Forward focus: Olympian insight from one of soccer's great goalkeepers
By Greg Bach
The path Stephanie Labbé took on her way to becoming one of the best goalkeepers on the planet comes attached with a great message for kids: never be afraid of trying new positions.
And her story is also a wonderful reminder for volunteer coaches: always expose young players to as many positions as possible.
“When I was 11 years old I was trying out for a club team and in the tryouts the coach said we were going to do a shooting drill and he asked if anyone wanted to go in goal,” recalls Labbé, who was the starting goalkeeper for the Canadian National Team that won a bronze medal at last summer’s Olympic Games in Rio. “There were about six or seven of us who put up our hands so we all rotated into the goal for the shooting drill.”
That opportunity, and her performance during those few minutes in front of the net, changed her life forever.
“After the tryout the coach came up to me and said that he really wanted me on the team, but that he wanted me as the goalie,” Labbé says. “I said ok. I didn’t really think twice about it at that time because I just wanted to be on the team and play with my friends. He must have saw something, maybe because I wasn’t scared of the ball, but there was something that drew him toward wanting me to play there and ever since I have loved the challenge of the position.”
She’s also loved excelling at it, too. A former Big East Goalkeeper of the Year while playing for the University of Connecticut, she made her debut with Canada’s national youth program at age 15. She played a huge role in its Olympic run last summer to get on the podium, and now frustrates opposing players as a goalkeeper for the Washington Spirit of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL).
“I think the more and more I was playing the position the more I started to understand the excitement of it when you can make that big save and all eyes are on you,” she says. “And I think that’s probably the first part of it that I really enjoyed.”
MULTIPLE SPORTS, MULTIPLE BENEFITS
Growing up, hockey and basketball were among the sports Labbé played besides soccer.
And you can count her among the lengthy list of world class athletes who tout the value of playing a variety of sports rather than zeroing in on one at an early age.
“I don’t believe in specializing in one sport,” she says. “All through junior high and high school I did my best to play on a bunch of school teams and play as many different sports as possible. At the end of the day I want to become a good athlete and I think that was the biggest thing that helped me become a better goalkeeper is that I can functionally do a lot more than just stand in the goal and save a ball. It allows me to react and be a lot quicker when I am on the field just knowing that I’ve put my body through many different sports and exercises that have prepared me to be the most athletic that I can be.”
It’s a message she shares with young players she works with at her soccer camps, too.
She also talks to youngsters about the mental side of the game, where she discusses the importance of goalkeepers learning to anticipate plays in order to be more successful keeping the ball out of the net.
“There’s that 5 percent that is physical where you have to make a reaction save or make a world class save that nobody expects you to make, but the other 95 percent is mental,” she says. “As a goalkeeper I’m constantly reading the plays. When the ball is at the other end I’m staying nice and high so when I communicate my defenders can hear me but at the same time I’m constantly analyzing what could happen next so that I’m already two or three steps ahead of everyone. So when a play is made I kind of have already anticipated what is going to happen so that I can be in the right spot at the right time. So it’s all about just learning the game and watching the flow and the players and seeing what could happen and trying to anticipate so you can make better decisions and not just stand there and react.”
Goalkeepers at every level – as much as they hate it – are going to surrender goals.
Sometimes the opponent will execute a great play that results in a goal, and other times a goalkeeper may misplay a shot that results in a score.
It’s all part of playing the position.
And Labbé says that it’s crucial for coaches to help their young players learn from those mistakes and move on from them, too.
“Mistakes are going to happen – they’re pretty much guaranteed,” she says. “And that’s something I’ve told myself over the years is that there is never a perfect game. You’re never going to have a perfect practice or a perfect game and it’s all about embracing those mistakes and know that you are going to grow from them and use them as fuel to be better next time.”
So young players have to be taught to move on. Talk to them about it in practice. And enforce that mentality during games.
It’ll make a huge difference in their performance.
“If I let a goal in it’s over and it’s time to focus on making the next stop and that’s kind of what I’m always focusing on – how can I be better on the next shot that I have an opportunity to stop,” she says. “I think that’s the biggest message for kids is it doesn’t matter how your last pass was or last shot, it’s all about what you are going to do with your next pass or your next shot – it’s always keeping that forward mind focus.”
That’s great advice from a world class goalkeeper who tried a new position as a youngster and has kept moving forward ever since.
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Arkansas great Scotty Thurman, now an assistant coach with the Razorbacks, on teaching young players the importance of unselfishness
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