A Coach’s Guide to Goalie Management

Deciding who will be your starter is a challenge in itself. What happens though after you’ve made your decision and there is a clear starter? How do you handle that throughout the season? What happens when things aren’t going well?

What about when you have two great goalies? Some coaches would consider it a dream to have two great goalies on their roster, as we know they are hard to come by. Others, however, that have been in the predicament know what a challenge this can be. Maybe one goalie is better at clearing and possessing, while another is good at making hard saves. Maybe one gets in her head and goes downhill quickly, but on her good days, she’s phenomenal. 

How do you handle all of these decisions? Keep reading and I’ll walk you through how to best navigate managing your goalies to make sure they’re all able to play at their best.

The Why

First, I should start by saying why this is necessary. I’m sure some might wonder, why is this important only for goalies? Goalies are simply different, in their personalities and the nature of the position itself. Only one player plays this position at time, whereas field players are commonly used to being subbed in and out frequently, not playing an entire game for rest, etc. Since there is only one starter and player and since goalies are rarely subbed, any changes are highlighted and competition is high. Not to mention, playing goalie is already a tough position mentally and knowing how to manage your goalies will only help them through this. It is likely, though, that field players would benefit from the type of communication I discuss below as well.

The Decision

First, we’ll talk through the decision, as we know choosing your starting goalie is like choosing the starting quarterback in football. The most important factor when dealing with goalies and playing time is by far communication. Once you know who your starter is, communicate that prior to the game. Usually day before the game is good leeway time to process the information. If this is an expected decision then it doesn’t have to be a long drawn out thing. However, if two goalies have been competing really hard, or you’re making an unexpected change, I would talk to them in the office prior to practice, to give them time to process. More than anything, know your goalie, and know how they’ll respond. As we know goalies are unique, but also, each goalie is unique, just like each player is. 

Approaching Subbing

These lessons also come in handy during games when things aren’t going your way for your goalie. In cage, my college coach used to say something along the lines of, “some days it’s a beach ball, and some days it’s a pebble”. We all know that sometimes, we just can’t find the ball as well as others. Knowing your goalie will help you decide if it’s just a bad day overall, or if she just needs a mental reset. 

We’ve also seen a lot of goalies being pulled in the college game, this weekend specifically, saw Duke’s Cadoux come out of the game and then go back in later on, as well as Virginia’s VanderKolk, replaced by Charlie Campbell. How do you know what’s the best way to approach it? Communication is the name of the game here. I would first call a timeout when things aren’t going well, and at that time, have an assistant coach talk to your goalie to see what she’s seeing and how she’s feeling. If it’s a situation where she’s missing saves she usually makes, then I would definitely do this. 

If things get worse, and you pull her, you or an assistant need to talk to her. Right now, I’m telling you, she’s feeling low, frustrated, and/or thinking she failed the team. It’s at this critical point that you need to reassure her that you want to give her a mental break. Sometimes, that’s all a goalie needs is a little more time to mentally reset before going back in, whether it’s their poor performance or the defense is letting in tough shots. If it were me, I would tell my goalie to take some time to clear her head, and when she feels confident to tell me. Depending on when that happens, and with how the other goalie was doing, I would make a decision about putting her back in or keeping another goalie in. After the game or the day after the game, I would be sure to debrief the goalies on my approach, and what I was thinking. What you absolutely cannot do is say nothing. Saying nothing to your goalie after this switch isn’t going to help her get to the level you want. Succeeding in the cage is at least 80% mental, so it’s worth the time to help your goalie through it. There are so many goalies I’ve heard from that in these situations their coaches say nothing to them and are just left to their thoughts, which like I said, aren’t going to be good. Your support as a coach in this situation will help them in the future to know that you believe in them even through mistakes (btw - this one doesn’t just apply to goalies).

Now, let’s discuss the backup goalie(s). The communication to these players is just as important as they always need to be ready to perform well when needed. I’ve similarly heard from goalies I work with or goalies that have reached out to me to ask how to deal with being the backup and express frustration when their coaches either don’t debrief after they’ve relieved the starter for a period of time, or throughout the season when asked the expected “what can I do to start?” question, just say the same things or provide a lackluster response that leaves goalies feeling frustrated, deflated, and confused as to where to go for an action plan. As a coach, you’ll face these same questions from field players. If you’re at the high school level, it will be, “how can I make varsity or why didn’t I?” as well. Players want to play at the highest levels, and you can’t expect them to get better unless you tell them how or what you want from them. This is why you have to communicate exactly what you need from them to be successful and if they’re doing it, follow through. The other part of this is that players have to communicate too. If they want answers, it’s their job to ask and yours is to answer as honestly as you can.

Having Two Good Goalies

To get the most out of your goalies, yet again, it’s all about what you say and how you say it. Right now, I’m in the predicament of having two talented goalies for my high school team. It’s funny that I’ve been giving advice to coaches in this situation and now I’m in it myself. As I said, communication is key. Right off the bat, I told them both they’re both very strong goalies and that they’ll be splitting time. Starting the season, we were alternating who was starting and who was going in the second half, but we had one of the goalies receive a concussion a few weeks ago and she just returned to play. Now we’ll go back to alternating with the hopes that we’ll all soon discover who plays best in what half. If you can find this out, then your job is easy to decide who plays when. If this isn’t the case, then you may have to make a judgment call, but the key is to communicate it early enough so that the goalies can mentally prepare whatever the decision is. In the cases where one of the goalies is having a lights out first half, then yes, I’m going to leave the goalie in to finish the game and my goalies know this. That’s just me though, some coaches might have other perspectives and ways of approaching. 

Hopefully this helps coaches navigate goalie management. Some coaches I’ve seen so far exemplify this well are Gary Gait, Christine Halfpenny, and although I didn’t see it, assuming Morgan Heisman at Duke handled the goalie situation that enabled Cadoux to return to play and come up with some great saves! Kudos to you all!