Goals for Goalies

Richard Hunkler, Ph.D.
Slippery Rock University

Goalies are a breed apart from the rest of us mere mortals known as field players. Some people like to say that great water polo goalies are not made but are born with a pit bulls determination and with an arm span as wide as the wings on a 747 jet. No doubt being born with large physical attributes helps, but I have had some excellent goalies with short arms, with short legs, and even with short attitudes. However, I never had a good goalie that was short on grit or short on determination. Grit means the courage to take a ball in the face if necessary even when it is being thrown by the biggest, strongest, meanest player on the opposing team, and determination means the will to work long and hard hours to acquire both the physical and mental skills it takes to become, not just a good goalie, but a great goalie.

In real-estate, many brokers say the three most important words for becoming a success are location, location and location. In water polo, many coaches say the three most important words for a goalie becoming a success are smarts, smarts, and smarts -- game smarts, reaction smarts, and psychological smarts. I bet you thought I was going to say, "Legs, legs, and legs". It is true that legs are essential to becoming a great goalie, but still they are not as important as knowing the game. This is one of the reason great goalies make such good coaches. They know it from the inside out - they know the game from inside the cage blocking balls and calling defenses to outside of the cage on the pool deck watching when, where, and how great shooters shoot the ball.

All the time I was coaching I made the goalies and the two meter players come thirty minutes before practice started, so goalies could work extra on their legs and on blocking hole shots and the two meter players could practice shooting hole shots and turning players. From watching goalies play and practice over the years I have noticed that the great ones do some of the same things over and over, so I will list those things as goals for all those goalies who aspire to be great. Here they are:

GOAL #1 - Keep your eye on the ball - if a player doesn't have the ball he or she can't shoot it. Too many goalies get distracted by players who get inside water without a chance of receiving the ball or by the two meter player without the ball who is wrestling the two meter defender for position. There is a famous country swing band named "ASLEEP AT THE WHEEL" - a good name for a band but not for a goalie

GOAL #2 - Scull with the back of your hands close to the surface of the water when the ball is in your third of the pool. This is called sculling with light hands and sculling way below the surface of the water is called sculling with heavy hands. It is much easier and, more importantly, much faster to move your hands through air than it is to try and move them through water. If during warm-ups I saw the opposing goalie using heavy hands to block shots I always told my players to shoot high corners or directly over the goalie's head.

GOALS #3 - When a goal is scored NEVER show anyone how upset you are. It is all right to get upset but again never show it to anyone. Remember making goals and blocking goals are many times an important part of the head game that shooters and goalies play. You always want to win the head game. Also becoming too upset can cause your teammates to lose confidence in you and cause your opponents to gain confidence in their own shooting ability. Give the shooter an incredulous look of defiance after a goal but don't taunt him or her with cheap talk. More than once I have seen anger turn a mediocre shooter into a great shooter whose many uncommon goals win the game.

GOAL #4 - You are already the Quarterback of the team so become the leader as well. There is no one else on the team who is in a better position to direct traffic, position the defense, initiate the offense, referee player disputes, pump up players, and show, not tell, players who is in charge. Players don't always listen to players they like but they always listen to players they respect. This respect comes many times from first respecting yourself and then respecting the members of your team.

The next two goals were given to me by one of my former goalies, Todd Clapper, and I might add one of my best goalies. Todd was also the former coach of the men's and women's teams at Brown University. His women's team was the first team from the East Coast to qualify for an NCAA National Water Polo Championship. Todd is currently the Head Coach of the women's varsity water polo team at Arizona State University.

GOAL #5 - Correct positioning is another very important goal. Many times, there is going to be a break down in defense and the shooter is going to have the advantage. If you have a good position and you force the shooter to shoot around your body, then there is a good chance he or she is going to throw into you or bar-out the shot. Be similar to the real-estate agent and think about your body's, location, location, location.

GOAL #6 - Learning common "tells" of shooters is also important, and it is similar to learning the "tells" of a gambler. Professional Card Players will tell you that there are a lot of common "tells" that many card players will give away whether they have a strong hand or whether they are bluffing. There are a lot of tells from shooters as well. One of the most common is when a shooter begins his or her shot by bringing the ball backwards. The best shooters begin their shot when their hand is moving forward. This upsets the goalies timing and makes him or her work harder because the shot can come at any time. Many shooters will fake a few times before shooting, but when they shoot, they will bring the ball back just a little first. This is a billboard for the goalkeeper to say "here it comes". Another common shooting "tell" is on the lob. Many shooters will break their wrist and lift their chin when they are going to shoot a lob shot. Recognizing this and getting your body set for a lob early can be the difference between blocking and not blocking the lob.

One of the best articles on goaltending, I have read, was written by not only one of the best goalies in the USA, but also one the best goalies in the world, Craig Wilson. The article can be found at the following web address:


In a game when my male goalies missed a well placed shot, I would yell, "Shake it off, even Craig Wilson couldn't have stop that shot!"

Email Coach Hunkler at [email protected]