In a truly unique edition of the SoccerNation Sitdown, we take a detailed journey inside the world of the most incomparable position on the pitch.
To help us examine the art of goalkeeping, Nate Abaurrea is joined by San Diego State Aztecs Goalkeeper’s Coach, and Director of Coaching at Vista Soccer Club, Matt Hall.
Hall is a goalkeeper through and through, and a San Diegan at heart. After growing up in Vista, California and playing for the hometown Vista Storm, Hall took his talents to San Diego State University.
After three outstanding years with the Aztecs, starting in goal as a freshman and wearing the captain’s armband for the subsequent two NCAA campaigns, Hall transferred across town, suiting up for the Toreros of the University of San Diego for his senior season. In his one season at USD, Hall was an All-WCC goalkeeper, and went on to play professionally in the A-League.
But coaching was always something in the back of Hall’s mind. Soon after his playing career drew to a close, Hall ventured into the soccer coaching world, and has now seen his footballing life come full circle, helping to lead the charge for organizations he once represented as a player.
In Part 1 of the Sitdown, Abaurrea and Hall discuss the unique qualities of coaching goalkeepers, why goalkeepers are so often “just a little different”, and how to properly handle the unparalleled pressures of the position.
Nate Abaurrea: Whether it’s before a match or during training, as a goalkeeper coach you get a small window of opportunity to work directly with a keeper. Then you basically have to send him or her off, on their own, into the heat of battle. What’s that like, needing to have that sort of “go on young grasshopper” mentality as a goalkeeper coach?
Matt Hall: It’s great. When you send them off like you said, that’s when you get to see them apply the preparation. When you’re working with a keeper individually, there’s not gonna be a lot of game scenarios that play out. The ability to push them into a game setting where the lessons they can learn are perhaps more significant than just the technical training you work on in a 1-v-1 setting, that’s really enjoyable. You train a keeper, and then you put them in an environment with the full team where you can see them actually succeed. That’s rewarding.
Nate Abaurrea: Now you obviously coach all players and have a well rounded view of the game. But, for you, what are some of the main differences between coaching goalkeepers and coaching regular outfield players?
Matt Hall: I think what I do with goalkeepers is a lot more specific. When you have that individual time, or time with a small group, you can really break things down to the finest detail. And the personalities of the goalkeepers are obviously a little different. Honestly, that’s part of why I genuinely love working with goalkeepers. In all my years playing and coaching, I’ve never met a goalkeeper who isn’t dedicated to improving every single day. But I think the main difference is just with the attention to specific details. When you have a 28 man college team at SDSU with three coaches, it’s just not gonna be quite as specific as when you have one person or a group of three or four.
Nate Abaurrea: I’ve heard goalkeeping referred to as a “sub-culture”. I’ve heard keepers at all levels talk about “being on an island”. You touched on goalkeepers so often having different personalities, whether it’s a little extra quirkiness or that added bit of intense focus. It’s such an individual position in so many ways, but it’s also so important for the goalkeeper to truly be a part of a team. How do you help goalkeepers find that balance?
Matt Hall: A lot of what you bring up depends on the specific team, locker-room stuff, team gatherings and those types of things. Goalkeepers are a part of the team as much as anyone. But at the end of the day, if we’re talking on the field, the goalkeeper is seeing everything. They can be a little disengaged from the game itself at times, which can give the goalkeeper a different perspective and maybe a different way to help the team fix problems and truly be a leader. Goalkeepers do so much for the team, whether it’s just making a save or all the other things they can do to prevent breakdowns from happening. Most field players will make fun of goalkeepers a little bit and do what they can to jab them from time to time, but at the end of the day I don’t think anyone would ever discount how important they are to the team aspect of soccer.
Nate Abaurrea: There is so much pressure on the back of the goalkeeper. A forward could play a completely crap match, miss a handful of chances, and then pop up with a late tap-in for a winner and he’s a hero. That can almost be flipped on its head for a goalkeeper. Say they make a handful of outstanding saves and kept their team in the game, but let in a howler in stoppage-time and suddenly they’re the reason why the team lost. That’s an incredible mental concept. How do you, with your experience level, help goalkeepers embrace the pressures of the position without it being something that becomes overbearing?
Matt Hall: I think ultimately what helps the most is that I’ve been there. It’s a dark place to be when you let down the team. It’s extremely difficult. But what I think is equally important is to respect the process. I don’t deal with any goalkeeper that’s a finished product. I think this is part of why goalkeepers often peak later in life and can have longer careers. They go through so many learning experiences throughout their careers that make them the goalkeeper they are when they’re 25, 30, 40 years old. That is such an important aspect of coaching goalkeepers, something we all need to understand. Sometimes you have to put your arm around a kid and tell them that this is all just part of the process of them getting better. If they’re strong enough to respect that process and not get too caught up in that moment, to learn from their mistakes and keep improving, then they will keep moving forward in a positive direction, and progress as a goalkeeper and as a person.
(Stay tuned for Part 2 of our Goalkeeper Special, where Abaurrea and Hall continue on the concept of goalkeepers often getting better with age with a nod to 44-year-old Oscar “Conejo” Perez. Then Abaurrea and Hall break into an engaging discussion on the modern evolution of goalkeepers playing with their feet.)