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How to Play Goalie / Soccer Goalkeeper

Written November 4, 2013 by Mike Slatton

How to Play Goalie

The soccer goalkeeper is a specialist.  Goalkeeper is the most difficult position to play and the most misunderstood soccer player on the field.  Because of this, most coaches don’t know how to include goalies in their practices, or even how to train them.   Here’s how to play goalie, with a breakdown of what every young/new soccer goalkeeper should know.


Most new goalkeepers don’t understand that they have as much freedom to move about the field as any other player.  They can even score goals.  Many soccer goalkeepers have scored goals, but the goalkeeper who’s scored more goals than any other goalie in the history of soccer is current Brazilian professional, Rogério Ceni.  Currently a player for Sao Paulo FC, he’s scored 131 goals (so far) AS THE GOALKEEPER in professional league and international matches. Keep that in mind when it’s time to step into the net for your team.   If you’re doing it right, the goalie is the most exciting job on the pitch.

Instead of seeing their role as restrictive, goalkeepers should see their position as one of exceptional FREEDOM, as they can move around the field as much as any other player, but they get to use they’re hands in the penalty box.

The Field General

A goalkeeper is only as good as their defense, but the defense can’t see or anticipate everything.  That means that the goalie must be watching the defender’s backs (literally).  The goalie’s voice is the #1 most important tool they have, and it’s important that the defenders understand that their goalkeeper is the leader of the defense.

The goalie has their back to the goal and is facing the entire field.  They can see everything, and are expected to convey important information to their defenders at all times.  The defenders must be listening for instructions from the goalkeeper, and the goalkeeper must be loud enough and confident enough to convey those instructions.  If the attacking team is bringing the ball down the left side of the field, it’s natural for the weight of the field to shift toward the ball.  That means that most of the players on the field will gravitate toward the ball – toward the left side of the field.  That also means that there is a probability that one or two players from the attacking team will be left unmarked and open in the middle of the field to receive a pass.  The goalkeeper is positioned to see all of this unfold, so it’s their responsibility to tell the defenders where to move and who to cover.

The key to successful leadership from the goalie is SPECIFIC INSTRUCTIONS.  The keeper must use names and give direction that is clear to understand.  That means that “Someone cover him!” will not be sufficient.  Names and numbers must be used, to get the best response.  For instance: “Jacob!  Cover #7!”  “Isaac!  Drop back to the right!”

How to Catch the Ball

Before ANYTHING else, the goalkeeper needs to learn how to catch and manage the ball with their hands.  After all, the hands are what give the goalie their advantage over other players on the field, so NOT knowing how to handle the ball is counter-productive to the position.  Listed below are the basic fundamentals of catching and handling the ball that every goalkeeper should know.

Contour Catch

The most basic soccer ball catching technique is the contour catch.  It is a simple chest-high catch with the hands.  To understand the contour catch, simply put your hands on the ball, with your thumbs barely touching, and your index fingers separated by about 1 inch (*Smaller hands may require that the index fingers actually touch, in order to catch the ball).  That is the shape the keeper’s hands should be in when catching the ball.  When catching the ball, do so with the palms of the hands and let the fingers wrap around it.  To prevent the ball from just bouncing out of the hands on impact, absorb the shock with the arms – in other words, try to “softly” catch the ball.

Basket CatchBasket Catch

The basket catch is an underhanded technique for catching balls below the chest that requires the keeper to be on the ball-line, moving toward the ball.  The player’s hands are low, pinkies slightly overlapped, and as the ball comes in, the player pulls the ball in to their stomach and up to their chest. This technique would be used for low shots and dropping crosses.  The key to success with this technique is to be on the ball-line.  Trying the basket catch off of the ball-line could likely result in throwing the ball into the goal as the keeper attempts to pull the ball in and up to their chest.

Inverted Contour ScoopInverted Contour/Scoop

For balls that are rolling in at a slow to moderate pace, an inverted contour  or scoop is preferred.  An older technique would have been to drop to one knee and scoop the ball, with the idea that the thigh could prevent the ball from getting away.  The modern technique is to bend at the waist and scoop the ball with both hands while moving forward.  This saves the keeper a couple of seconds on the offensive restart.

Like the basket catch, the hands are low, pinkies touching, fingers slightly spread.  Unlike other catches, this is more of a finesse technique as the ball is low and the fingers are nearly on the ground.  Still, the ball should be handled with the palms to prevent jamming the fingers.  Once scooped up, the goalie pulls the ball to the chest to protect it, then transitions the ball to both hands to prepare for the offensive restart.

Protecting the Goal

Protection of the goal requires a keen understanding and awareness of your surroundings.  A good goalie knows where their defenders are in relation to the attacking opposition, and where THEY are in relation to the ball.  Effective goal protection isn’t just about shot-stopping;  It’s about protecting the goal in such a way that dangerous shots are eliminated altogether.  It requires verbal communication and aggressive tactics.


