the ground. A strong core also helps with posture, set position, and injury prevention. Core work features heavily in the strength and conditioning program our players follow.

The physical is, of course, just one side of the story. I think in some respects, female keepers have an advantage when it comes to the mental side of the game. Men can be dominated by ego, making it difficult to accept mistakes and recognize the need to improve. This is a self-protective measure, sports psychologists will tell you, but the short-term good it may do is outweighed by the long-term harm.

I find the inverse more often to be true with female goalkeepers: they are quick to berate themselves, and the good ones channel that frustration into their training, desperate to improve. The danger, of course, is letting this short-term thinking damage their confidence and self-esteem. It's fine to acknowledge your weaknesses in order to improve; it's not so good if that turns into constant self-recrimination.

I don't think training sessions should be altered for female goalkeepers, but I think some coaching points and strength & conditioning routines benefit from being tailored to the specific demands of the women's game. There are some inherent differences between male and female goalkeepers, some positive and some negative, and there are some lingering stereotypes that are no longer accurate. As always, the best course is to evaluate goalkeepers individually and work to improve them, whatever their gender, height, or level of play.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Book Review: 'Scientific Approaches to Goalkeeping in Football' by Andy Elleray

Go online and you can watch dozens, even hundreds, of goalkeeper training sessions, from clubs all over the world. This is a fantastic resource for coaches and keepers alike, but often you're seeing drills out of context. We don't know what has been happening in matches for these goalkeeper coaches to choose these specific drills. For a goalkeeper coach, merely copying these drills, no matter how advanced, may not be serving your goalkeepers well. 

In his book, Andy Elleray argues for a modern, scientific, holistic approach to training goalkeepers. He covers every conceivable aspect of the position, from psychology and biomechanics to Andy's professional specialty, video analysis, and a great deal more. There are also guest contributions from international goalkeeper coaches such as Daniel Pawlowski, Inaki Samaniego, and Glenn Robertson. And of course, Andy includes a large number of drills he has found effective for all the demands the modern game places on a goalkeeper.

What I like about the book is its emphasis on functional training to mimic and improve what the game demands of the keeper, using cold logic and quantifiable percentages - science, in other words. For example, Andy presents numbers from multiple sources showing that a goalkeeper's overwhelming involvement in a game involves distribution. Anywhere from 60% to 75% of a goalkeeper's 'interventions' involve collecting, clearing, and otherwise playing the ball with their feet. With this compelling evidence, we can see that as coaches, we need to make sure our keepers have the kind of training that makes them proficient and comfortable with the ball at their feet.

I was especially impressed with the wide variety of video analysis information Andy presents. Video is a tool I have only sparingly made use of in the past; this immediately changed upon reading Andy's book. Video is useful not only for the coach, of course, but for the player. Being able to film a session, or even just a few shots, on an iPad, and then immediately show them to the player, gives immediate, abiding feedback. You can tell a keeper a hundred times that their posture or set position is poor, but this is sometimes difficult for young goalkeepers to accept. If they see it on video one time, however, they'll be much more inclined to accept it both emotionally and intellectually.

There are too many powerful individual points for me to list even a fraction of them, but let me paraphrase one from Polish goalkeeper coach Daniel Pawlowski. He notes that we as coaches can set up cones or hurdles in a goalmouth and instruct our keepers to jump, slalom, and shuffle through them while making saves, and they may perform these tasks perfectly. But put them in the complex, dynamic environment of a match, and they will struggle. This is because a drill, no matter how involved, is essentially a simple situation, whereby the keeper 'follows the rules' set by the coach. In a game, he must react to an ever-changing environment, read situations, and make decisions. Typical goalkeeper drills do not prepare him for these tasks.

Want to know what does? Buy the book!

*Disclaimer: Andy's book was published by Bennion Kearny, the publisher of my book. That is not why I reviewed his book though; I read and agreed to review it before Bennion Kearny accepted my manuscript. This review has been greatly delayed because of the publication of my own book, and because I very nearly died of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (yes, that's a real thing) back in May! 

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Book News

Regular readers might remember I posted a few times in 2012 about my book and its imminent publication. It took a little longer than I expected, but it will be coming out later this summer from Bennion Kearny. You can read about it here. It'll be available in both print and electronic editions. Please buy five copies in case you lose four. For now, here's a small excerpt.


