Through The Goalkeeper’s Lens: How VR And Technology Are Helping Goalkeepers Develop

By Sam Hudspith

News • Aug 3, 2022

We investigate the past, present and future of goalkeeper technology alongside Dr James Stafford and Professor Cathy Craig of INCISIV. 

Goalkeeping has come a long, long way since the turn of the millennium. For some clubs, a goalkeeping coach wasn’t a common sight until the 21st century - especially throughout their youth structures. Whilst the world’s biggest clubs have been employing goalkeeping coaches since the 1980s, there was a distinct lack of specialism in the position with even goalkeeper gloves still fairly primitive, despite innovation by the likes of Reusch and Uhlsport.

So, when it came to the question of goalkeeper technology, there was little to answer for. As mentioned, goalkeeper gloves had advanced, but the position still lacked specialism on and off the pitch. Fast forward to the 2010 World Cup, and football innovation began to present problems for goalkeepers. The Jabulani football, notorious for its curve and swerve antics, made the goalkeeper’s life even more difficult.

So, goalkeepers needed to come up with an answer. They had to play the new game that had been laid out in front of them. They had to get one up on the outfield crew determined to ruin the day. 

But the problem was, science in goalkeeping has - until very recently - been reactive. It has tailored analysts and coaches to develop goalkeepers based on actions already taken, rather than tackling the root of developing a shot-stopper; conditioning goalkeepers to be able to adapt to different environments that they will face. 

Alongside Dr James Stafford and Professor Cathy Craig of INCISIV, we delve into the past, present, and - most importantly - future of the role that evolving technologies have to play between the sticks.

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‘The key to all sports is the ability to anticipate what’s going to happen next’, begins Professor Craig as we open our conversation. 

“When you are goalkeeping and stopping a ball, your actions are going to be determined by the flight of the ball and where you perceive that ball is going to go. From a psychologist's point of view, it is the perception that drives the action. That’s the downside of some of the technologies, like GPS usage, we’ve seen deployed in goalkeeping previously. They capture the action only.  

“It creates issues when we begin making statements like ‘the goalkeeper dived four times to the left and only two to the right, and that's a problem’. I take it the ball was shot four times to his left, and only two to the right…hence the data'', she explains. 

“You can’t look only at action, and not at context”. 

Goalkeeping has been sorely lacking in ‘expertise’ off the pitch, in various ways, since football began to be widely televised and the concept of punditry rose in tandem with its commercialisation. The most specialised position on the pitch has arguably received a scope of innovation alongside it - in both general attitudes towards the position as well as technologies and training tools - well below the required standard given the importance of the position. 

Whilst in recent years the likes of Catapult’s GPS technology, as well as certain visual training devices, such as ‘Okkulo’ - a visual training aid based in the North East of England - and reaction training tools such as the ‘Pro-Deflect’ range introduced by Newport County’s First Team Goalkeeper Coach James Hollman, have proven fairly popular with certain professional clubs’ goalkeeping departments, INCISIV’s work goes a step further. A step further into something even more advanced. 

“There's little out there for goalkeepers”, states Professor Craig.

“I used VR technology back in the early 2000s to answer a very simple question: why does ball spin impede a goalkeeper’s judgement? Take the famous Roberto Carlos free kick. My question was ‘what is it about the ball trajectory that makes it difficult for a goalkeeper to anticipate where that ball is going to go?’. I needed a technology that would recreate not what a coach sees, and not what a taker sees, but what the eyes of the goalkeeper would see”. 

Whilst goalkeeper-oriented scientific innovation is perhaps still in its infancy, the science behind it is by no means lacking in foundation. 

“What do I do? When do I do it? How do I do it? Those are the three pillars of decision making that a goalkeeper has to make”, she explains further. 

“If there was a tracker inside the ball, and trackers on your body, as you play in the game, our data from VR replicates this. We can precisely track the ball and the movement of the person in response to that ball movement. 

“The decision is manifested through the execution of the action. In other words, when you study the movement, you understand the decision. For example, if you move left and then have to correct yourself and move right as you realise the ball is spinning in a certain direction, that’s the movement correction that's in there that is important to understand.

“VR technology for goalkeepers works on the principle of behavioural realism. This is the idea that basically you behave in the virtual world as you would in the real world. This is fundamental to ensure there is transfer of learning from the virtual to the real! There are certain elements that need to be preserved via replication - for example, you don't actually feel a ball, but you can hear the sound of the ball. But it's really important that the two correspond because it gives your brain that sensation of actually pulling off the save.

“If you want to have 20 shots to exactly this place on your right side at a set speed, the computer will produce those for you”, says Professor Craig. 

Dr Stafford added, “as a goalkeeper, you have to anticipate where the ball will go and compensate for this. This can be mocked up in training if the ball is going on a predictable path, but what happens when the ball is spinning, or it's going on an unpredictable path? 

“To repeatedly create a certain scenario in real life is almost impossible to do consistently. And the goalkeeper needs the repetitions of these kinds of unpredictable scenarios. That's where VR is adding value; it helps automate movement”, he explains. 

As goalkeeping evolves, and the demands upon goalkeepers become more stringent, debates around technical evolution have exploded. The likes of Frans Hoek, ex-Barcelona, Manchester United and Netherlands goalkeeper coach, champions the idea of the goalkeeper being a ‘goalplayer’ - an extra 11th man. Fabian Otte and Tim Dittmer (of Borussia Monchengladbach and the FA respectively) are prominent figures in utilising a scientific approach to skill acquisition. 

