Although it is not impossible for a goalkeeper to play strongly at a young age, goalkeeping isn’t exactly a ‘boy’s game’. This is in the sense that it takes a lot of talent, a mature attitude, and experience of the speed of play and scenarios at the highest level, to really make it. Whilst there are many extremely talented goalkeepers who have got their break early playing at a much younger age than a mature veteran, maintaining this level takes experience. A goalkeeper with more experience should perform better as they can work off their experiences to develop awareness and ability to deconstruct the game. If you have been ‘around the block’ more you already have a head start. Whereas climbing the ladder is based on gaining crucial experience at each stage, experience of play at the highest level is undeniably important for making the switch to elite starter.
A good metaphor for the goalkeeping journey is wine; wine gets better with age and the best wine is theorised as a mature wine. Or whiskey if that’s your tipple! This is the same with goalkeepers: goalkeeping is all about experience and the ability to know what to do when something happens in the game, so gaining that experience is all important to achieving success. Like wine, goalkeepers need time to develop; the older they get, the better they get thanks to their game experiences. Playing 2s as a reserve is not the same standard as a 1st choice premier league starter, so there is quite a jump to be made.
Experience is so important to allowing a goalkeeper to perform at their best. Whilst reaction speeds and cannot be taught, experience needs to be learnt through playing (obviously!). And thus, the more a goalkeeper plays the better they should get as they grow accustomed to the rigours and tribulations of a season at the highest levels of hockey. Whereas a forward can come on as a replacement and come off the bench to play, a goalkeeper is there for the full 70 minutes, meaning they come under a lot of pressure to perform well week in week out, relying on their previous experiences to follow onto the next.
Wine gets better with age
Experience is like the maturing stage of wine in this metaphor. Goalkeepers are players that need experience and wisdom, so that they can make the timely save and play with consistency. Without it, they cannot succeed: they will not be able to know how to react to a bad game and end up letting their team down. Like wine, goalkeepers need time to get to their best. Outfield players are expected to have more of an immediate impact at a younger age breaking into a 1st XI, but goalkeepers often have to wait their turn.
The best goalkeepers are theoretically the older goalkeepers: they know what’s coming and they know how to react to it and deal with the play. They know how to get the job done and they know what it takes to compete. With all their experience, they can put it to work during the game when it becomes a tough match. Once goalkeepers reach their peak they will potentially be unstoppable, even if it will only be short lived; everything else up to that point is the work done to reach that level. Michael Mahood from Canada, considered one of the world’s best, was 36 or so before he retired. Of course, eventually reaction times will wane and you can become more prone to injury as you age.
If you look at the average age of most national league and international goalkeepers, you will see a common trend of older aged goalkeepers. As in older than 20 at least, but generally are nearer mid-20s and older! At home in England, Simon Mason (who was obviously GB’s no.1 for a long time) is currently playing National League at an old age; that says something about his ability to read the play and dominate the game. Chris Hibbert is going strong in his late thirties at Southgate and Simon Mason is nearing the big 4-0. If you take the National Premier League in England, 3 starters are 21 or younger, whereas the youngest in the conferences is about 23 (Phil Carr or Tommy Alexander), although Andrew Miller is 22 and Chris Rea 21; Old Loughtonians’ Chris Naven 22, whilst George Ratcliffe (21) is benching at Doncaster, though given a chance in indoor, as far as I know, but could be wrong about the general age range!
Reaching your peak
Goalkeepers aren’t really expected to hit their prime until their late 20s now, although the early 30s is what it is generally considered to be the time for that. Repetition of actions makes decision making easier as the goalkeeper should know exactly what to do for specific situations as a result of their experience. Positional awareness comes from the experience of being in the right position on multiple plays over time, so being on angle all the time and knowing where to be when at the right time is also a bi-product of game experience. Consistency develops as the goalkeeper gets used to playing at the highest level on a regular basis. Mistakes are made and you can learn from them to improve.
With confidence being the most important skill bar the technical side of things, a young goalkeeper tested too early can have their confidence crushed after a few shaky performances and may struggle to refind the form that got them to that position. 24 seems to be the bar that is being set for goalkeepers to be old enough to stand the rigours of being the starter, the age where they can be expected to take the reins. David Kettle for example is settling into a starting role at Surbiton and I don’t think Potton started as the first choice for EG until he was about that age. John Ruddy and Joe Hart in football really started to become elite goalkeepers at this age (Hart having a crucial season at Birmingham). So whilst I think there is a lowering of the age for a starter, they will still potentially and theoretically still hit their prime in their late twenties or early thirties as a result of game experience and improved ability to ‘read’ the play and what is about to or going to happen in front of them. Which is a good thing as they aren’t playing to their best just yet!
It is a good point to know that goalkeepers theoretically won’t peak and play at their best until they are about 33 years old; that seems like a long time if you’ve been playing in goal since you were 12 or so! Take Vogels for example; if you saw him before he retired, playing internationally, he played like a wise veteran and arguably the world’s best, whereas Stockmann was struggling a bit against teams internationally as he took over but has been recently finding great form and playing up to expectations as of late, to dramatic effect. Not that he isn’t any good but it was his first real experience of taking the starting spot at international level and experiencing the struggles of competing against the world’s best, like Nathan Burgers in his early days. Without sounding overly critical (they are the world’s elite after all!).
The exception to the rule
It’s not uncommon for a prodigal goalkeeper to be able to play at the elite level from a much younger age. Obviously it is important to get noticed early and prove you have talent, because making attempts at a later date to jump to the top is obviously much more difficult! Technique can be taught and experience can be gained but god given talent is not. A young goalkeeper with exceptional athletic ability and composure within their D is a rarity and yet not impossible. Like Niklas Sakowsky at Crefelder HTC, Antoni Kindler for Canada or Pirmin Blaak at Rotterdam. But everyone is unique and develops at different stages and times. The reasoning for getting recognised early is that coaching has developed enough for goalkeepers to get good access to developing their skills to the highest levels. Diccon Stubbings, Harry Martin and James Bailey are the latest crop of mercurial youngsters, with Patrick Smith waiting in the wings at Cannock, in England, for example
If elite athletes get the right coaching and are pushed properly they can quickly ascend the ladder rapidly if given the chance to shine, with the experience of higher level hockey increasing this development significantly. However, with the pressure to perform consistently and to a high level, the goalkeeper has to be incredibly mentally strong. Young people are often overly confident, so maturity and composure at a young age and not getting carried away with your own success is as true of goalkeeping as it is anything in life. A young goalkeeper with the correct level of mental strength and ‘cockiness’ and the play to back it up will go further than if they begin to self doubt. And good performances can be the assurance for psychological benefits.
Maturing like wine
Ultimately, your best goalkeeping years will be later on in your playing career, even if you show promise early on. Hard work, dedication and commitment will pay off eventually. If you have your heart set on playing the best you can (whether that be internationally, in national league or whatever else), be prepared to have to wait and be patient but retain that edge and drive to be able to get the chance and run away with it when it comes. Goalkeeping is something you need to work at it and learn from your experiences. Don’t think that you will suddenly become amazing, but be accepting that you will need to work for your opportunities and give it your best, so that one day you will be unstoppable! It is human to want everything now and be impatient, but you need to wait your turn. Like wine, let yourself develop with time and then grasp the starting job with all your might when you get the chance.