FA Lead National Goalkeeping Coach and England U21 Goalkeeping Coach, Tim Dittmer, brings a wealth of wisdom to his dual role as coach and coach developer. In this interview with the 32-year-old, Player Development Project finds a coach already wise well beyond his years.
In normal lore, it is thought that we grow wiser as we grow older. But Dittmer has somehow figured out that wisdom isn’t necessarily a result of a long life. Wisdom is measured by what we are willing to learn, not simply what we already know. And learn is what Dittmer and the players he coaches do.
Let’s take a look at Tim Dittmer at work and play: on the game, on coaching, on the players and player development, on learning, on the unconventional, and even on inconvenient ways to grow confident and effective goalkeepers. Along the way you will see italicized “Dittmerisms” found in his Twitter account over the last year or so.
Like so many Liverpool area youngsters, Tim began kicking a ball around in grassroots play somewhere around age seven or eight as an outfield player on a small, local side—enjoying being a footballer. In time, he moved through the Liverpool Academy as an up-and-coming goalkeeper, played 200+ games for Vauxhall Motors among other teams in the Conference and Conference North. He then went on to Bradford City as both a coach and then player/coach. He didn’t just specialize in coaching ‘keepers at Bradford; he worked with outfielders at all levels and all abilities throughout his coaching apprenticeship. Juggling full-time coaching roles at first Liverpool and latterly Bradford, It wasn’t until he moved to Manchester City in 2012 that he was forced to give up his own playing career to give the necessary time to coaching.
“What should mark youth sport? Fun, Challenging, and Games would be right up there with what young players would find most engaging I would imagine.”
“Making children wait in line to use one ball is like giving a class one pen…and expecting them to learn to write.” –Dittmer quoting Williams, 1996
When asked what he thought about the competitive path youngsters should take, his advice is to not specialize early: “I think it is best if youngsters play other invasion games, multiple sports, movements, and disciplines.” He thinks time spent learning to be an athlete is better in the long run at this stage than being only a footballer. For goalkeepers, Tim believes the players should take even more time, maybe only beginning to specialize around age 15 or 16.
“What should you focus on for young GKs at 9/10 years of age? Spending an equal amount of time playing outfield as they do in goal.“
“I’ve always enjoyed coaching goalkeepers,” Dittmer says. When asked who his own mentors were, he mentioned two iconic goalkeeping coaches, Billy Stewart and Martin Thomas. Stewart, he recalls, coached “the whys” of it all. Why you did what you did. In other words, there is more to the position than the “hows”. Deeper player-intelligence roots are found in the whys, or as Tim describes it, “the continual exposure to making footballing decisions.”
“In order to be successful, you need to look for ways to get things done, NOT for reasons why things can’t be done.”
These “why” roots gave Dittmer the confidence to trust his own thoughts, beliefs and imagination in his specialized coaching of goalkeepers. He freely admits that exploring his own coaching style depends on a deep understanding of the game. “It’s important,” he says,” for goalkeeping coaches to work backwards from what the game requires, to know the game from top to bottom, not just specializing in one area.” That and learning what the league needs and what the manager wants. As a specialized coach, he says he must learn and know the variety of goalkeeper roles, tactics, and the uniqueness of each opponent.
“If your players appear indecisive, rigid in body and mind and quiet…Have a look at YOUR session designs through the same lens.”
When Dittmer was asked about what he looks for in potential keepers, he said on the mental side, “real bright learners who are proactive and forward looking.” On the physical side, he looks for speed, overall athletic ability, outstanding knack to distribute the ball, a tactician of the game, and players who are effective decision makers. Effectiveness is more important than being technically good. What is especially important, Dittmer says, is to find players who want to find ways to win. But winning, in his view, depends on players who are lifelong learners, have a strength of nerve, and who have an unwavering belief in what they are striving to do and become. There is a strong correlation between winners and players who are life long learners.
Effectiveness is more important than being technically good. What is especially important, Dittmer says, is to find players who want to find ways to win. But winning, in his view, depends on players who are lifelong learners, have a strength of nerve, and who have an unwavering belief in what they are striving to do and become. Dittmer believes “there is a strong correlation between winners and those who are life long learners.”
“Support our players to be decisive, positive, innovative, creative and effective in THEIR chosen actions. DON’T prescribe rigid solutions!”
Dittmer values his role as a goalkeeping coach, for sure. His daily enthusiasms come from finding himself in a privileged position to help coaches at all levels and in other countries, to challenge them to better themselves, to strive for continuous improvement, and to move the culture of football forward. When speaking of what energizes him beyond what he has learned from his mentors, he says “I have also learned a great deal from the business community, from executives and leaders in big organizations.”
