CleanSheet - An Interview with Frans Hoek

Tuesday, May 18, 2021
James Stafford

INCISIV’s Dr James Stafford sat down with ‘The Godfather of Goalkeeping’ Frans Hoek for a discussion on how goalkeeping technology such as CleanSheet can advance performance in the position. In this wide-ranging interview, Hoek explains why goalkeeping is currently too subjective. He discusses how technology has evolved since he began his coaching career and how we can use new technology to understand more about our goalkeepers. This is how the conversation evolved:

“If we look at football in general, there are a lot of technologies out there for coaches and players for performance but there’s not a lot in our experience for goalkeepers. I’m curious from your own career, did you feel like there was technology out there that you could have used as a goalkeeping coach?”

FH: It’s clear that times are changing. There’s a big development in the number of tools that can help you. Let’s be clear, first of all it all starts on the pitch. My approach is always that it has to be game related. Which means, everything from the game we bring to the practice field, should be an 11v11 and practice in that sense. But, reality is, you also need time outside of the pitch for learning, teaching, improving. What I experienced with video clips, that became more and more available in the last 30 years at, for example, Bayern Munich I started to use video clips out of the games we played for the goalkeepers in relation to the team, the improvement went sky high in no time. What I needed in my Barcelona time was 2-3 years to be clear when communicating a message, I managed with Bayern in half a year. Know that these tools are very useful, you have to try it out, it’s trial and error, and see where it helps you. Over the years, a lot has been developed on a general basis and not on a specific basis. The other thing is, as a coach, you get so much information. When I go back to my time at United for every game we had a books worth like this (gestures large book) based on data and that kind of stuff that we could use for the upcoming opponent but it’s too much it’s overwhelming. So as a coach, you have to decide what is my philosophy, what is my way of thinking, and what fits in that way of thinking. Having said that, and you look at complete new possibilities like virtual reality you first have to get used to it. You have to get used to the world of virtual reality and let’s be honest, nothing can replace the field, the 11vs11, actual thing, nothing. But going to the practice field, it’s already not the 11vs11 anymore. There are already different things. So, to recreate that is already difficult when you are going to take away some of the game elements. But on the other side, if you can be as close as possible to the reality of the game, it will help you immensely. What we are seeing happening is many coaches, many exercises are far away from the reality and the interesting part of the virtual reality is that, of course it is very difficult to learn the catching because you have to that physically on the pitch but other interesting parts like reading the game it can be very useful. And if we see how good the development of kids is in all these areas and they understand a lot very fast, it can only be very beneficial. If you can make the link between the game and the virtual reality game as close as possible. I’m convinced it will help them immensely.

“I think it’s very interesting how you describe your experience of using videos of game footage and how that helped you in your coaching career by being able to show your goalkeepers how to improve. One of the interesting things about CleanSheet is the ability to recreate the viewpoint of the goalkeeper in these scenarios which is currently impossible to do in any other way, what benefits do you think seeing through the eyes of the goalkeeper may bring for training and understanding of the game”.

FH: The interesting thing in the development of goalkeeper practice over the years is a lot of isolation, and what I mean by that is that a small group of goalkeepers and the goalkeeper coach which means we miss the teammates and the opponents and if you miss that, you are not practicing the real situation. Which doesn’t mean you should never practice in isolation but you need to be aware of the fact that the situation you are practicing, with only the goalkeepers and the goalkeeper coach,  is completely different than when there are opponents and teammates present. So the big advantage of course is, when you go into the virtual reality world, you really go into the complicated situation that the game actually is. Don’t make it very simple, like only a guy who shoots, no. There’s other people involved that make the situation more complicated and the goalkeeper has to solve these situations. So that’s a very big advantage that you don't only look at the ball that has been struck or crossed but also where are my teammates, where is the opponent, how far are they away from me, are they coming closer? Not only in defence but in offence as well. In the build up for example, it is becoming more and more important and as a goalkeeper you need many different qualities to have a good career. So, the complexities of reality are there in virtual reality.

“In the coaching world, what we sometimes see is a bit of hesitancy for new technologies and sometimes people have concerns around the practicalities of virtual reality and finding time to use it. Where do you see virtual reality fitting in within a standard week’s practice?”

