They’re the self-styled anti-princesses of netball. They ones with skun knees and booming voices. The ones who hassle, hector and harangue. They’re risk-takers who can be left looking the patsy. They’re the last line of defence. Meet: the goal keepers.
Goal keeper is one of netball’s true “key” positons. Like a centre-half forward in Australian rules football, theirs is a make-or-break role. They have an almost-unparalleled influence on a team’s chances of success, so one of a side’s most tenacious and “game smart” players usually wears the “GK” bib. Think Diamonds superstars of past and present, like Laura Geitz, Liz Ellis and Sharni Layton.
While the keeper and their direct opponent, the goal shooter, have the least territory to operate in – just a third of the court – their battle often shapes the result of the game. Generally speaking, it’s the highest volume shooter versus one of the most dogged defenders. Whomever dominates, wins.
Confined to their side’s defensive third and pitted against the opposition’s most accurate and prolific scorer, keepers, as in the world game, have the seemingly uncomplicated task of stopping goals.
Keepers work in close partnership with the goal defence, who marks the goal attack, to push both shooters as far as possible from the post, making scoring difficult. They defend shots on goal, take throw-ins and penalties in the third and make attacking moves to drive the ball to the transverse line. They’re also often the “voice” of a team, as they can see the entire court and have less “on” time than other players.
They must have a borderline obsessive focus on one-on-one defence of the generally tall goal shooter, putting pressure on their body and their shots, whilst also pulling in rebounds. The very best are also brave enough – and read the game well enough – to “go hunting”, netball parlance for coming off their player to look for an intercept. Such intercepts often swing momentum and change games.
A keeper’s alliance with their defensive partner, built on clear communication and a “unit” mentality, is key, as are their links with the wing defence and centre, who act as both defenders’ eyes and ears on the circle edge.
The former Diamonds captain turned commentator, Liz Ellis, who played 122 Tests, mostly at keeper, tells Guardian Australia the key temperamental attributes for the position include intelligence, resilience, determination and “a bit of mongrel.”
Only the supremely intelligent can play the position, she laughs. “My gut feeling is that keepers probably have more university degrees, per capita, than any other position.”
IQ aside, keepers “need plenty of resilience, because you end up as the patsy quite a bit,” Ellis says, referring to balls sailing over keepers’ heads or being left exposed by poor pressure out the front. “You need to be determined, prepared to go hard all day and wear someone down, to make someone’s life difficult. You’ve got to be annoying and have a bit of mongrel. Not like the lip-stick-wearing girls who shoot.”
Physically, height is an advantage, but not vital, 183cm Ellis says. “I was never the tallest and I’d argue good footwork is more important. It’s footwork that gets you to the ball, footwork that gets you out of trouble and footwork that puts doubt in the throwers’ mind, which create turnovers.” Core strength, good elevation, speed off the mark and impeccable timing are other key weapons in a keeper’s arsenal.
Current Diamonds keeper and captain, Sharni Layton, who has also played wing defence and goal defence in her elite career, says keepers need to do the basics “extremely well”, be persistent and have a strong game sense. “In lots of ways, you’re playing a game of chess with your opponent, so it’s a mental game as well as physical,” Layton says.
“You need to work around the body and think about how to confuse the thrower. You need to constantly be on the move, using great footwork, but not ‘over move’ and I always want to be able to see the ball, my player and my goal defence. That’s a lot to think about.”
Lean, jump or baulk?
While some coaches at grassroots level insist defenders always “hang” on a shot, rather than attempt a timed jump to affect a basketball-style rejection or baulk to put shooters off their rhythm, Ellis and Layton agree it’s situational.
“It’s a minute-by-minute proposition,” Ellis says. “Every player is different. You know you can put some off with a particular approach, some hate when you lean, so you stay on the lean, while others dislike when you go into a crouch and are scared waiting for you to jump. You have to read the game and work out what’s best in any given situation. A good goal keeper can think their way through a game.”
Layton says the past is often a good predictor of the future, but variety still reigns. “If I know what’s worked previously on a player, I’ll stick with that, but it’s all trial and error,” the 188cm Melbourne native, says. “If something is working, you keep doing that, if it’s not, you have to be able to mix it up with a lean, a jump, even a windmill.” Layton works on being able to hold a lean for at least five seconds – just like her childhood hero, Ellis.
Communication is key
The value of “getting on the same page with your goal defence” can’t be over-stated, Layton says. “That partnership is so key. You need to speak the same language. You need to understand each other’s calls. When you call ‘base’ does that mean you want them to go to the base line or you are going base? Communication is the key to not leaving your mate high and dry.”
Layton is forming a formidable partnership with Collingwood team mate April Brandley at both international and domestic level.
The unseen work
Keepers often work “long and hard with little reward”, but when it comes it really matters, Ellis says. “A lot of what a keeper does in a match, people don’t necessarily see. The hassling, the footwork, the near-tips, working the ground, stepping up to your player. That might all pay zero dividends in the first half of a match. You might not get a single intercept.”
“But you wear shooters down, players get tired, passes start missing and then the intercepts often come in the last quarter. That’s what good goal keepers do.”