The Importance of Fitness for Goalkeepers

When I got to UNC in 1991, I discovered that the weakest dimension of my game was my physical conditioning. I had never done any preparation on the physical side. We were required to do the Cooper test. The goalkeeper standard was 6 3/4 laps, which I made within a step. I wouldn’t have a problem with that today, but at that point, I had never done any real running. I didn’t prepare for the preseason nearly as well as I should have. I didn’t heed the advice of my older teammates, who told me to follow the UNC summer fitness program. “There’s no way I can do so much stuff,” I told myself when I saw the program. So I didn’t. The only way I passed the Cooper test was purely on mental strength.

The other test we had to do was 120s. That was the test I failed. I just missed one or two of the sprints. I think it was mental. I didn’t push quite as hard for this test, because I didn’t realize that if we failed that, we’d be put in the breakfast club. That’s the worst thing ever, especially as an unfit freshman. It means you have to get up every morning around 7 a.m. Daily double sessions become triple, because if you’re not fit you have to do a hard morning run. That year, Carla Overbeck was preparing for the World Cup. She was training on her own in the area, so she volunteered to lead the group of us on runs. You take the fittest person, and put her with all of us who failed the fitness tests, and you can just imagine the pain. I wanted to cry every morning when I got up. I hated running, because it hurt, and it hurt because I wasn’t fit. I’d never run that much in my life, so I ended up developing stress fractures in my legs. I redshirted (didn’t play) my freshman year. This was easily the defining moment for me, when I decided I needed to become fit. I am a firm believer in fitness based on this experience, and on seeing how much better I perform when I am fit.

I think a goalkeeper should be required to be as fit as the field players. I don’t like it when my teammates look at me and think, “Oh, you don’t have to run as much as we do. It’s not as hard for you.” They looked at the UNC goalkeepers’ standard in the Cooper test and said “You only had to run 6 3/4 laps (as opposed to 7 1/4), I could do that.” I don’t want my teammates to view my position as an easier one, or that I have an easier way out. I don’t want to be that player. I want to be the player who’s fitter than the field players, who raises the standard – not the one the standard has to be lowered for.

My goal after my freshman season at UNC was to be able to pass the field player fitness standard, even though the goalkeepers still had a reduced standard. I wanted to raise my level. Now the UNC goalkeepers have the same fitness standards as the field players.

The average young goalkeeper would argue, “Why do I need to be fit when I’m just standing in goal? I’m not running around on the field. I don’t have to sprint.” The main reason I feel I play better when I’m fit is mental. It’s the confidence factor. The fitness tests we got put through at UNC – the 120s, cones, Cooper test – are physical, but also largely mental. Those who are weak mentally will give in the first moment it becomes uncomfortable, and fail. But when you persevere when it gets tough, and when you pass certain mental hurdles in those fitness tests, you get a real boost in your confidence. Personally, it makes me feel I can do anything. I am mentally and physically ready to take on whatever the opponent can throw at me.

No matter how many games I’ve played, I still get nervous, so I always reflect on my preparation. Have I done everything in training that I possibly could to prepare myself for this game? Have I done everything I could in the off-season to prepare myself for this season? If I can honestly answer yes to those questions, then there is no doubt in my mind that I’m ready, that I will enter into that game with a confident, positive mind-set. Then, I know I’ll play better. But, if in my head I’m doubting – I really didn’t work as hard as I could have in the weight room, or, my vertical jump isn’t really where it should be, or I didn’t do those extra sprints when I should have, or I’m carrying an extra 10 pounds – I’m not going to feel as confident when I step onto the field.

When I talk about fitness, obviously the running component is part of it. But there are other components. I do a lot of agility work, once or twice a week. I use the agility ladder for foot quickness and do a lot of lateral and change-of-direction agility. I do a lot of plyometrics – anything and everything related to jumping. That’s unbelievably important for female goalkeepers. Most males can naturally jump much better than women. Obviously, some of it is anatomy. I’m 5’7″, and my husband, for example, who’s a goalkeeper, is 6’6″, yet we still have to cover the same eight-foot-high goal. I think the vertical jump is grossly overlooked in female goalkeepers. I’ve seen high school seniors who can’t even touch the crossbar, yet they expect to go on to play in college.

