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The Value of Repetition

About five years ago, I was working a soccer camp in Colorado.  It was a combined field player/goalkeeper camp, with two training session per day and games at night.  The 15 goalkeepers, aged 12 to 18, gathered for their first training session on Day 1, and we went through a series of basic footwork, handling, and low diving activities.  Standard drills were performed with intensity.  The goalkeeper coaching staff was constantly moving around making minor adjustments in all aspects of player movement.

After the session, I noticed one of the goalkeepers speaking to his mother next to the field.  They both approached me and informed me that the boy would not be continuing with camp for the remaining four days.  The reason?  He said he already knew all of the stuff that we had covered, and he also felt that there were too many beginner goalies at the camp.  He said that being around them would hurt his motivation. 

I wasn’t quite sure how to react.  Never mind the fact that two of the 17-year old keepers were already committed to Division I programs and were drenched with sweat from pushing themselves through the footwork patterns.  Never mind the fact that other keepers were working to improve their balance and the speed of their first step.  Never mind the fact that more sessions were forthcoming.  This kid who was “too good for us” had barely gone through the motions in our “basic” drills… dropping volleys hit right to his hands; leaning left or right when setting; failing to get a step in before executing his low dives.  And with that, this individual was done with camp.  No refund.  No more training.  Headed home to… probably play video games for four days.  Needless to say, by the following fall, that goalkeeper had lost his spot on a club team.

Now, it’s not uncommon for keepers to attend a session or a camp and think “well, I know this already, or I’ve heard that before.”  A parent in Rochester, New York once told me that their son did not need to attend any more goalkeeper training for their club because he already knew everything they talked about.  That child was 13 years old.

Hopefully, the absurdity of these examples is evident.  I bring them up to point out the value of a simple but critical word: repetition.  A high level goalkeeper will handle tens of thousands of volleys and perform just as many seated dives in the course of a career.  Nobody is above doing the basics!  

Repetition develops what we call “muscle memory,” a state where the body instinctively performs movements.  That instinct allows for faster movements (which help in saving faster shots).  Instinctive action can also help a goalkeeper to overcome any breakdowns in technique in high-pressure situations, where external influences may distract a less-rigorously-trained keeper. 

Last Thursday, our club keepers went through the following diving progression that is designed solely to provide repetition: 30 balls to each side while seated, then 30 while kneeling, then 30 while squatting, and then 30 from a standing ready position.  Each of those four starting positions counts as one "level."

At each level, work one side over and over up to 30 reps (this helps to reinforce muscle memory); start with 30 low balls (rolled on ground), rest for 45 seconds, then do 30 high balls to that same side.  Rest 45 seconds.  Then, work the other side for low balls.  Then rest.  Then work that side for high balls.  After that, it’s on to the next level.  Proceed through all four levels like this, making sure to take a small step before diving on the repetitions that occur with the feet on the ground.

As the services progress from 1 to 30, the pace of the serves should get faster and wider, forcing more extension.  Recovery time between saves should also become faster as the keeper approaches repetition 30, so the server needs to gradually force the keeper to recover more quickly.  The early repetitions can be very slow and focus just on the technique, with a keeper even pausing to stare at his/her hand position.  Later repetitions will require a quicker recovery and perfect hand position to cushion the pace of the service.

Ultimately, this four level progression makes for a simple session from a coaching perspective.  In fact, even parents or non-goalkeeper coaches can act as servers.  Overall, getting repetitions like this in once a week will enable a goalkeeper to develop great muscle memory when it comes to diving and holding shots.  In the end, there is no substitute for repetition, and nobody is above performing basic drills over and over.  That is truly the key to success.