Playing outfield offers youngsters plenty of variety. They can be a left-back one day and a left winger the next and there is little that they need to do to adapt at an amateur level, given that all outfield players have similar basic techniques and functions.
Goalkeeping, on the other hand, offers something completely different. The use of your hands, diving, going to ground with an opponent rushing towards you. These are techniques that are exclusive to the goalkeeping position and if you haven’t practiced them before, chances are it will take you some time to get used to performing them.
If goalkeeping is such a specialised position, then, should we train youngsters with the qualities of a future goalkeeper – such as strong hands, determination and good verbal communication – to play only as goalkeepers?
The likes of United States stalwarts Brad Friedel and Hope Solo suggests otherwise, as does former-Mexico starJorge Campos. Aside from brilliant goalkeeping abilities, what do these three have in common? – They all started their soccer careers playing as strikers. Throw in players like Spanish goalscorer Fernando Torres, who dreamed of playing in goal during his youth, and it becomes clear that the very best players often avoid specialising until late on.
According to former United States national team goalkeeping coach Phil Wheddon, there is a reason why these players were able to transition into brilliant goalkeepers – playing outfield helps to build a player’s ability with the ball at their feet. Even for a goalkeeper, adequate footwork is important, but, according to Wheddon, many youngsters are failing to develop these abilities as they are specialising too soon.
“I think at the youth level, we often pigeon-hole players very, very early,” he admitted. “Ok, you’re a goalkeeper, you’re 7 years old. It’s unfortunate that we do label kids so early and we don’t develop their foot skills enough from an early age onward.”
However, according to the United States Youth Soccer Association, goalkeepers should play no part in youth football for those under the age of seven, as their early years should be spent learning the basics of soccer first.
“There are no goalkeepers in the U5, U6 and U7 age groups so that all of the players may chase the ball around the field,” their rules state. “The kids want to be where the action is and at this age it is around the ball. This will provide the opportunity for the children to further develop their running, jumping and kicking coordination.”
While there is no official guidelines on when exactly the right time to specialise as a goalkeeper is, most involved in the training and development of top goalkeepers will tell you that it’s probably best to leave it until later.
At the end of the day, it is ultimately their own choice where they want to play. Most players will know whether they want to specialise during their teenage years, while in some cases they won’t make a final decision until they are playing at college. That isn’t to say youngsters shouldn’t play in goal if they have the abilities to succeed in the position and enjoy playing it, but they should always be encouraged to try other positions too.
Aside from the technical advantages involved, you must also consider the mental impact that early specialisation might have on a child’s development. Young children in particular can be extremely unpredictable and while they may love playing in goal this week, they might hate the idea next week.
While we all want to see the young people in our care succeed, it is best not to forget that they are children. They aren’t thinking about their future and they aren’t playing soccer to earn a living. They’re playing the sport because they enjoy it. However, if their participation becomes forced or controlled, chances are they won’t enjoy it for much longer.