In the ideal world every goalkeeper is a starting keeper. You play every minute of every game and never let in a goal. Reality tells us this isn’t true. The world is filled with keepers with a wide range of skills and a limited number of teams. Not every keeper gets to play, but that’s not to say that every keeper can’t have an impact on his or her team’s performance. How goalkeepers work together on a team is an important dynamic on and off the field.
While field players can play in a number of positions all over the field, the nature of field hockey is that there is only one keeper that plays. That can be a tough pill to swallow for keepers who have invested time, effort and money in the pursuit of a spot on the field. Team success isn’t always just a measure of what happens on the playing field. Often, what happens on the practice field, in the locker room, on the track, in the weight room and in the social circles that are part of every team impact performance. Keepers, coaches, and players all play a part in shaping that performance.
As a player, I’ve had a variety of experiences in a number of roles on a range of teams. At the club level I started as the second keeper on a second team before I became a starter for the firsts. At the international level, I trained as a member of a national development squad, had a run as the starting keeper on the US national team and finished my career as the “dependable reserve” keeper. On the in between, I’ve had the privilege of playing for a variety of select teams around the world. Perspective has allowed me to see that while I may not have handled each situation as well as I would have liked, there were opportunities for me to play a positive role in the team’s performance whether I played or not.
Being a starting keeper isn’t usually a hard position. You know you’re going to play and you typically have the support of your teammates and coach. Your commitment is to helping your team win. Practices and warm ups are geared to a starting keeper playing well. That doesn’t have to be the complete scope of the starting keeper’s responsibilities. As a leader on the team, a starting keeper has an opportunity to be a mentor and a role model to other keepers on the team or in the club.
Athletes are naturally competitive, but as a competitor it’s critical that keepers bring out the best in each other. Too often, I see keepers who try to stay on top by keeping others down. They take all the shots in training or warm ups. They treat other keepers with indifference or contempt. They’re quick to point out the deficiencies in others. As a starter, a keeper needs to be confident enough in his or her abilities to see the big picture. Yes, I want to make sure that I get the time and repetitions to make sure I give my best performance, but I also need to make sure that I’m being inclusive when possible. Words can go a long way when circumstances don’t allow that, especially before a match. Keepers usually warm up and stretch together before a game. By including a second keeper in your preparation, you help prepare them in case of the unforeseeable injury.
In a club setting, you may train with keepers on the other teams. While you might not want to think of yourself as a role model, you are. The other keepers aspire to your position and you play a role in their development. Do you model good work habits? Do you share what you’ve learned through experience? The big keeper shares insights, the small keeper keeps secrets. Do you share time in drills? Do you do the little jobs like collect balls or get water? What do you want to be known for?
Being a reserve keeper on a team might be one of the hardest jobs in sport. You train as hard as you can and there might not be much separating you and the starting keeper, yet one keeper plays and the other sits. Not playing can be a crushing blow, but how a keeper handles the situation can turn a personal setback into a positive for the team. Do you work hard in training or simply go through the motions? Some keepers are happy simply being a part of a team. Not everyone aspires to a World Cup or an Olympics. There’s nothing wrong with that if you’re honest about your aspirations, but realize the effect on others. Apathy and a lack of effort and intensity are contagious, especially at higher levels.
Do you support the starting keeper? Support doesn’t mean that you have to be best friends (though that helps), but you should be working partners. Solid partnerships are built on trust and respect. Cliques can be especially divisive in a team and there’s no quicker way to start them than by lobbying for sympathy as to why you should be playing. Be honest in your relationship with your teammates and fellow keepers.
Team members need to respect their goalkeepers, both starting and reserves. Respect shows up in variety of ways. It’s not taking a full-blooded chip shot from seven yards out in training. It’s saying well done and keep at it to the third keeper as well as the first. It’s knowing that no one deliberately makes a mistake and intentionally allows a goal. It’s not supporting people when they’re being petty or complaining. It’s recognizing that every player is important.
As a coach, I try to reinforce the concept that while there is only one keeper who plays, the position is a reflection of the collective effort of all the keepers on the team. Most players only reach their full potential when challenged and pushed by their teammates. Depth at the goalkeeping position is vital. An injury can happen at any time and every player needs to be ready to step on the field at any given moment. How do you prepare the other keepers on your team? Do you give them specific feedback on the things they need to work on? Do you encourage them in training? Are you honest with them in their position on the team? All of these things go a long way to making all keepers feel they’re part of the team.
When faced with the challenges of a talented opponent, goalkeeping can be a hard enough position on its own. It doesn’t need to be made more difficult by playing against the enemy within. We’re all in this together.
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