The ability to frequently pull off an unbelievable, seemingly impossible, reaction save is what separates a good goalkeeper from a great goalkeeper. It’s those sharp reflex saves that enable keepers to dent the league table over the course of a season.
Some keepers were born with excellent reflexes and a natural “instinct” for reacting to hard-drilled or point-blank shots — others need to work at it. But even if your reactions are relatively slow you can vastly improve through regular practice, specialist reflex training drills, and by incorporating various alternative methods into your goalkeeper training regime.
Here’s how you can improve your goalkeeping reactions and reflexes to start making more of those match-winning saves.
1. Reflex Training Drills
Professional goalkeepers regularly work on their reflexes in training.
Reflex training drills are designed to simulate match situations where keepers are required to act fast — such as shots from point blank range, second rebounds, or attempts made through a crowd of players. The idea is that it’ll provide keepers with enough quick-fire practice on the training field that they’ll begin to react “naturally” to in-game situations requiring a reflex save.
Almost all reflex training drills I’ve ever seen, and taken part in, involve the goalkeeper making a lot of fast, high frequency saves; usually around the body to maximise handling practice. By making one save, rapidly followed by another the keeper is pushed to shorten their reaction times.
Watch the following video of England goalkeeper reflex training drills. You may not rate Joe Hart, but it’s clear to see that he puts an immense amount of effort and dedication into reacting to each and every ball: an attitude that young goalkeepers should adopt.
Note that at around 1 minute into the video, the coach says “that’s the one save, the one moment we’re looking for”. It’s those world-class reaction saves that he wants the England keepers to push for.
By repeatedly working on drills like this over and over you’ll simultaneously work your fitness/speed, and improve your movement and anticipation for quick-fire shots. Here’s some other suggestions:
- While this example drill uses cones, you could also mix it up using agility ladders. That way you combine the drill with a footwork exercise (prior to the shot).
- Alternatively, stand on the goal line facing the net, on your toes, ready to act. The server (coach, team mate) shouts “turn” and immediately takes the shot at goal. You’ve got to twist round and produce a reaction save.
Remember that with any training drill, good service is key to what you get out of it.
2. Use Obstacles To Create Unpredictability
A huge part of pulling off a reflex save is down to the keeper’s ability to anticipate the movement of the ball given deflections, rebounds and bodies in their line of vision.
To help sharpen up your ability to respond to rapid new events you can incorporate obstacles into your training sessions. The following video starts out with some basic drills (which can be done without any equipment), followed by the use of various obstacles to create an element of unpredictability.
You probably don’t own a lot of the goalkeeper equipment featured in this video. But I recommend at least picking up some cheap cones on Amazon. If you scatter 10+ of them around the six yard box and ask a server to takes shots along the ground then you’ll be forced to react to changes in the direction of the ball as it strikes a cone. It’s an easy and cost-effective way to simulate those unpredictable ‘nicks’ that you’ll face during games.
3. Study and Practice Your Positioning
Reflex saves aren’t just pure luck. Goalkeepers can make their own luck by being in the right place at the right time.
You’ll drastically increase your chances of making a quick reaction save by improving your positioning. Take a look at this goalkeeper save compilation. Notice how many game-changing saves were made as a result of great positioning and anticipation. It’s not all down to agility.
Watch Pro Goalkeepers
Aside from watching YouTube compilations like the one above, you should take a more active role in learning where to position yourself in games. I recommend going to live games where you can watch the goalkeepers at any point throughout the 90 minutes.
You’ll often observe that the keeper is well outside of the 18 yard line when his/her team is on the attack, poised to act as the last defender for a through ball. Typically they’ll backtrack to their line under close pressure (to prevent being lobbed).
In other circumstances, the goalkeeper will hold their position whenever they feel that their defenders have the measure of the attacker (i.e. no need to commit). On the other hand, they’ll step forward a few paces in preparation for a 1v1 attack if they sense the last defender will be caught out.
These are just a few examples. There’s a series of decisions that goalkeepers make with their positioning throughout games. So try to watch some games at a decent level — even semi-pro. Observe what the keepers do, and take the positives forward into your own matches.
Practise Makes Perfect
Optimal positioning comes with practice. And professionals in all areas of the pitch still get it wrong.
There’s no substitute for game time. By immersing yourself into matches you’ll get a feel for where you should be stood in certain situations. You’ll learn when to drop deep, and when push forward — making those snap saves all the more likely.
I’m going to create a simple goalkeeper positioning animation that should help you understand the basics (coming soon!).
3. Improve Your Alertness With Good Habits
Many reflex saves are attributed to a keeper’s alertness.
Take penalties saves as an example. Prior to making their dive, goalkeepers stand upright, arms out, on their toes, and poised to make a quick move. If the ball is still in play after the save is made, then the aftermath of the rebound requires just as much alertness as the original save itself! The keeper has to react very quickly to get the ball to safety.
Here’s a fine example of alertness, where Petr Cech came on cold as a substitute to produce a penalty double save.
But alertness isn’t easy to learn. So I suggest at least making some adjustments to your pre-game and in-game habits:
- Avoid doing big workouts the day before a match. It can make you feel pretty sluggish in games if your legs feel tired. Been there, done that.
- Get a decent sleep. Without enough rest you’ve got to work harder to get yourself in game mode. For goalkeepers tiredness can lead to goals.
- Eat a light meal before games. You should go into the game with some extra energy, without feeling bloated.
- Do a proper pre-game warmup. Take a look at my post: Recommended Warmup Routines For Goalkeepers.
- Keep on your toes throughout the game. Be ready to act at any point by standing in a set position. When an opportunity breaks you need to be quick off the mark.
- Stay warm during games. Keep your heart rate up by jumping up and down and moving your arms when you’re not involved in the play.
4. Play Overlapping Sports
Have you ever considered playing other sports to improve your goalkeeping reflexes and reactions?
It sounds like an odd suggestion at first. But when you think about it, goalkeepers aren’t just footballers. There’s so many additional skills required for goalkeeping, and many of them apply to entirely different sports.
Basketball is one of them. The game is fast paced and players are required to continually stay alert, change direction, react to close range passes, intercept snap shots, contend within crowds of people. Sound familiar at all?
There’s also some less obvious sports that relate to goalkeeping. Rapid-fire racket sports like squash and table tennis come in handy for sharpening your reflexes. Playing with the comparatively tiny ball makes returning to football seem easier.
Here’s an extract from the book:
So if goalkeeping sharpended up my reflexes and made me a difficult table tennis opponent to face, then couldn’t it work the other way round, too?
Of course it could. And i’m not the first person to work this out, either. Take a look at what Thibaut Cortois was doing at Chelsea.
FYI: the table tennis book relates to a year-long coaching experiment called ‘Expert in a Year’ which took place in my apartment from 2014-15. The experiment has been viewed by over 10 million people. Check out the viral video.
5. Invest in Strobe Glasses
Here’s an interesting suggestion: train using strobe glasses to improve your reactions. These certainly weren’t around when I was goalkeeping.
Strobe glasses work by blocking/disrupting your vision using a strobe or flicker effect. By switching between clear and blocked vision, the glasses train the goalkeeper’s brain to anticipate what’s coming when the eyes are blocked.
Professional and amateur athletes in various sports use them to improve their reflexes and reactions. It’s believed to increase athletic performance by up to 10%.
Take a look at the following demonstration video, showing how goalkeepers are forced to adapt to difficult visual conditions.
Give these methods a try. You’re likely to feel a noticeable improvement if you persist with them over a sustained period.