Goalkeeping: Is There a ‘Right’ Age to Start?

Standing Alone in Net (Photo: Boocal)

I was 12. Our manager, whose son played in goal, moved to another town, left the team and inevitably took his son with him. My friends’ father took over as team manager and at our first ‘training’ session he uttered the immortal words “ok then lads, who fancies going in goal?”

Mine was one of the first mouths to smile and hands to be raised. Having only ever played as a defender and never played in goal I liked the idea and was picked as the new team goalie.

So was this the right way to go about it? Unbeknown to the then new team manager and knowing what I now know, yes I think it was.

There are clearly many myths surrounding youth team goalkeeping. The obvious (outdated) of course is that it is only ever the largest, overweight, tallest, last to be picked, most unpopular, perceived worst outfield or indeed craziest kid who gets ‘stuck’ in goal. This is not and should never be the case.

Is there a right age? Maybe. Should we pick our teams based on there being a right age? No. Do we pick our defenders, our strikers, our midfield players because they are the right age? Of course not, so why already create alienation for the goalkeeper by doing this?

Conversely to finding the right kid at the right age for playing in goal, I think it is more important to give every child on the team the opportunity to experience and understand what it’s like to play as the goalkeeper. There are so many reasons for this, most importantly to provide the whole team with an understanding of what it’s like to be in this unique position.

As we introduce soccer to our younger children – maybe age 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 – there is often an enthusiasm to glorify scoring goals. There is also often the unfortunate scenario of forgetting or neglecting the importance – and overwhelming enjoyment, fulfilment and sense of achievement – that can be taken from being a keeper.

In an age of increasing importance and spotlight being placed on the goalkeeper, I believe that no longer should the team be seen as 10 outfield players and 1 goalkeeper. This is soccer…not soccer and goalkeeping. This is why I think it is important for youth team managers and parents to introduce and educate the role of goalkeeper to every player on the team. No more strikers standing with hands on hips, shaking his/her head, pointing the finger and demanding “why did you let that in?”

Many people will be familiar with the sayings “anyone can score a goal but it takes a special person to save them” and “most goalkeepers can play outfield, but hardly any outfielders will feel comfortable in goal”. How many times, especially at the top professional level, have we seen the goalkeeper sent off only to be replaced by a confused, un-coordinated, lost puppy of an outfielder looking like they simply have no idea what they are doing? It’s fine diving around in training and thinking that it’s easy to make saves, but there is so much more to appreciate as a goalkeeper.

This is again why I think it is imperative that we educate our young players, right from age 3, 4, 5 or 6 on the importance of every position.

But when and how do you recognise when and if there is ‘a natural goalkeeper’ amidst the team? I think at anything up to age 10 it is easy to be overcome by trying to pigeon-hole players too early. Evidently enjoyment, coaching and education are fundamental at these ages. If someone looks like they are developing the characteristics, skills and some ability for being the goalkeeper then encourage them all the way, of course. But remember, without being too liberal, next season they might show just as much prowess as a tricky winger or an out and out goal scorer. In athletics is the keen young athlete trained in one event from age 5? In swimming is the young swimmer immediately drilled in one stroke?

Importantly though, the player who shows early signs of ability whilst being enthusiastic for the position should be encouraged. It is also absolutely imperative that young goalkeepers (or players wanting to play goalkeeper) get some additional attention from a specialist goalkeeping coach who will have the additional knowledge and experience to provide extra assistance to the development of the young keeper. This is the only way we can ensure our goalkeepers are given the same quality attention as the outfield players and this will be a valuable contribution to their development.

The message therefore from me is include, encourage and educate.

1. The essence of the team is cohesion between 11 players not 10 players and a goalkeeper and therefore it is imperative to include every player at all times.
2. In the early years of player development we should encourage our players. The goalkeeper, the strikers, the defenders and the midfielders. From a goalkeeping perspective we encourage everyone to have a go not only to experience what it is like but also to find the players who enjoy the position and look like they might develop some ability.
3. As parents, coaches and managers we can influence the team by the education we give them. We can mould their perception and help them to appreciate every position on the team.

I think it is difficult to pin-point ‘a perfect age’ to start looking for ‘the goalkeeper’. We know what children are like, they will love it today, but hate it tomorrow. However, in most cases the goalkeeper will emerge. Goalkeeping is far no longer about standing in between those two posts feeling alienated and picking the ball out of the net. It is amazing, exciting, rewarding, character building and enjoyable. The modern game has developed a need for the goalkeeper to be a much more all round player, as comfortable with the ball at their feet as they are with it in their hands. This is why it is important to introduce the position so early to the whole team.

That said…if at age 8 or 9 you find the perfect combination of ability, enthusiasm, commitment, communication, leadership, dynamism, agility, hand-eye co-ordination, technique and focus…make sure you find a good goalkeeper coach to give them some special attention. In my case, at age 12, many would consider this to be ‘too late’ (especially at some professional clubs these days) but it worked out ok for me. This certainly did not affect my progress, my progression was simply hampered by a lack of dedicated coaching, something that shouldn’t really be the case today. But equally don’t be too disheartened if next season they like the idea of becoming more David Beckham than David James.

There is no doubt that it takes a special somebody to become a goalkeeper. Who else on the team will feel comfortable being the only player running head first towards 20 oncoming outfielders? Who else will love the thrill of throwing themselves onto the end of a strikers boot? Who else will develop the confidence to communicate, show authority and lead the team with one loud voice? Who else on the team will not feel comfortable unless they have spent an hour in training throwing themselves into as much mud as they can find?

It’s a special position. It takes a special individual. It needs special attention. The essence of goalkeeping should be encouraged and educated from an early age. The development of the goalkeeper should be progressed when everything else above has been identified, appreciated and recognised.

Published by

Glenn Robertson

Glenn Robertson is the owner and inventor of ‘the ball with the bumps” RESPONSEBALL®, a goalkeeping specialist and absolute geek with a passion for youth goalkeeper development! He operates AcademyGK, a website dedicated to training Goalkeepers. With a Degree and PostGrad in Sports and Performance and qualified NLP Practitioner, Glenn’s ready to help and answer any questions.

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