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The importance of goalkeepers in field hockey

A save by the goalie is as crucial as a goal scored by the forwards especially in close encounters

September 10, 2023

In this part of our series of field hockey articles we shall discuss an extremely important and pivotal aspect of the game which is rightly described as the backbone of defense. The goalkeepers are the quickest and most agile players in any team. It is the last line of defense, and the ball moves very quickly in the important circle area. Goalkeepers are usually quick to remind the field players that if they had done their job better, the ball would not be in the goalkeeper’s territory anyway.

Before discussing the goalkeeping techniques let’s take into account the equipment that any modern goalkeeper requires: pads, kickers, chest protector, groin protector for men or pelvic protector for women, helmet, elbow pads, throat wprotector and gloves.

Good protective gear gives the goalkeeper the necessary confidence to save the net and avoid injuries. The protective equipment protects the front of the body, so keep that part of your body facing the ball. Duck your chin if the ball is moving towards your face and you can’t get out of the way. Remember that save with a helmet is still a save.

Pakistan has produced some outstanding goalkeepers in the game of hockey. Late Mansoor Ahmed, Shahid Ali Khan and Saleem Sherwani were my personal favourites. Lachlan Dreher, Damon Diletti, Justine Sowry and Rachel Imison are four players who have led the way for goalkeepers worldwide. Dreher and Diletti are three times Olympians who represented Australia for 22 years combined and played almost 300 international games between them as goalkeepers.

According to Dreher you must organise your defense in the back half of the field and get to the right position in the circle as soon as you can. Make sure that you are steady, flexible and balanced when the shot comes. The two most important skills are non-physical; the ability to read the attack and the ability and willingness to call the play quickly and decisively for the players ahead. Speed, flexibility, courage and a sound ability to make right decisions for committing saves on both sides of your body and above the shoulder are essential for the complete goalkeeper.

As the deepest player in the team, the goalkeeper plays a strong role in reading and calling the play, spotting and calling attacking leads and organising the defense accordingly. An intelligent and brave goalkeeper is the biggest asset of a team because he is not only the custodian of defense, but also the on spot coach who can provide best advice to the entire team in a fluid situation. If senior and acceptable, the goalkeeper is the best choice to be the on field team captain for any hockey team in the world.

As a goalkeeper, you have the widest view and therefore the best perspective to call the correct lines for defensive players. This will ensure good defensive organisation in the back half of the field, particularly if you make the calls in an urgent manner without getting panicky.

Diletti explains that high-quality communication from the goalkeeper can be just as useful as a good save, because with the right communication from behind, the defenders can prevent a shot on goal, which protects a goalkeeper from needing to make a save. Prevention is better than cure. Be positive and confident with your body language, even if you or one of your defenders make a costly error.

Positioning of the goalkeeper in the goalmouth is of utmost importance. A way to improve this ability is to practise moving around the goalmouth in an arc and out of the goal box to the middle of the circle. After each of these movements, return quickly to the central position in the goalmouth and assess your end position.

The best position for the goalkeeper is the one that significantly reduces the shooting angle of the attackers. As a goalkeeper, the closer you are to the hit position, the more you will reduce the shooting angle but the less time you will have to react to the shot on goal. A good goalkeeper always makes a good compromise between proximity to the shooter and the reduction of shooting angle.

Many goalkeepers have an unbalanced stance to the left or the right, or they take stuttering, nervous steps on the spot while they wait for the shot to be made. Both situations will make the goalkeeper unbalanced and clever forwards look for such moments when the goalkeeper is off-balance or has his or her weight on one foot predominantly. Therefore, after making a save or moving to adjust for a change of angle, remain stationary till the next shot is made.

Dreher believes that many goalkeepers are unable to use their non-preferred foot to save and kick the ball. As a result, they kick across the line of the ball and miss some potential saves. As a goalkeeper, you should attempt to kick up the line of the ball as it moves towards you and angle the foot to direct the ball in the path you want it to go.

Let’s see the specific skills required for goalkeepers.

The first and foremost is Instep Jab Kick. This is a controlled “save & clear” technique that may also be used to pass the ball. Imison says that with the instep jab kick, you will take power out of the ball, whereas if you are too late, the ball is likely to end up in the goal.

Line the ball up with the center of your instep to maximise your placement and ball control. As is the case for most skills, make sure your weight is going forward. Be sure that your head and chest are over the ball as you make contact.

The other technique is Lunge Save. This is similar to the instep jab, but it requires a wider stretch. As a goalkeeper, you never want to fall backwards when you make a save, so you should always attempt to make a save with your weight going forward.

Dreher says that you should open the hips and get your knee over the ball at the point of contact. The wider you stretch to make a save, the more your hips come around to face the side of the field. You need good hip rotation to clear the ball wide so that your weight moves in the direction of clearance.

After the lung save comes the Split Save. In this save you should have your stick or your hand behind your stretched foot in order to increase the distance that you can cover in front of the goal.

The Air Ball Save is yet another capability which the goalkeeper needs to master. To save an air ball coming straight to you, block the ball with your glove and guide it on the ground. Once you have the ball controlled and if there is sufficient time available, kick it away in a controlled manner. On the other hand, if many players are around you as you make the save, you should make sure that your body is behind the ball when it drops to the ground until a defender on your team clears it away.

Avoid swatting the ball with the glove, which can attract the umpire and may result in a penalty stroke. According to Dreher you should do one out of the two to make a save. Either get the ball out of the danger area by deflecting it wide of the goal or over the net, or keep the ball in tight control so that you can kick or push it out of the circle or a teammate can clear it out of the danger area when the ball drops on ground.

Sliding and Stacking ability is a must for every goalkeeper. This ability to some extent depends on the surface on which you play. A water-based surface means that even if your technique is not perfect, you can still execute an effective slide, whereas a sand-based surface provides more friction and resistance and requires a higher quality slide.

Usually goalkeepers prefer sliding on the right side, but you need to be able to execute sliding on both sides of the body. Imison says that you should line up the center of your pads with the ball as you approach the ball carrier and remember to use your hands if the forward tries to drag around you.

A good goalkeeper should also perfect the double leg block and diving. Diving is the last ditch effort to save the ball. Sowry says that it should always be your preference to stay on your feet as long as possible so that you are more mobile to make second saves and the more powerful ones.

Training as a goalkeeper requires a multitude of specialist skills. You must be accurate with your kicking and should be able to execute saves and clearances with power on both sides of your body.

The main thing for the goalkeeper during training is to focus on completing one save at a time, not dealing halfheartedly with each shot because the next is already on the way. For each drill, play each out to completion so that the drill is not over until the ball leaves the circle. Either the ball is cleared by the goalkeeper and defenders out of the circle or a goal is scored or the forward misses the net.

Remember that goalkeeping is a very rewarding and enjoyable position, but it isn’t for everyone. It is a critical position in the team in modern hockey. You can make a positive difference for your team because a great save is as important as a good goal scored by your forward. Those teams who don’t pay attention to this specialised area of play have little place in the competitive modern hockey. I hope that the tips provided by some of the great goalkeepers of the world will help you learn and improve your goalkeeping skills.