Any goalkeeper can be effective and stop 80% shots on goal by just knowing some simple positioning tactics.  These tactics are known as angles and lines, and are the fundamental lessons to learn before anything else.  In fact, goalkeepers don’t even need to learn how to dive until they’ve mastered the art of position (angles and lines).

Most new goalkeepers think that they’re restricted to the mouth of the goal and tend to spend the majority of the game standing on the goal-line, or just in front of the goal. This is not only wrong, but it actually makes it very easy to get scored on, thereby making the position a very depressing endeavor.  The goalkeeper is actually an aggressive/attacking position – not a passive position.  Goalies should never just stand and wait for the ball or wait for the shooter to just take their shot.  The goalkeeper should actually come forward to attack the ball during one-on-one challenges, crossing threats and to support the defense in order for their team to maintain possession of the ball.

The Ball LineThe Ball-Line

The ball line is an imaginary line that runs from the center of the goal to the ball.  Unlike the goalkeeper’s line, this line is fluid and moves as the ball moves around the field.  The keeper should always be moving forward and back on the ball-line as the ball moves up and down, all around the field.

Simply being on the ball-line as it intersects the goalkeeper line gives the goalie an 80% chance of stopping a direct shot on goal.  Being on the ball-line as the ball moves around the field also keeps the goalie fully engaged in the game, as some games can get boring for keepers of good teams who spend the majority of the game on the offensive half of the field.

The Goalkeeper's Line

The Goalkeeper’s Line

There is an imaginary arc just in front of the goal that runs from goalpost to goalpost, known to most experienced goalkeepers as their “line”.  For clarity, we’ll call it the “goalkeeper’s line“.

The goalkeeper’s line is little more than a starting position for their defense of the goal.  It extends from goalpost to goalpost, arcing out to about one yard in front of the goal.  In theory, a keeper would want to be on their line for shots that come from just outside the penalty box, as this is the perfect distance to allow them to react to the threat, and make the save.

As long as their defenders are doing their job, most saves will be made from the goalkeeper’s line, as most shots will be taken from just outside the penalty box.  However, what about shots taken WITHIN the penalty box?  Sometimes forwards will dribble past the defense and get inside the penalty box.  In situations like this, it’s important that the goalie come off of their line and “cut down the angle“.

Cutting Down the Angle“Cutting the Angle”

“The angle” is a triangular area that is measured from the shooter to either goalpost, across the mouth of the goal.   If the goalkeeper comes out of the goal toward the shooter, the opportunity to score on the sides of the keeper are eroded, until they get so close that there is no opportunity at all, and the shot either bounces off of the goalie or goes wide of the goal.  This tactic however is dependent on the goalkeeper staying on the ball-line as they come forward on the ball.  A deviation right or left of the ball-line will open up the opportunity to score.

Of course, cutting down the angle is only effective on shots, and doesn’t take into account the offensive player passing the ball or dribbling around the goalie. Most goals scored within the box are a result of a quick pass from the outside, across the mouth of the goal to an oncoming teammate who just one-touches the ball into the net, catching the keeper off of the “ball-line”.  In situations like this, desperate measures are required – basically, diving.

Defending Corner KicksCorner Kicks

On kicks directly from the corner, the goalkeeper should take a position in the back half of the goal box in front of the furthest quarter of the goal.  This allows for an easier run forward, and keeps back peddling to a minimum.

When the ball is kicked toward the goal, the keeper should move toward the ball to either catch it or redirect it away from the goal.  If the keeper cannot catch the ball as it comes across the goal, it’s important that they at least get a touch on the ball, as just one finger on the ball will change it’s course enough to cause a missed header or volley.

Scoring Opportunity Hot SpotsHot-Spots

Instinctively, goal scorers know where to be in order to increase their probability of scoring on run-ups, corner kicks, crosses, dead-balls and rebounds.  The majority of the time, they will end up in one of two “hot-spots“.

There are two spots in front of the goal box, in the middle of the penalty box, on either side of the penalty spot (*click on the photo) where the ball is likely to cross 60% of the time on corner kicks, crosses and rebounds.

Knowing the hot-spots will give a new goalkeeper a distinct advantage over some of the most experienced opponents.

Offensive Restarts

The goalkeeper is the last line of defense and the first line of offense.  Once the goalkeeper has possession of the ball either in their hands or at their feet,  it’s important to quickly get the ball to a teammate who is in a position to get the ball back up-field to a midfielder or a forward.  The best way to do this is to play the ball to the other side of the field.

