Why Goalkeepers Tend To Have Longer Careers Than Field Players

Why Do Goalkeepers Peak Later Into Their Careers?

Gianluigi Donaruma is perhaps one of the few inverse scenarios of goalkeepers that peaked in their youth and now going into what should be their prime years are kind of struggling. For the most part, goalkeepers have a career trajectory similar to the one Keylor Navas had. He started out playing in his native country of Costa Rica, then he bounced around lower level Spanish clubs like Levante and Albacete. Only to find the peak of his powers at Real Madrid. Keylor was actually about 28 years old when he took over the starting gig in Madrid. Even the case of Manuel Neuer proves this theory about goalkeepers peaking later into their careers.

Neuer played rather well at Schalke 04 in his younger years and that prompted his move to Bayern Munich. At Bayern Munich, he proved that he had another gear in him and took his career to unprecedented levels. Particularly in those Pep Guardiola years when he was asked to truly play the role of the ultimate sweeper keeper. Of course that peak came like 10 years into his career. Maybe 8 years if we’re being extremely precise because he reached his peak at about age 27/28. He became the full time starter at Schalke 04 at just 20 years old in the back half of the 2006/2007 season. That’s a full 8 years into his career in the first division. You could probably go back at least another 8 years to his start in the youth ranks.

I say all of this just to put things into perspective for a lot of the younger goalkeepers out there. It’s a bit of a sad reality that most of us are going to reach our peak performance when we’re done competing at the highest levels. That’s just based on the fact that so few not only make it to the pro ranks, but are able to stay there for a long time. Why are older goalkeepers typically better though? Are these key elements things we can implement beforehand to make our growth process much quicker? I believe so and that’s what I want to cover today! 

Experience Makes A World Of A Difference

Experience is something that’s going to make you better at anything that you want to do in life. When it comes to goalkeeping experience is usually reflected in two aspects of the game that make up about 80% of what it takes to be an effective goalkeeper. The first thing that experience gives you is a feel of where you need to be on any given play. When you’re in the right spot you’re way more likely to make a save. That’s just a fact of life. The other element that experience is going to help with is decision-making. I do feel that decision-making is a little part of the positioning idea that I was talking about, but it’s broader than that.

If you’re in the right position, and you pick the perfect time to for example come off your line to close the gap on a shooter that’s going to give you a better chance to impact the play. A lot of the younger goalkeepers out there are going to be more reluctant to close that gap and therefore leave the shooter in a more comfortable position. Through experience, you know that closing that gap doesn’t just give the shooter a smaller angle, but it also forces their hand to make a decision on what they want to do. This is where a very famous phrase about the game of football fits in perfectly. You need to attack the great teams they also get nervous. This also applies to great players! As a goalkeeper you learn some of these things only through experience.      

Play and Play A Lot

Looking back now I think I can pinpoint the moment when my pro career completely dipped. I was in the third division playing with my local team as a third choice goalkeeper. I wanted to get more practice, so I went to a local coach for extra help with some of the things that I was having trouble with. Long story short, three sessions my goalkeeper coach with the team found out and outright forbade me to go to the extra training sessions. He had his reasons saying I was an asset of the team and I couldn’t get hurt outside the facility. The fact remains though that the extra work would’ve undoubtedly put me in a better position to compete for a role in that squad or another team in the future. 

I’m telling this story to make the point that the best way to be able to speed up this development process and build this sense of experience is to play. Let’s say that you play in 20 league games throughout the year. That’s a great position because it means that you’re going to be able to build this experience to become a better goalkeeper. What if you played 40 though? Maybe even more than that. If you’re not first choice goalkeeper on your main squad look for other ways to be involved in the game. Even if it’s playing Sunday league games. A lot of times if you’re on a travel, college or semi-pro team this is heavily frowned upon. Goalkeeper is such a hard position to capture that I would take the risk if I was able to do it all over again.       

Crafting A Workout For Each Part Of The Season

This is one of the big reasons why some of the more experienced goalkeepers can keep playing and will usually find themselves in decent shape when the most important parts of the season roll around. When you’re young you’re going to be arriving at practice doing what the coach wants you to do and just heading home. This is not a knock on coaching when you’ve got three or four goalkeepers that you’re trying to get in game shape you’re going to end up with a very broad program that you feel can help all of them. The other day I talked about this in the recovery article though, what happens if your knee is swollen? Maybe you need a little more work on a particular thing like frontal high crosses like I did in the story that I told earlier. 

There can be a ton of things physically and technically that you need a little extra work on and that just may not be something that you’ll be getting with your team. Especially if you’re not the starting goalkeeper at the time. Older goalkeepers have that confidence, and usually they’ve built enough equity to have a bigger say in how they practice. Another thing I’ve said before is that at this point I don’t want to be diving to a dead ball on the ground that much. I’m looking for live reps to make the number of times I dive on the ground more worthwhile. I have to put myself on a pitch count these days or a dive count for that matter. As you age you have more say and understand this a lot better.     

Best Goalkeeper Gloves For Amateur Goalies

Go All In On Goalkeeping

There’s one thing that goalkeepers that are able to have successful long careers have in common. Think Buffon, even Casillas before his health scare. Van Der Sar is one of the perfect of a guy playing very well late into his career as is someone like Tim Howard or Memo Ochoa. That is the fact that they’re usually thinking about how they are going to preserve their bodies while getting better technically. There comes a point though where like I said going all in on goalkeeping isn’t diving to the ground 1000 times a day. It’s about studying the game and especially your own positioning. How are you going to take care of your body when some of the bumps and bruises start to pile up, and you’re not naturally recovering as quickly?

A lot of commentators and people in the media in general always imply that goalkeepers last longer because the position is not as physically demanding. That’s the biggest lie that anyone has ever said. The problem is goalkeeping is so unique that even people who are knowledgeable about other parts of the game have no clue what it takes to stay at a top level on the backside of 30. We’re seeing a lot of the top goalkeepers be able to compete without a major drop-off because they are taking care of their bodies better than ever before. If you can start that out early in your career those habits can carry you through not only to a long career, but a healthy life after you’re done competing.        

Even If You Do All This You’ll Still Get Better With Age

I’ve tried to talk about some of the reasons why goalkeepers tend to peak later into their careers. While also trying to throw in some ideas of how to speed up the process. The fact remains that you are going to get better with age. Does this mean that you shouldn’t follow some of the ideas that I’ve thrown out there? Especially the one about playing more games? Absolutely not! What’s going to happen if you take your development more seriously and really commit is that with age you’ll be able to reach an even higher level of play than you would have if you don’t go all in on goalkeeping like I talked about. Why is it that I’m saying you’ll still get better with age? 

Goalkeeping is such a mental job that naturally, a wiser mind is always going to perform better than a younger mind. As you grow in life in general you’re able to process things quicker and also be more at ease even in tough situations. When you factor that in with the level of experience that you’re going to be able to accumulate in goal over the years that’s why you see goalkeepers peaking a lot later into their careers. The key to improving is to not be too uptight while you’re going through the process of improving. Control what you can control, get your body right and train or play as much as you can. Those are maybe the biggest takeaways that I’d like to leave you with as this topic comes to a close.