Modern goalkeeping requires a high standard of physical fitness and agility. But the brain also needs attention. The sharper the mind and speed of thinking, the more chance the keeper can move those highly trained limbs into position to make the save. In this post we look at ways of “training the brain”, making those cogs inside whir a little faster.

Making those cogs turn faster

There is a growing appreciation of “brain exercising”, in particular using “imagery”, where the athlete imagines completing a specific technique or task, like making a diving save or a good goal-kick. By imagining you can do it, you have a much higher chance of being successful when you need to perform the technique. You’re effectively practicing “inside your head”.

There are two different of imagery training.

In the first type, one can imagine performing the task “in position”, with the correct kit on and in the exact position (eg in goal). This is called Dynamic Imagery.

In the second type, one can just sit in a chair and imagine “making that diving save”. This is called Static Imagery.

There is strong evidence that Dynamic imagery, where the athlete imagines performing the task in situ, dressed and ready to play, improves success. 

This short video explains why. 

Our brain does a lot of work, just to read or spell out aloud, a single word. This part of the brain also makes decisions and sharpening this brain function, especially in a “goalkeeping environment”, will make decision making even faster in young keepers. 

Cognitive training for goalkeepers

We’ve been experimenting with using these techniques to sharpen our young keeper’s brain-functions, by adding “cognitive” tests into our standard footwork and handwork exercises.

An example is in this drill, where the keeper performs a standard “through the cones” exercise before making a catch, and then immediately answering a brain-test, like spelling a word backwards.

Keeper performs standard for exercise, catches a ball then is asked to spell “GOAL” backwards

The brain also makes a lot of short-cuts when deciphering things it sees visually, like reading a word. For example, it can still make sense of sentences where the words or letters are jumbled up.

decipher WRod

This video explores how important that feature really is. If you’re interested in this aspect, take a look.

When doubt creeps in

In some cases there appears to be a natural trait of habit, which can give insight into how an athlete processes information under stress. For example, when asked to spell the word “GOAL” backwards, a common mistake is to spell it “LAOL”. The error, in putting the “L” at the end as well as the beginning, may give insight into how an individual “goes back to first principles” once they have started to doubt what they are doing.

If one were asked to spell the word normally, the “L” would come at the end. The fact that the speller is almost home and dry, having spelt the word correctly backwards unto the last letter, and then confidently saying “L” and feeling they have succeeded, is a very common mistake, especially when tired.

It may indicate how likely an athlete is to suddenly panic and “go back to basics” when stressed. Take for example a young goalkeeper who is faced with a classic “OnevOne” situation. Despite all the keeper-coaching and screaming of the coach to “come out and make yourself big”,  in the end panic takes over and the keeper retreats back to the goalie, allowing the striker time and space to compose the perfect shot into the corner of the goal. It’s called the “comfort zone” for a reason.

Re-treating is a perfectly normal response, and while far from optimal (unless the striker shoots straight at the keeper) it’s understandable. It takes bravery and confidence to come off one’s line and attack the striker. This has to be constantly coached into young keepers and above all, when it doesn’t produce the desired result (saving the ball) the coach should console the keeper that this was still the right thing to do.

In the same way that re-treating to the line is normal, so too is ending a backwards-spelling test with the “last letter” (if the word was spelt forwards) as we saw above. When confused and/or tired, it’s normal to “go back to basics” and feel confident about that decision.

In some ways, we feel these brain tests sprinkled into standard foot- and hand-work exercises, forces the brain to accept that such “re-treating” is not optimal, and should be avoided. It helps build confidence that the initial, reflex response (eg “come out and make yourself bigger” is the right one and should be committed to.

The benefits of brain-exercises

Above all, the brain is a type of muscle too, and needs to be exercised. 

The best form of exercise seems to be that taken by the athlete themselves, in the form of imagination, and that can be done wearing goalkeeper gloves and between the posts (dynamic imagery) , or in one’s armchair or bed (static imagery).

Finally, coaches should try to sprinkle “brain tests”into their standard coaching regimes, and think up new ones. What’s the name of the previous President of the US, what’s the capital of China, etc. Make the challenge easy enough for 100% to know the answer, but after a physically rigorous exercise, the answer won’t be anywhere as easy, and the brain will get a lot of exercise.

Notice the traits, like putting the last letter at both he beginning and the end, as a sign that doubt is creeping in, and the athlete needs reassurance that their initial approach was the right one and they should commit.

If doubts about, kick it out.

Tips for Coaches – Confidence – Cohesion – technique

  • Try to sprinkle “brain tests”into your standard coaching regimes, and think up new ones. Spell a four or five, or six letter word backwards, what’s the name of the previous President of the US, what’s the capital of China, etc.
  • The more relevant to soccer the better – use GOAL, BALL, FOUL, FIELD, KEEPER.
  • Always try to build their confidence. 
  • Look for traits that give insight into broader behavior, like re-treating to the goalie, and reassure that the best response is their first, reflex response. Always commit, even if it turns out to be the second best response, at least it will have full commitment and effort.
  • If doubts about, kick it out.
  • Never criticize the keeper. Leave it to the keeper coach to work with them on why they’re being benched.
  • To help the keeper’s cohesion with his defenders, have him spell their names backwards.