While I would probably attribute a lot of my development to my years at UNC, what was also important were my years of going to Soccer Plus Goalkeeping School, the camp that Tony DiCicco runs during the summer. I started going for a week at a time when I was 12, well before Tony became coach of the National Team. That camp was where I developed my technical foundation. I think that’s what made me a standout goalkeeper in high school, in North Andover, Massachusetts. It was just being able to catch and hold well, and to dive and catch and hold.

This is very important, because in addition to the fitness issue, I think one of the biggest problems I see in youth goalkeepers is that their technical foundation is weak. They can’t catch and hold a ball. They bobble balls that are right at them, and give up costly rebounds. They overlook this simple phase. I you can catch and hold a ball consistantly, you’ll make a big difference on your team. If you can master the positional and technical aspects of the game early, you will stand out from the masses. That made me a sound goalkeeper at an early age. As a goalkeeper you want to make your life as easy as possible. You don’t want to dive if you don’t have to. Of course, you will need to know how to dive and will be called upon to make that great extension dive save at some point, but keep that in your bag of tricks only to be pulled out when needed. You want it to appear that every ball is hit right at you because you position yourself well. Most shots that you will face during a game will be hit in the middle third of the goal, so quite simply, you need to be best at handling those types of shots.

I remember taking things from goalkeeper camp and doing them in my front yard. When I do coaching sessions now, I try to show players agility work they can do on their own. They should also do fitness. If they only do fitness for 20 minutes of the weekly session I do with them, that’s not enough. Players should devote about one hour per day, six days per week, to developing their physical dimension. (I always take one day off.) I don’t expect them to run every day. It can be an hour of lifting, so that’s more strength building, or plyometrics, or agility work. It also depends on what they’re getting in their club environment. If they’re just standing there and taking shots, they’re obviously not getting a lot of running. A lot of times at UNC goalkeepers weren’t able to get our fitness in during the team’s training session, so I would get in my running and lifting before or after practice. I also think it’s good for keepers to run to develop an overall fitness base. I work with keepers who can’t run for 20 minutes. That’s just not good conditioning.

I also try to give the players I work with body-weight exercises, since a lot of young players aren’t ready for hardcore weight-lifting. By high school, though, with the proper environment and coaching, it can be good to begin a weight-lifting program. It is critical for the players to have supervision from a strength and conditioning coach. Young players lifting too hard or using bad technique at an early age risk getting injured and intimidated by the weight room.

You also need to be realistic with yourself: Are you the right weight? I think young players need to look at that issue seriously. I’m not saying go diet crazy. I don’t want to push anyone into an eating disorder. I just think kids today need to be a little more conscious of what they eat. Goalkeepers, in particular, are not participating in team fitness most of the time, so they’re not getting the exercise they need. That can make them prone to weight-gain. On the other hand, I see almost as many soccer players who are underweight, and therefore prone to injury and other problems.

I now fully comprehend the link between fitness and weight because of my experiences. I didn’t do fitness with my youth club team. We ran occasionally with my high school team, but I wouldn’t consider what we did fitness. Thus in college, I put on the “freshman 15” pounds. I’ve had to deal with dropping some weight and getting myself fitter. It takes time. It isn’t meant to be accomplished in a week, or even a month. It is a decision that you make as an individual to lead a healthy lifestyle. That decision became apparent to me in college. I chose to be fit for life. Not only am I a better player because of it, but I am happier, healthier and a more energetic person.

If you want to successful at the higher levels, you have to do it all. I never said it was easy. I do it because I enjoy the hard work, love the sense of accomplishment, and because I want to do my best. I am never satisfied with where I am. I am always pushing to achieve that next level within myself.

If you want to excel in this position, if you want to become a champion, if you want to become a professional, you have to take it upon yourself to do extra. A lot of times, you’re not going to get proper goalkeeping training. You might not have a good goalkeeper coach. If you do, you’re lucky. Most kids don’t. You need to take a field player – perhaps a friend – and educate him or her in the training you require. You need to stay after practice, or go early, and instruct your friend, “I need you to hit me some crosses, or some shots.” You need to organize your training environment, whether it is doing extra goalkeeper work on the field, fitness, strength or plyometrics. If you’re not getting it in your environment, you have to create that environment for yourself. No excuses. If you want to be the best, the responsibility lies solely with you.

Reprinted from “The Vision of A Champion” by Anson Dorrance and Gloria Averbuch, 2005 Port Huron press. Used with permission. Visit the The Vision of A Champion web site for more information.