FH: Well first of all you should never take it away from the regular practice on the pitch. But for nobody is it possible to practice on the pitch from 9 in the morning to 6 in the evening. What we know is the effective time is max between 1 and 1 and a half hours - around the same time the game itself is played. Suppose you can do it max 2 times a day that’s already 3 hours. But that means you still have a lot of time available to work on certain aspects of your game on the side. Of course, we don’t have the direct relationship yet of what is exactly the outcome of virtual reality into the game. Yes we are still in stages of finding out how big is virtual reality’s influence but in all reality if you let someone drive a bike and catch a ball, some people will say that’s goalkeeper practice! In all reality, it’s far away from the reality of goalkeeping so the virtual reality is already a lot closer to what goalkeeping actually is. So where does it fit? Well, it of course fits fantastically in understanding and reading the game. Which for developing goalkeepers can begin at 10 years of age and even earlier. It gets much more interesting and intense when you consider a holistic development program between 12, 14, and 16 years of age. Because the older they get, the more they should understand the game. And the earlier they start understanding the game, the easier it is. Kids today already play fifa and are using gaming technology, they’ve grown up with that. Which means to integrate virtual reality for goalkeeping practice will be easy. Yes, it’s more difficult for the coaches because they didn’t grow up with virtual reality technology. For them it’s a new and unknown world which means they can become more hands off because they don’t feel comfortable. So it’s the job of us coaches to become more comfortable with the virtual reality world definitely, when it can help you to increase the level of the goalkeepers and the players that you have. So, before pushing it away, embrace it, check it, look at it, try it out, be comfortable with it as a coach and it’s a different world but I feel it is an obligation for us as coaches to investigate all possibilities to improve the goalkeepers. The most beautiful example is the video clips when they first came in years ago. That was also in the beginning a case of what is this? How can it help me? What angle is best? How do you look at it? There’s a big education piece. I believe we have to give virtual reality more than a fair chance because it is part of the world now. It’s much more part of the world of the goalkeepers we work with than most of the coaches. So embrace it and try it out and look at the progress of the goalkeepers that work with it.

“Just as we touch on new concepts in the game, something that has taken a big leap in goalkeeping recently is analysis and understanding what are the key variables to understand goalkeeping performance. We were talking earlier about how we see articles pop up ranking the world’s best goalkeepers saying “this is the number 1 goalkeeper” but from what criteria? So where do you potentially see technology such as CleanSheet in helping us with goalkeeping analysis using the data it can collect?”

FH: Virtual reality has a big role there, because what is happening now is people can make a list saying who is the best goalkeeper in the world, etc. but it's almost impossible to compare the goalkeepers playing at the moment. Not everybody is playing the same play style, or league, or facing the same problems. Oblak at Atletico Madrid for example, we all can see he is excellent in defending, especially in defending the goal. If we look at attacking, when you play for Atletcio madrid the building up from the goalkeeper is not that demanding as it is, for example, of the goalkeeper of Manchester City - Ederson. It is the same as players on the pitch, you have players that defend better, players that attack better, and you have players that create chances better, and it’s the same with goalkeepers. Some are better defensively, and some are better offensively, some are better leaders, some are better organizers, whatever it is. So this means, we have to go away from “I think”, “I believe”, “in my opinion”. We have to make it more objective and more points that we can actually measure. There’s a big role for virtual reality in helping explain these differences.

“In goalkeeping coaching, drills play a hugely important role. In your opinion, what kind of drills or scenarios would be beneficial to do in CleanSheet that could compliment real world practice?”