As the goalie faces the field, they’ll notice that as the ball comes down, for instance: the left side of the field, there are more players and more “weight” on the left side, leaving the right side of the field with less players, making it “lighter”.  Once the keeper recovers the ball, they’re responsible to restart the offensive attack.  A quick pass or throw to the right-side defender keeps the ball in their possession and provides a much safer path to midfield, as opposed to just punting the ball down field.

A punt up field is like cutting in line: It’s rarely an effective strategy, and will usually just get you put back to where you started.

The best restart of the offense is a quick pass out to an open defender while the other team is dropping back to a defensive position.  In the same amount of time as it takes to punt the ball down field, your team can have possession of the ball on the ground, at midfield, without any 50/50 challenges in the air.

The goalkeeper can restart the offense any number of ways, but the best is a quick, accurate pass or throw to the outside defender, in a manner that is easy to control and move forward.  Throws and kicks should always be low and firm.  High, lobbing balls give the other team plenty of time to get to it, which increases the likelihood of your team going back on the defensive. A punt should only be used when your defense is tired or ineffective, and the attacking team is so aggressive that a punt is the only chance you have of getting the ball to midfield.

Throwing the Ball

The ball can be thrown out by the goalkeeper to a defender or midfielder an infinite number of ways, but the best practice is to use a method that delivers the ball quickly, while keeping it close to or on the ground, so that their teammate can trap it.

Here’s one way to throw out a soccer ball:

Overhand ThrowOverhand Throw

The Overhand Throw is done with force with a straight arm that comes from behind the player, over the head, and is released on the opposite foot of the throwing arm.

  1. 1. Start with the ball resting in your throwing hand.
  2. 2. Step forward on the opposite foot of the throwing hand, while shifting the ball from it’s resting position into a holding position, trapping the ball with one hand against the wrist and forearm.
  3. 3. Pointing with the non-ball hand in the direction of the throw, bring the ball from behind, up and over and release it by straightening the hand, creating a straight arm from fingers to shoulder.
  4. 4. Upon release of the ball, the fingers on the throwing hand should be pointing toward the intended recipient and then follow through to the ground.

An effective overhand throw will be direct and skip along the ground, making it easier for a teammate to trap and turn with it.  Try not to lob the ball out, as it gives the other team time to see where it’s going and get to it.

Diving for the Ball

Diving for the ball is really the last technique a goalie needs to learn.  Mastering the above techniques and knowing everything else means that diving is a last resort to making a save.  Most goalkeepers need to dive because they’ve gotten off of the ball line, as a pass has been made across the goal, or their defense has failed to stop the attack from the other team, resulting in a hard shot from the top of the penalty box.

Basic Collapse DiveBasic Collapse Dive

The Collapse Dive is the most likely dive any goalkeeper will make.  Specifically for low shots, the keeper shifts their weight to the side of the on-coming shot, with their hands leading in the direction of the dive. Both hands should be facing the ball in the standard contour position, ready to intercept it.  As their weight reaches the tipping point, they make a push with their outside foot toward the ball.   The keeper’s eyes should always be on the ball, as this promotes proper form.  The outside of the knee, closest to the ball will touch the ground just as the closest hand touches the ball (or ground), followed by the hip.  The momentum of the final push will cause the goalie to slide toward the ball, as the player collapses onto their side, both hands facing the ball.  The top knee should come up as the keeper slides, to continue the forward momentum and to provide protection from oncoming attackers.

If the ball is recovered, the lower hand should be behind the ball, and the upper hand should be on top of the ball, essentially pinning it to the ground.  The ball then should be immediately pulled toward the keeper’s face to create a barrier between aggressive attackers who haven’t quite accepted the fact that the goalie has made the save and now controls the ball.

Equipment and care

Goalkeeper gloves can be a great asset to a keeper, but poorly maintained gloves can actually be detrimental to the goalie.  Goalkeeper gloves should be washed after every use.  Period. For information on how to maintain your gloves, read “Goalie Glove Care“.

[su_box title=”Watch for Part 2!” style=”soft” radius=”0″]We’ll be covering: – Playing Goalkeeper OUTSIDE of the penalty box – Handling chips and drop-shots – Goalkeeper language – Dead-balls & building walls – How to stop penalty kicks – Advanced diving techniques – Additional distribution techniques – Defending 1 v 1[/su_box]


Mike Slatton is a NSCAA Nationally Licensed Goalkeeper Coach and 30+ year youth soccer coach and player developer.

About Author

Mike Slatton is a 2nd generation American youth soccer coach since 1984, and the son of one of the nation's first female licensed youth soccer coaches (Anita Slatton, 1979). He's also a professional soccer scout, a player since 1977, and the father of three adult and teenage children who all play or have played the game. "My job as a youth soccer coach is to develop detail oriented problem solvers who can react quickly under pressure. This relates to life - not just soccer."

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