Goaltending is a crucial element to any lacrosse team and is by far and away the most unique position in lacrosse. Goaltenders are the last line of defence and depending on the outcome of the game, can be hailed as heroes or scapegoats. As such, It is important for a coach to understand, teach and reinforce the fundamentals of goaltending and incorporate them into drills in practice, at all times. Solid goaltending incorporates a certain mixture of fearlessness, sound technique and athleticism, to help prevent opposing teams from scoring. The goaltender does not necessarily have to be the fastest athlete, but what they lack in speed they must make up for in terms of body control and game awareness.
With this in mind we will introduce some key fundamental concepts related to developing a goaltender, while also reviewing the Goaltending Save Cycle – the process a goaltender goes through when protecting the net. This cycle includes tracking the ball, getting into position, maintaining a proper stance & good angles, selecting the appropriate save technique and controlling the rebound. In this blog we will give you 3 complimentary drills for each of the fundamentals, which we feel offer a quick and efficient means to improving your goaltending skills.
The number one priority of a goaltender is to always track the ball when it enters the defensive zone. As with “finishing a check” for a player, finishing the play if you’re a goalie means to track the ball until it is in your pads, otherwise “tracking rebounds” and always repositioning to the proper angle (all of which are the most important habits related to the position of a goaltender). As a player gets "in tight" with the ball, the goalie should be staring at the player’s stick, magnifying their focus and reading the body language of the shooter. The odd time teams will attempt to challenge a goalie’s mental focus in this regard when they perform a “hidden ball trick.”
In order for goalies to be sure that they have the proper “angle” of the ball carrier covered they must know exactly where to stand, constantly repositioning, getting “ready” and “square” depending on where the ball is located. It can take upwards of 20 seconds for an opposing teams’ offense to generate a quality shot, and with only 30-40 shots per game on average this means goalies spend the majority of the time “repositioning” without actually making a save.
With offensive ball movement, goalies need to effectively move through their “goalie triangle” as the ball moves through the standard offensive positions, also adjusting to the corresponding release point of a potential threat. Occasionally, acrobatic saves are necessary to defend against quick ball movement, so goalies need to be able to recover quickly to the ready position, while still keeping their eye (tracking) on the ball and playing the angle. With rebounds and quick passing, goalies need to be able to reposition quickly and efficiently, in order to be successful.
A goalie’s ready stance is very individualized to the goaltender and will evolve as a goalie develops with regards to stick position, off-hand location and other intricacies of the position. In general, a goalie should be standing in the “athletic position” with feet hip width apart (on the balls of their feet, with feet pointed slightly outward), the goalie’s upper body should be upright with a slight forward bend and lower body should have knees slightly bent; the large majority of the time. Goalies should strive to stay on their feet (for maximum net coverage) while keeping their eyes on the ball and repositioning to square up (align) with potential threats, as best as possible.
The goalie should hold their stick in their dominant hand, holding the shaft firm, halfway down the goalie’s thigh, tight to their body and they should be leaning on the stick slightly (positioned 3 to 6 inches in front of one’s feet); "dragging the stick" whenever moving. The “shaft” of the stick should pass between one’s elbow and body, with the arm-pit becoming a lever in aiding with the movement of the stick; the rest of the shaft comes out behind the goalie’s shoulder. The glove hand should then be placed beside the hip with one’s elbow slightly bent creating an "arm triangle" that covers up the “six-hole,” otherwise used to reach to save low perimeter shots.
It is important for goaltenders to work on and use proper save selection. Proper save selection is important for goaltenders to work on and understand. The location of the shot determines the appropriate save technique a goalie should use. Many times, goaltenders tend to rely on one save technique for all shots (i.e. going down in a butterfly position on low shots). Using incorrect save selection will limit net coverage, rebound control and second-chance save ability. Using an inappropriate save technique based on the shot situation will limit net coverage and affect rebound control, as well as the goalie’s ability to make second-chance saves. Lastly, it’s important for goalies to exercise patience and track the ball with their eyes to increase their chances of making the correct save selection.
Kick (Leg) Saves: When a goalie is standing big in the ready position and thinks a shooter is going to shoot to the low corners of the net, he/she can kick their foot out as a basic manoeuvre, making sure to also keep their stick “between their legs” (low to the ground). While making this manoeuvre the goalie’s foot should not be raised off of the ground and it should be kicked out and towards the ball. The other option on a low shot would be to drop into a butterfly/half-butterfly, although a stand-up style is generally preferred.