“To produce the type of Goalkeeper any one team, coach, or player wants, you have to work out what you want the KEY ATTRIBUTES to look like… Then design and piece together a programme of work which reflects these desired attributes, then WORK ON THEM…”
While it may be too much to say Dittmer coaches chaos, it is fair to say he coaches the unconventional. To steal a phrase from the American philosopher John Dewey, Dittmer believes goalkeepers need “lions in their paths”. That’s how we grow. By facing and facing down challenges we are diverted into thinking things through. Otherwise we learn helplessness, shun discovery and invention, and forever remain an average player. In Dittmer’s words, “I want to challenge our players to become comfortable with being uncomfortable.” To do this he coaxes the players to take creative steps outside their comfort zone. “These first tentative steps,” he says, “are very different to the strides you will eventually achieve.”
What Dittmer strives to do is to magnify the number and kinds of decisions the players experience in practice sessions. He strongly believes in creating practices that are as realistic and game-specific as possible. The only way to train for intensity and commotion of game-play is to create training sessions that are intense and tumultuous. “Practices must be mentally tougher than the games will be,” says Dittmer. How else will a goalkeeper learn to focus, to know the game from top to bottom, to work backwards from what the game requires?”
“Many encourage to ‘Think outside the box.’ Maybe we should more “Think inside the box (the 18 yard one!) and consider what goes on in there? This should better inform your practice/program design, assuring realism, relevance, and repetition.”
When Dittmer takes a turn in a coach education environment with elite coaches at St. George’s Park as a coach educator, he reinforces the Four Corner Model at the National Football Centre—equal focus on the technical, physical, social and psychological. But it is the psychological that especially attracts Dittmer’s own attention. He believes the psychological components are typically under-taught as players move through the levels of play. “The kind of person you are is paramount in the kind of playing success you will have.” This is true, Dittmer says, of any endeavour. Hard work, diligence, and openness to change are universal prerequisites to success.
“The psychological corner for the goalkeeper is massively important.” He argues that especially at the level of elite play the technical and tactical skills have been developed over time. But thinking though the game, learning the context, recognizing the situations, finding the opponent’s tendencies, crafting the possible options—all of that takes focus as well as what is sometimes referred to as coaching the players’ game craft. For a variety of reasons, goalkeepers in particular are less likely to be challenged in these ways.
When asked if goalkeepers should be practicing separately from the rest of the team, for example: “No,” he explained. When practicing their own unique position skills and techniques, some separation is inevitable. But when the practices are realistic to game situations and contexts, how can a goalkeeper-less game be played at all? “Goalkeepers training in isolation shouldn’t be a detriment to the team,” he says. They must train with the team and be an integral part of the team.
“If we strive to attain REALISM (type of service and triggers provided), RELEVANCE (area of the pitch—positional/contextual position), and REPETITION (repeating the above), as outcomes to everything we do, we won’t go far wrong.”
When asked about which young goalkeeping prospects we should look out for in the future, Tim gives us a couple of names, saying, “In the U21’s we are blessed really. We have Jordan Pickford who is currently playing in the Premier League with Sunderland and Angus Gunn who is at Manchester City. Chasing the pair of them is Freddie Woodman who is in Newcastle’s first team squad and may go out on loan again. All of these players are very talented in the international football arena. International football is different, it brings different pressures and is does take a certain type of player in order to perform at that level.” He continues, “we have implemented a new way of identifying, selecting, developing and supporting goalkeepers throughout our development teams (15-21) and we are beginning to see some identifiable traits of how we want English goalkeepers to play”
With some top performers in the England U21 group, it was a logical question to ask how the recent success of the group (winners of the 2016 Toulon Tournament), has impacted the rest of the age groups at St George’s Park, Tim replies, “England teams tend to get a lot of stick, and the success of the U21’s has been very positive. We have actually lost very few games across the age groups, but more important than just winning games, the style of play being developed through the age groups from number 1 through to number 11 is really identifiable. The players are becoming more accustomed to this style. Having substance and style has to bode well for the future.”
As analogies go, and if we take Tim Dittmer’s coaching approach to heart, we might find something like this: flame over vessel. In other words, Dittmer consistently rejects the historical coach-organizing principle of vessel-filling; that we as coaches must continuously pour the ready-made, time-tested knowledge into the minds and bodies of players we coach. Instead, kindling a flame in the hearts of our players has the potential to ignite player energy, purpose, achievement, and congenial and abiding learning. Enough said.