One of the most common mistakes a keeper will make is failing to commit to a ball, a challenge or both. The result is always disaster – sometimes a goal, sometimes a serious injury. In this post we look at the problem, and offer some advice on how to minimize commitment errors.

Isn’t soccer a non-contact sport?

In most sports, coaches advise athletes to “commit” to their actions. In some cases this simply means “try hard”. 

But in sports where there is a high expectation of “contact”, either with an opponent or some part of the field, this means a very different thing entirely.

Soccer is actually a “mild contact sport”, unlike the high impact sports like American Football, Rugby, etc. There the tackle is very physical and heavy impact can be expected most of the time. In soccer, tackling, and “hustling” for the ball generally means slight, if any (legal) physical impact. The rules are designed to prevent “high impact” tackles, and these are usually deemed illegal and result in a foul. That said, accidents, and intentional foul play do occur, and can result in severe injury.   

Failing to commit hurts

In all sports where there is a possibility of high impact, it’s usually smart to commit to the tackle whole-heartedly. It’s generally felt amongst professionals, that injuries are worse when a player tries to pull out of a tackle or impact, at the last second. This could be instinct, or just reflex. Either way, if one fully commits to a tackle, the risk of injury is thought to be lower than if one flinches and tries to pull out at the last moment. 

Remaining Non-commital 

As well as serious injury, failing to commit whole-heartedly to a challenge or tackle can also result in a goal.

A great example of such failure-to-commit can be seen in this goal in the MLS game between Toronto and Minnesota. 

A speculative long ball is sent towards the penalty area and the Toronto forward chases it hopefully.

The ball bounces just outside the “D” of the penalty area, making it hard for the keeper to just “come and claim it”

ball is just about to bounce outside the “D”

The ball bounces outside the area, and the keeper has to make a decision – come out to the edge of his area, and catch the ball, or fully commit and try to head the ball outside the area. He hesitates and slows down as he reaches the edge of the box.

the ball bounces up and towards the penalty area, but still outside, as the keeper comes

The ball is now at the right height for the striker, who is determined to “fully commit” despite the risk of being ‘clattered” by the keeper.

as it drops again, its just head-height for the forward but only just inside the area

The striker gets to the dropping ball first and heads it over the keeper’s arms.

allowing the striker to head the ball over the keeper’s flailing outstretched arms

Once past the keeper the striker has a simple tap-in.

It’s easy for us to sit and analyze and criticize the keeper in slow-mo. The plain fact is that the keeper has to make a split-second decision and then “commit fully to it’.

In this case he made the wrong decision. With the ball’s first bounce so far outside the penalty area the keeper has no choice but to commit to try to head or chest the ball outside the area, before the striker can get to it.

A second, though inferior decision, might have been to stay closer to the goal before committing. That would probably have left the striker to gain full control of the ball and shoot on goal.

The chosen decision, to try to “catch it just on the edge” proved fatal. It had little chance of success.

Committing to success

From this lesson we can conclude some simple guide posts to help young keepers succeed in this type of situation.

  • this is essentially a “one v one”, and we covered two examples of them here and here. We also discussed some drills to help gain experience and confidence here
  • just from those two examples above, we can see there are no rules, only guidance. Each situation is different and a technique employed in one situation, even with full commitment, can result in failure in another, as Courtois found in his example.
  • that said, failing to commit fully, once a strategy has been decided upon, will almost always end in failure.
  • As the situation evolves, try to evaluate the following important factors;
    • is an opponent likely to get to the ball before you, no matter what you do? Can you use your hands?
    • how dangerous is that opponent if they get the ball – are they way over to the side of the field, unable to see the goal?
    • what is your best method of reaching the ball? – using hands, heading, chesting, kicking?
    • how fast is the ball travelling and is it likely to bounce?
    • is the weather likely to affect the flight of the ball? is it windy?
    • do you have help at hand? are there defenders close by that can protect the goal if you’re way out?
    • if you leave the ball to continue its motion, will it go safely out of play, or would it end up in the goal?
    • if you challenge for the ball and collide with the opponent, will it be called a foul?
  • there are many more, but these are the crucial questions to be answered, all in a split second!
  • a keeper’s mind will work fast in these situations, and goalkeeper coaches work on drills and simulations that speed up this decision making process.
  • but in the end, the choice – “come for it” or leave it and get ready for the consequence – will always be made more powerful if one fully commits to the decision.
  • based upon all of the above factors, there are no simple rules of thumb. Each situation will require a different approach.
  • but in general, coming out fast and hard, at least to the edge of the penalty area, where one can use their hands, is always a good decision. It minimizes the opportunity for the striker to take control of the ball and the situation, and gain an advantage. It “narrows the angle”, making the keeper seem bigger to the opponent, and makes them think twice about committing themselves.
  • another key consideration is staying on one’s feet. It’s always tempting for a keeper to throw themselves at the feet of the striker, but this reduces the flexibility for continued action. Once down you’re typically out.
  • above all, the answer to the first and second questions (above) are the most important -can you get to it before the striker and if not, how dangerous will they be once they’ve taken control of the ball. If the answer is that you can get to it first, even if it requires heading or kicking the ball away, then commit and go for it.
  • if you can’t get to it, but the striker will not present an immediate threat (though you can bet they will soon try to become one!) then get out towards the ball, staying within the area and try to await reinforcements from defenders.
  • above all, commit fully and whole-heartedly to your decision – don’t second guess yourself.

Tips for coaches – Confidence – Cohesion – Technique

This post demonstrates the importance of confidence, cohesion and technique. Your keeper must have the confidence to evaluate situations like the one faced by the Minnesota keeper above, and deal with them the best they can. Decisions need to be made in a split second, and while everyone on the sideline can see exactly what to do, the keeper is the one that has to do it. Technique, especially comfort with their feet and hands in tight, difficult situations, needs to be constantly practiced. Finally, the keeper needs help, and need to know his defenders will track back as fast as they can and try to help protect the goal.