Glove (Arm) Saves: The “glove hand” is the hand of the goalie that is not holding the goalie stick, used to orient goalies in the net (see feeling for posts) and to help stop the ball from going in the net. The back of the goalie’s hand should always face the ball; goalies should never attempt to catch the ball with their bare hand, which could result in significant injury. Glove hand location is a personal preference, depending on the situation, something that beginner goalies will become more aware of as they develop. Goalies must learn to be active with this hand, keeping it loose and “ready” to react in anticipation of perimeter shots towards the “low corner” on the “glove-side.” The other option is to position this arm against their waist, forming an “arm triangle” (upper arm -> elbow -> lower arm).
Stick Saves/Stick Swipe: The stick hand is the hand that holds the goalie stick. Goalies must learn to be active with this hand, keeping it loose and “ready” to react in anticipation to shots coming from both inside and out, left and right. The majority of “stick saves,” however, come from goalie’s not moving their stick at all, keeping it low to the ground and in between one’s legs (five-hole) at all times (habits). Whether stepping (moving laterally) to the “stick-side” or “glove-side,” depending on the direction of the shot, the stick/leg/body should move together (as a unit). Another stick manoeuvre when the goalie feels a rebound bouncing at their feet is the behind-the-back sweep, or "swipe," whereby the goalie takes a step forward and swipes their stick behind their back with one hand, sweeping any stray balls away from the goal-line.
Shoulder Blocks (Left & Right)/Fake Shoulder Blocks: When a goalie thinks that they have the angle covered, perhaps tipped off by their teammates defensive positioning (i.e. defensive player forces the player to their wrong side), they can use a variety of explosive lateral (east-west) movements, such as “shoulder blocks,” to ensure that there is no net for the opponent to shoot at. Done quickly and decisively when players “telegraph” their shots, goalies should step laterally, keeping their stick between their legs and in one smooth motion exploding their lead shoulder out to the side (relaxed shoulders -> scapular set), covering the “top corners” of the net (see goalie “ready” position). Goalies can also entice players to shoot far-side or short side by “faking a shoulder block” to one side of the net and then exploding in the opposite direction at the last second, depending on the reaction of the shooter (give & take). Whatever way they might be "leaning" toward, goalies should be sure to move their entire body and commit to their final movement. Be wary of beginner goalies being tempted to jump on high shots, which should be discouraged by the coach.
Butterfly/Half Butterfly: A “butterfly” save is when a goalie drops to both knees in anticipation of a shot to the lower half of the net (often on underhand shots), keeping their “shoulders-set” (upright posture) and flaring their legs out to the side. A “half-butterfly” is a large side “lunge” step, either towards the “short-side” or “far-side” of the net, where the goalie will slide onto their lead leg while keeping their shoulders up to cover the top of the net. Goalies should beware that the half-butterfly may open up the five-hole for a brief moment, so it should be used sparingly. Goalies need to be able to recover quickly if they commit to a half-butterfly, which can be risky if the offense is able to quick stick the ball from side-to-side.
Rebounds and “rebound control” are a big part of a goalie’s job. Goalies should “battle” just as hard as anyone else around the crease and be aggressive (especially while short-handed) in order to obtain any sort of loose ball. Any loose balls around the crease should be scooped with 2 hands or picked up with the goalies’ hand. For loose balls outside of the crease, the goalie must be sure to have at least one foot in the crease while scooping, in order to avoid a "back in" call against.
Quality goaltender equipment and a goalie’s ability to cushion (corral) the ball after it hits their body or stick (similar to a player having “soft hands”), goes a long way in terms of rebound control. With a shot that hits the goalie’s stick, the goalie should twist the stick slightly in the opposite direction of where it hits the stick in order to avoid the stick “spinning," also in an attempt to corral the rebound. The action of “cupping” is the preferred method of controlling a high shot that is undoubtedly about to hit one’s “chest protector,” whereby a goalie drops their arms forward and absorbs the ball as it hits the chest protector, creating a sort of concave that effectively keeps the ball close by (instead of ricocheting into the corner or out of bounds).
When a rebound cannot be controlled, the next course of action is for the goalie to immediately "track the ball" and reposition. “Communication” with defenders is also a big part of this responsibility, and to the goaltender position as a whole.
Lastly, it is important to mention that as the last line of defence, goalies should be “ready” to react at all times, especially when the ball enters the defensive zone. Shots from the opposing team can come from anyone at any time, thus a goaltender should always be prepared in a ready stance to react quickly to the action in front of them. In order to consider all of these different factors in a matter of seconds, a goalie’s mental focus must be one of their best qualities (“always alert”), alongside having a thorough understanding of how lacrosse is played and the personnel being defended against.