The first twenty minutes felt like one extended car crash. We couldn’t clear our lines, couldn’t keep track of blistering, overlapping runs and mean, angled passes. In front of me, Ajit, Chopper, and Robert Heilmann were working miracles, lunging to tackle or block shots, but they kept coming in waves. We lost track of a player at the far post and he looped a header back across the face of goal. Great, I thought. It’s going to drop in over my head. The crowd noise swelled and crested like waves crashing on a beach. But my feet, powered by the nerves and adrenalin, chopped at the grass and got me back to my line. I leapt and turned it over the bar with my right hand, before tumbling into the net. The crowd applauded. We cleared the corner, but a few minutes later came another header from almost the same spot, this one nodded firmly to my right, the near post. Again the crowd thought they’d scored. I twisted high, got both hands behind it, and held it. I couldn’t help doing something silly then – I turned and showed the crowd the ball and laughed, then kicked it as far up the pitch as I could. The nerves, the crowd, the moment had turned me into one of the silly showman-type keepers I have always disdained. Perhaps I had been too quick to judge. Put me in front of a real crowd, and it turns out that I’m a ham.

Monday, April 29, 2013

The Right Man

The PFA raised a few eyebrows when they voted Manchester United goalkeeper David De Gea into the PFA Team of the Year. Twitter and Facebook alike lit up with messages of astonishment (mostly from rival fans) parroting tabloid-fueled soundbites like "dodgy keeper!" and "weak on crosses!" Those epithets were borne of inconsistency and adjustment last season; they do not stand up very well to scrutiny this season.

It's hard to know the reasons why anyone votes the way they do, but my guess is that in addition to the by-now-expected great saves, his fellow pros noticed that De Gea drastically cut down on his errors. Specifically, it was the kind of error he didn't make that helped him greatly this season.

Remember the last-second equaliser at White Hart Lane, the one that led to Gary Neville's damning indictment? It was a mis-punch than happened to fall to Aaron Lennon, who crossed for Clint Dempsey to score. This is a "second phase" mistake, one where the keeper parries or pushes the ball back into play and then concedes. These are not always punished - had Lennon not happened to have been in the spot where the ball fell, there's no goal. There were two other second-phase mistakes as well, against Newcastle and (debatably) Swansea, where he parried shots back into the six-yard-box for goals.

This is not to excuse a second-phase mistake - a goal is a goal - and Eric Steele will have worked very hard with De Gea after each of these incidents. But those are the worst things De Gea did all season, and as 'clangers' go, they're just not that awful. It wouldn't have escaped the pros who voted - certainly not the Spurs players - that in that same game, he made a pair of brilliant saves which kept his team in the game.

Mistakes - BAD mistakes - happen. De Gea deserves credit for going through a highly pressurized season without having done anything like this:

Or this:

Or this:

Nothing against three excellent goalkeepers in Simon Mignolet, Ali Al-Habsi, and Pepe Reina. These mistakes happen. Joe Hart, last season's PFA vote-winner, allowed three balls to go right through him this season (at Sunderland, Southampton, and home to West Ham). It didn't happen to David De Gea in 2012-13.

As for his famed aerial weakness, it's still not the strength of his game. But opponents who bombarded him with crosses to exploit it largely got nothing from him. Stoke at the Brittania, Villa at Villa Park, and most recently, West Ham at Upton Park tested the Spaniard to and well beyond the laws of the game. He passed those tests.

There is a human element at play when humans vote, and De Gea's standout performance against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu will have been noted by his fellow pros. While the award is supposed to reflect league play, that stage is one that was not afforded to the excellent Hugo Lloris or Petr Cech, back to his best, to say nothing of Mignolet and Ben Foster, who toil in relative obscurity. Nonetheless, for me the PFA got it right. De Gea deserves his spot.

Monday, April 8, 2013

South of the Border - Jonny Walker Interview

While the majority of American keepers who succeeded abroad did so in Europe, Jonny Walker followed a different path. He went to South America, excelling with two of Chile's biggest clubs. He won a league title, played in the Copa Libertadores, and experienced the raw passion and spectacular atmospheres that European leagues cannot hope to match. Thanks to Jonny for spending some time answering my questions. Let's let him tell his story in his own words: -->

Most Americans looking for a move abroad went to Europe. You were the first to go to a top-flight league in South America. How did that move come about? 