However, there are still several goalkeeper coaches at an elite level of the game - and mentalities surrounding this - who believe in a more traditional ‘keep the ball out of the net’ approach. There’s nothing wrong with having varying approaches to developing goalkeepers, as different teams and leagues require different things from their goalkeepers. Likewise, a more ‘traditional’ goalkeeper such as, perhaps, Nick Pope or Kasper Schmeichel, brings a different skill set.

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It’s not surprising, therefore, that there are different levels of reception to innovation such as VR technology entering the goalkeeping realm.  

“It’s important to clarify that we don’t believe this technology should replace real life training”, states Dr Stafford. “What VR technology does is augment and build upon ‘real’ training”. 

“I think there’s arguably a sense of threat for goalkeeper coaches, because some can see this as replacing them when that's not the case. We’ve had situations where goalkeeper coaches have been keen and sporting directors haven’t been, and vice versa. The point we labour is that there are marginal gains to be had here. 

To avoid making generalisations, it’s important to note that each club has to consider cost/benefit trade offs when investing in new technologies. However, questions remain around how many clubs are willing to invest in something that will only benefit the minority of the playing squad. In this sense, are clubs actually anti-goalkeeper, rather than anti-technology?

“When you look at the goalkeeping technology landscape currently with things like GPS systems, you’ve got something there for goalkeepers, but it's also for the midfielder. So, the clubs buy it for the outfielders and the goalkeepers can use it on the side. It’s very rare that you’d have somebody approaching a club with a product solely for goalkeepers, and that creates an interesting conversation with the club”, explains Dr Stafford. 

“GPS systems are often reverse engineered to fit goalkeeping on top of GPS instead of building something for the goalkeepers and working from there. When we come in with goalkeeper-specific technology, we have to pitch to the club as to why they should spend money on just their goalkeepers. And that comes down to us having to explain the value of a goalkeeper to a club”, he adds further.

Goalkeeping is an art form that can also be defined by numbers; it’s polarising in that sense. When it comes to a goalkeeper’s quantitative value, however, the case for shot-stoppers couldn’t be clearer. 

“When we go to clubs, the first thing I explain to them is that the cost of a point in the Premier League is £2.5 million*. If you're 1-0 up in the 93rd minute and your goalkeeper makes a save, that could save a club £5 million. As a club, if you invest in technology that helps your goalkeepers potentially make even one more save over the course of the season, your return on investment is in the millions”, explains Dr Stafford. 

“This is the mindset we need to get clubs to understand to buy into performance innovation. We’re approaching them with something solely for goalkeepers at the moment, because we recognise what goalkeepers can bring to the club”. 

So does the value of the goalkeeper, and goalkeeping itself, need to become more objective? 

The technical debate around ‘correct’ shape and movement has raged throughout the battlefields of Twitter ever more often in recent years. It’s not easy to define what ‘correct’ technique is, when goalkeepers face so many different variables. There are fundamental biomechanical principles that give goalkeepers a better chance of making saves, but it’s difficult to make generalisations. 

“We use the data to understand ‘why’”, says Professor Craig. 

“Okay, so you missed that shot? Why did you miss it? And to understand why you missed it, I need to know, what did you do? When did you do it? And how did you do it? To give you an example, when we were working with one of the goalkeeper coaches here in Northern Ireland, he was dealing with some youth players. With VR technology, he could create certain shots that tested their abilities in specific ways. This is the beauty of it;  you can give each goalkeeper exactly the same type of shot repeatedly. So you're actually testing them in an equal way - a bit like an exam in school, they're all getting the same test” 

 “With this, the technology can help you understand how much time you had to make your decision, how you reacted, and how you can improve. The key is that you must do analysis by looking at the ball itself; you can’t properly analyse the action of the goalkeeper and improve it without understanding the impact of the ball’s flight on the decision the goalkeeper made.

As Professor Craig and Dr Stafford point out, it’s also important to consider the mental effects that a shot or situation can have on a goalkeeper. They pointed to the classic analysis around penalties, and how the undisputed taker’s advantage can be reduced with mind games. However, in the case of ‘objectivity’, we should be careful.  

Dr Stafford expands on this: “Sometimes when people think about objectivity, they think it means we can compare goalkeepers directly against each other. It also means that people believe there is a strictly right or wrong way to do things. And that's absolutely not the case. A six foot six goalkeeper and a five foot eleven goalkeeper shouldn’t be doing the same things, because they've got different capabilities. What we're doing when we analyse using our technology means that the goalkeepers receive data that is directly relevant to them”. 

“Courtois, for example, can afford to wait perhaps a second or two more than a goalkeeper who is only six foot, for a shot from the same range at the same speed. Because of his size, Courtois’s decisions will be unique to him”

Goalkeeper technology is unique. It’s unique to the most unique position on the pitch, and challenges the boundaries of what was previously thought to be possible as the demands placed upon the goalkeeper only increase. As Dr Stafford alluded to earlier in the piece, the return on investment when it comes to certain goalkeeper-oriented technology, like the VR technology that INCISIV uses, can be worth millions. Promotion or relegation. The existence of a club. 

So, perhaps this isn’t a question about goalkeepers in the technical sense, but about the value of goalkeepers to football in general. Technology is helping football develop tenfold, but it’s also helping the game recognise that, just maybe, goalkeepers really are the most important position on the pitch. 


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