Warm up shooting drills are a great way to help a goaltender develop their tracking skills, while also working on their positioning and save selection. These drills should be done during the beginning of practice, which allows the goalie to prepare mentally while also training their eyes to track the ball; especially for new goaltenders, getting comfortable with having a hard lacrosse ball thrown at them. The goalies focus should be on watching the ball as it leaves the players stick and training their eyes to follow the ball all the way up until it hits and see where the rebound goes after making a save.
Have the coach start off shooting to specific corners of the net indicating to the goaltender which corner they will be shooting at (5-10 shots per corner) prior to starting the drill and when switching between chosen corners. This takes the guessing out of where the shot will go and allows the goaltender to choose the appropriate save based off the location of the shot; tracking the shot out of the coaches stick.
As the goaltender becomes more comfortable the coach can then begin to shoot from different angles around the perimeter, switching to inside shots after shooting a few shots from each of the 5 different angles.
You can also increase the difficulty of the drill by instructing the goalie to trap and scoop any rebounds close by the front of the crease. This forces the goaltender to not only track the ball as a shot is coming towards them but also to follow the ball after making a save and either corralling the rebound or repositioning themselves for another shot. Missing the net on purpose every now and then, hitting the ball off the glass, or rolling the ball somewhere near the crease, are also effective teaching techniques. Have the goalie reach for loose balls outside of the crease (in front of and/or behind the net), being sure to keep at least one foot in the crease while trying to obtain the ball.
To further increase the difficulty, add a second shooter to the drill and pass the ball east-west prior to shooting on the goalie. In this variation coaches can switch up their release points to allow the goalie to track the ball leaving the players stick from different angles, while first having to reposition off of swing pass from the other coach.
Goalies can be faced with movement between several of these positions in a variety of sequences, during any given situation. Central ball position is the most threatening, with inside shots being relatively more threatening overall as compared to perimeter shots. A great way to work on footwork and movement around the crease is have the goaltender move through the 5 standard angles. Have between 1 and 5 players or coaches (often just 1-2 coaches) standing at one or more of the standard offensive positions.
If less than 5 players/coaches are in the drill, a coach or player may call out the number (see drill diagram) of the position where the player is missing, and the goalie must re-position ("square up") to that number as if there was an imaginary player there.
Instruct the goalie to move through the 5 standard angles, repositioning back to the goal line and feeling for their posts in between each angle. The coach calls out a variety of numbers and the goalie repositions to those numbers, or otherwise follows the ball (if multiple players/coaches), ultimately finishing with an adjacent shot (1-2 & 5-4) or finishing at the crease (2-1 & 4-5). Start off slowly and advance the drill to move as quickly as possible as the goaltender becomes more comfortable. Have the goalie move from left to right, right to left, or alternate from side to side.
The goalie starts facing the coach (or player), who will be sending in the first pass to either the same-side or opposite side shooter (pre-determined), whose turn it is. The goalie must reposition to challenge the shooter, who takes an outside shot.
After the shot, the shooter continues toward the net as if attacking the rebound on the same-side. This player then receives a pass (or loose ball) from the other coach (or player), who is standing at the crease position or behind the net, feeding them on the door-step. Players can also become passers after they shoot, before rejoining their original line (depending on the calibre of players).
This drill alternates from side-to-side in orientation, with the next player not taking their turn until the player in front of them is out of the drill.
You can also start with balls in one shooter line or the other (switching halfway through the drill). The players run toward the net and can make as many passes as they want, with one player eventually shooting.
Whoever doesn't shoot, the coach (or player) on the same-side or opposite to them (pre-determined) feeds them a pass for another shot on the door-step. Coaches should mix it up sometimes, and throw a second pass to the original shooter, in order to keep the goalies honest.
Goaltending is a special and unique position that requires specific attention and focus by coaches to help hone and develop a goaltenders’ skills and abilities. Don’t just fire balls at a goaltender at practice and hope that their skills will improve over time. Instead set aside specific time to work with your goaltender(s) during practice and incorporate goaltending skill development into regular drills using the Goaltending Save Cycle as a guide to building the foundations of solid goaltending.
This blog was written in partnership with former New Brunswick Mavericks Head Coach & General Manager, Evan Richtsfeld. For further information and more goaltending related drills subscribe to laxlife.ca and take a look at the goaltending section of the website; otherwise keep an eye on this blog for more goaltending information in the future...