I was drafted by Dallas in ’96. They had a fantastic goalkeeper in Mark Dodd (I still talk to him to this day), and the club had also drafted fellow U-23 keeper Jeff Cassar. Dallas wanted to change my contract from the standard league minimum ($24k if I remember correctly) to a developmental contract ($1200 per month maybe??). I was stubborn, so I went back over to Sheffield United around August in ’96  in England where I'd had a youth trial 2 years earlier. They were ready to go, but I was unable to obtain a work permit. The rules had changed with the post Bosman Ruling (Dec. 1995) atmosphere. I had no direct European ancestry to obtain a EU passport and would not qualify for the new National Team requirements which would morph into what they are today. So back I came to the States in January of ’97 with a mission of playing matches. I knew that I needed games so I mailed my resume (funny isn’t it?) out to every coach in the A-league. Jacksonville had a team (Cyclones) and they were coached by Manchester United legend Dennis Viollet. Viollett saw Sheffield United on my resume, picked up the phone and spoke with either Howard Kendall or Dave Bassett, who knew me from my trials period, and offered me a contract sight unseen.

While at Jacksonville, I met Jorge Alvial, who was the assistant coach. Jorge was a former professional goalkeeper from Chile, and he always had these incredible soccer magazines showing crazy environments from South America. Attendance for A-league matches looked nothing like what I saw in the magazines, so wanderlust took control and I was able to get out of my contract and headed off to Santiago, Chile for a trial with Universidad Catolica.
The Catolica trial took longer than expected (7-8 months) as I missed a transfer window and I was a foreigner with no experience. A big club like Catolica could not risk a foreigner spot on me with little experience (although they liked me), so they loaned me to Huachipato for the ’98 season. After that it all came together.

What kind of cultural adjustments did you have to make? Did you speak much Spanish when you arrived? 

I had two years of High School Spanish, so I wasn’t starting from zero. Conversational Spanish was difficult, but I forced myself to go to the city center on days off and interact with shopkeepers, bus drivers, etc… I also roomed with a teammate in Huachipato (Cristian Uribe) who did not speak any English. Huachipato is in Concepcion, quite a ways from the Capital of Santiago. There were no parts of the town that catered to foreigners. The television channels were all local. It was total immersion, and it was great.

What sort of adjustment period did you go through on the pitch and the dressing room, in terms of establishing yourself as the number one and getting to know your teammates? You had to do this twice, actually, since you initially went out on loan. 

It is extremely difficult no matter what club that you do this with. The dressing room psychology and group hierarchy structure could be the subject of volumes of books (edit - couldn't agree more; that's why I'm writing one). Initially, as a player, you just want the respect of your fellow players and coaching staff. It gives you the feeling that you deserve to be there and gives you self-worth. Once you reach that point, you naturally begin to crave more. You hear the fans chanting for certain players, and you want to be one of those players. You are constantly assessing fellow pros in your locker room and at other clubs, always asking yourself: "Am I better than him, or can I be better than him?" Goalkeepers are a bit different when it comes to establishing the #1 position, as coaches rarely make a switch in the position, and if they do they rarely go back on the decision. While at Huachipato I was waiting for a chance to play. The team was performing well, so I knew I had to sit. The other keeper injured his finger (not broken) and I got to step in. I performed well and could notice a change in the way the big name players spoke with me and addressed me within the group. I could also feel the dislike of the other goalkeeper towards me. This was completely different than when I was at Universidad Catolica. The starting goalkeeper, Nelson Tapia, was extremely kind to me. He almost treated me as a brother, giving insight and wisdom, even when things weren’t going well for him personally. I always tried to emulate this type of relationship. I carried this with me to Colo Colo as well, when a young Claudio Bravo was my teammate. We got along very well and I gave him the best advice and friendship I could. He is currently the Chilean #1 and plays for Real Sociedad.

Nelson Tapia

You won the 2002 Apertura title with Universidad Catolica. What are your memories of that season? 

