Jack Bowen

A Celebration of the Goalie Save

 “Goalkeeping is very complex but looks childishly simple.”

– Francis Hodgson, Only The Goalkeeper to Beat

While studying Human Biology and playing water polo at Stanford University, I wrote papers on goalkeeping for many of my classes, including an Honors Thesis:

  • Calculus: The Calculus and Geometry of the Goalkeeper Save
  • Biology of Perception: The Involvement of the Brain in the Goalkeeper Save
  • Kinesiology: A Kinesiological Analysis of the Water Polo Goalie Save
  • Honors Thesis: The Psycho-Social Aspects of Goalkeeping.

Needless to say, I’d found a passion for something. Stanford allowed me the opportunity to explore it in great depth.  And, as is the case with most phenomena, when you really look at what’s going on “behind the scenes,” it’s pretty awe-inspiring.

Think for a moment of all that goes into blocking a shot.

Balance

First, from a kinesiological standpoint, at the bare minimum, the goalie must be able to balance himself in the water, while constantly maintaining the proper base position from which the move to the ball begins.  The move to shot-block involves nearly every muscle in the body. It relies heavily on the legs and core for balance and explosiveness, as well as the arms for both explosiveness and then control of the shot.

Data

But to even get to this point, the goalie must sift through an immense amount of data from the opposing players, as well as her own team’s defense, cues given by the shooter, and eventually the trajectory of the ball.  Eye-tracking studies of hockey goalies reveal something interesting. The novice player focuses primarily on the ball and thus misses out on many relevant cues that would otherwise help to decipher when and where the ball will go.  As goalies become more experienced, their vision of the shooter expands. They can successfully acquire relevant information—i.e. the grip of the shooter, the angle of the shooter’s body and elbow-to-shoulder placement, etc.—while still maintaining focus on the ball.  This is why you’ll see many experienced goalies begin to move toward the shot even before it is released.

Hand-Eye Coordination

The tracking of a ball involves quite complicated visual cues.  The eye doesn’t actually track a high-speed object fluidly. Instead, it does so through a series of jerky movements called saccades.  In a sense, we literally can’t follow the ball all the way to us much as a baseball batter cannot do so. But “keeping one’s eye on the ball” allows us to both track the ball and make predictions, as well as move our body in the proper direction for shot-blocking.

Experience

All the while, the goalie makes countless geometrical calculations in front of the goal, many of which are “blind” in the sense that we are not afforded the ability to look behind us given that we need to watch the ball in front of us.  Again, with experience, this becomes easier.  It’s another reason that goalies in professional European soccer leagues are, on the average, 7 years older than their non-goalie counterparts.  This “feel” of the goal comes with experience and proper training to do so (thus, the “Jedi” Drill we do!).

Timing

Much of this happens before we even make the save!  To then make this save, a goalie must propel herself out of the water with nothing to brace her but the water below her, and get her hand to the exact point in space at precisely the right time to meet the ball.  This is why we don’t swing our arms to the shot, making the geometry of the save even more difficult and also making it nearly impossible to control the shot.  This all highlights yet another important facet of the move: the goalie is asked not only to block but also to control the shot, allowing her team to maintain possession of the ball.  And all of this happens in the blink of an eye (literally and figuratively!).

I have tried to provide as brief a snapshot as possible of all that goes into the goalie save while still framing the intricacies of the skill.  This, in part, is why the goalie rightly celebrates every save, no matter how seemingly easy.  This too somewhat explains why the save the goalie “must” make sometimes doesn’t get made, and we can approach this with some sense of empathy.  Additionally, it explains the motivation behind such regimented training: given how much we need to do to get in position and then block and control a shot and how very little time we have to do so, our foundation of fundamentals and technique is immensely important—it’s really all we have to rely on.

         So, celebrate those saves.  And keep focusing on that technique and conditioning.