Goalkeepers and Talent Development

I jumped into a twitter discussion this week between soccer coaches because I felt that the coaches were settling for obvious explanations that ultimately affect our understanding of sports and talent development. The coaches were discussing goalkeepers, and the ability of the United States to develop several world-class goalkeepers while not developing any true world-class field players.

The soccer coaches latched onto the familiar answer: children in the U.S. grow up playing hand-eye sports like basketball, baseball, football and more, so they naturally gravitate to the goalkeeper position and excel with their hand-eye coordination.

I suggested that the explanation ran deeper into the development of the players. Because of European transfer rules (work visas), U.S. players have to prove themselves with the U.S. Men’s National Team or major League Soccer before transferring to a prominent European league, like the English Premiere League. Therefore, players are essentially near their professional peaks when they finally transfer, somewhere around 26 years old.

For a goalkeeper, this is no problem, as goalkeepers mature later and maintain their peak performance for longer because it is a position that relies heavily on perceptual-cognitive skills like reading angles, anticipating movements, and choice reaction time developed through experience, while field players rely heavily on physical qualities like quickness. A goalkeeper that transfers to an English club at 26-years-old has time to learn the league, fail, rebound and perform at the highest level for a dozen years. USMNT goalkeeper Tim Howard transferred to Manchester United, played well, played poorly, lost his job and transferred to Everton where he was given a second chance and has established himself as one of the best goalkeepers in England. Would a field player be given that second opportunity by another club at that age?

Field players develop through the U.S. system and have an adjustment period when moving to a better league. Basketball players have an adjustment when moving from college to the NBA. However, most basketball players are 19-23 when they make the move to the NBA. They have room to develop and have yet to hit their physical peak. They can learn for a year or two and have time to play into and out of their physical peak.

A soccer player undergoes the same transition, yet he is at his physical peak. If he cannot contribute immediately upon arrival with his European club, does he have time to learn the league, develop and get a second chance? Unlikely, especially with the stigma that U.S. players lack the skills to compete at the highest levels. The stigma becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, while the perception of the U.S. producing great goalkeepers improves a U.S. goalkeeper’s chances to get a second look.

The U.S. is transitioning from the players who played in the 2006 and 2010 World Cups to those who will play in the 2014 World Cup (hopefully). However, few of the new players have established themselves, and they are not playing in Europe (unless they have access to European passports, like Stuart Holden or Timothy Chandler, are older, like Clint Dempsey, or are playing in a smaller league like Alejandro Bedoya).

Players who are imagined to be the future of the team, like Tim Ream and Omar Gonzales, are not that young (25 and 24) anymore. At that age, they are nearing their physical peaks and should be playing at the highest levels already to prepare for the World Cup and to challenge themselves professionally. If they are unready for the best leagues at 24 years old, the question must be asked if they will ever be ready? If they transfer at 27 or 28, they may play well for a year or two, and may hold on for a while in near-top leagues like Carlos Bocanegra in France because of their understanding and intelligence which compensates for their lessening speed, but they probably missed their window to accelerate their development by playing with and against the best at a more developmental age.

However, it is much easier to attribute goalkeeper’s success to a basketball up-bringing than to examine the entire developmental system. We are similarly short-sighted in basketball development and training, as we attribute success to a simple explanation while there are many. Parents tell me that their son needs to play year-round AAU basketball at 8-years-old because that’s how LeBron James developed, ignoring the fact that he also played football in high school.

When the facts do not support their argument, however, they are irrelevant. It is much easier to attribute James’ success to his play in AAU than to imagine that football had an effect on his development or that there were other things in play.

Great players often make poor trainers or coaches because they attribute their success to their training programs, even though their success likely had more to do with their work ethic than their training. Many perpetuate poorly planned training because of their attribution of their success. If they ran five miles a day in the summer and were good at basketball, they attribute their success to the five miles per day, not the random pick up games or their effort on the court.

Talent development is never a simple answer. There are many factors involved in an athlete’s development and settling on the easy or obvious explanation often short-changes the athlete and misappropriates his or her success, oftentimes leading to the continuation of biases or poor training.

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