I remember the extraordinary amount of talent that we had. Catolica was always loaded with some of the best South American talent that money could buy. But we worked incredibly hard for each other. We had one of the best teams in South America. We had a stretch of 700+ (I think) minutes without conceding a goal in league play. We were bounced by Sao Caetano in penalties in the Libertadores. We beat Flamengo home and away, and eliminated Once Caldas of Colombia, who would win the Libertadores a couple of years later. The team we advanced out of group play with was Olimpia (Paraguay) who won it all that year, beating Sao Caetano in penalties. We were a great team. 

The title-winning 2002 Catolica team, with Jonny back row, second from right.

Eventually you went from Catolica to their greatest rivals, Colo-Colo. did this cause you problems with either set of fans?  

Absolutely. My first press conference at Colo Colo was disrupted by members of La Barra who were screaming that they didn’t want the “mother fucking gringo from Catolica” amongst other loving phrases. The press ate it up. It wasn’t easy, but fortunately I won them over with performances on the field. We had the Superclasico against Universidad de Chile and I turned in a good performance and received man of the match honors. After that game, they supported me 100%. Ironically, I would face Catolica in the semi-finals while playing for Colo Colo. The fans who had loved me for four years did an about face. 20,000 Cruzado fans singing “Gringo, Gringo Concha Tu Madre……. En San Carlos(Catolica's stadium) le damos a comer”. Translated “Gringo, fuck your mother…In San Carlos we gave you food (or we fed you).

Back problems forced your eventual retirement. Can you describe how and when your problems started, and how it felt to be forced to give up playing? 

I had just begun to feel good playing again. I found happiness in my play in Columbus, after injuring my shoulder in New York.  Sigi Schmidt had been announced the Head Coach after Robert Warzycha had coached interim following the departure of Greg Andrulis. Sigi called for a mini-camp at the end of the season and we were playing an inter squad scrimmage. Someone played me a ball that had to be cleared first time and as I was about to strike the ball, it took a funny bounce and I tried to adjust my strike of the ball even though I had already started the movement. 

Mentally I was excited to be playing again and was called into the December camp for the 2006 World Cup.  I was working out on my own, but my back wasn’t getting better. They took an MRI and I was going to miss the camp. Then they sent me to one of the best doctors in the country for lower back issues in L.A. a month or two later. Without boring you with all of the details, I was effectively told I was done and that there was nothing that I could do to step on the field again. This was extremely difficult news to take, as I had just turned 31 a few months earlier. I was in a good spot mentally before this and was finally at a place where the game was easy. Goalkeeping is experience-based, and most goalkeepers don’t come into their own until 28-32 years old. I tried to exit with grace and without fanfare (not too hard actually!) Once I knew I was done, I went into the clubhouse one day with a black garbage bag, cleaned out my gear, and didn’t make a production out of it. “Here today and gone tomorrow” is the way that soccer works. Contracts come and go. All of us hope that we have a respectable career and that when we walk away from the game it is in a way that celebrates the contribution and effort that one puts in through the years. It doesn’t always work that way.  

For a time, you wore Selsport gloves, rare for an American keeper. What were your alltime favorite gloves? 

I loved the Selsport gloves. They were white with a powder blue foam. Probably my favorite gloves I had during my entire career.

Jonny in his Selsports

In keeper speak I was a traditionalist. Classic cut, size 11. No extended palms. No finger inserts. No Gunn Cut. No webbed foam. I always preferred the 3mm foam to the 4mm for better feel on the ball. I could talk gloves for hours on end, as I was a big soccer fan before I became a pro. I grew up watching Soccer Made in Germany on PBS, and I was always drawn to the neat gear that everyone had.  The first gloves I really remember would have been the Reusch ’86 World Cup gloves. They had a compressed foam, with a circular palm design. Coolest feature was the neon slash on the R. I also remember the Umbro Essen, neon green with white foam. Pat Bonner was sporting them and they were definitely a must have. 

Pat Bonner in his Umbro Essens

My alltime favorite, however has to be the Uhlsport F-1. They didn’t have the best feel or foam, but my God they were badass looking. Blue and white foam on the palm. Neons and blues on the top. I would love to just see a pair of these today.

 Peter Shilton in the F-1s.