FH: This is a good point around drills. Number 1, I think what you have to is analyze the goalkeeper by making a profile. This profile includes everything that is demanded in a game. That profile has to be filled out, evaluated and reflected by the goalkeeper and the coaches and based on that you have an outcome on what drills to create. For example, passing the ball over 20 metres with pressure from the opponent, we see that we are not good enough, and that skill is important for our style of play. You as a goalkeeper, need to know what is not so good, and what do I need to do to improve it. This means you need to help the coach. So you need a very personal development plan. And what is the development plan for one goalkeeper is not the same for the 2nd goalie or the 3rd goalie, or whatever goalie. So each drill needs to be adjusted to the specific needs of the goalkeepers themselves. And this means drills are not  “okay we do a drill, we get the ball, we control it and play it away”. No. It’s specifically if there is pressure, where should I ask for the ball? How should the ball be given back to me? With what speed? At what moment? On my left foot or right foot? What foot am I stronger on? What about my control? How do I need to control the ball and in what direction? How do I stay away as far as I can from the opponent? After the control, did I oversee the pitch? This is where virtual reality can greatly help, do I need all my attention on the ball control? Or can I begin scanning for distribution options before I receive? Every drill is different basically for every goalkeeper. And this is the interesting part. There are basic drills and from these basic drills, you need to make specific drills based on what goalkeepers you work with and what they really need. It’s not only throwing exercises, it’s specifically being able to analyze what is strong, what is not strong, and how can we improve it? You always strive for a personal development program for each goalkeeper. And of course, virtual reality can have a big role in that.

“You have tried CleanSheet and it’s great you see the potential of the technology to profile a goalkeeper’s strengths and weaknesses and build bespoke drills on top of that. One of the things you point out is this idea of accelerating experience and being able to practice something at a certain age group which may not be necessarily possible in real life because you don’t have the quality of service. Do you feel as a coach there are some barriers to younger players that maybe the senior players don’t have in terms of quality of service and do you feel VR could bridge the gap by giving all players the exact same drills?”

FH: If we speak about the best goalkeepers in the world, we always say “when they get older, they get better” which is of course a little bit strange because physically you develop until you are 23 and after that you are getting less and less. But if we look at why the older goalkeepers are better, it's only because they recognize the game moments better. Why? Because they have played so many games. And the games actually were their practice. And what I did from the moments I started was bringing the games back to practice. I started very quick and early with integrated goalkeeping practice with the whole team. Why? Because if I recognize the situations because I practice that a lot of times, my level will go up very quickly. And this means, and you can see my track record in that as well, I work with very young goalkeepers at the absolute top level. Why? Because of this methodology. And this means in virtual reality, you can let them get used to the game situations. And if you get used to the game situations and you recognize them, it is easier for you to get the solutions. The most beautiful thing was when I was at Barcelona with Pepe Reina and Victor Valdez and they were like 16 when I first saw them and very quickly I integrated them in the practice with the 2nd and 1st team. And after 2 years, I was not afraid anymore that they didn’t recognize the situations, because they did, because the practice level was so high that the situations emerged and helped them become better goalkeepers. Of course, you talk about Barcelona, you’re talking about the best players in the world. Normally, every situation in the game is easier than the practice situation. My only concern was, how do they react with the thousands of fans in Camp Nou? But not recognizing the situations. So if virtual reality can help us in recognising the situations, it will be a very big improvement already. Which helps goalkeepers be at a higher level, at a younger age, which is of course fantastic.

“I think that’s the ultimate goal of a coach isn’t it? Accelerating development. There’s a lot of coaches that may be reading this and thinking “so why exactly do I need CleanSheet? Why is it better than what currently exists?” What do you think are the key points on why VR should be considered as a goalkeeping coach?

FH: Let me turn it around. If we look at what many goalkeeper coaches are doing at the moment, a lot of things which are not that game-related or not game-related at all, they put a lot of effort and time into. And we should really question if it really helps the goalkeeper in the game. If it’s game-related, you know it's very close to what the game demands, if you go for isolated practice, which you have to do sometimes, it's already quite far away from reality. If you do exercises that have nothing directly to do with goalkeeping but you still put a lot of time in it, it’s a big question mark on how it will actually help in the game. Having said that, I think this is worth trying it. Of course it’s different, it’s a different world to what we are used to. But it’s close to the reality of the game and it will improve in time, and become even more realistic. Try it out, give it time, give it a try, see if it benefits, yes or no. And work on virtual reality the same as if you work on improving shot stopping or whatever it is. I’m convinced that it’s worth the try and see how close it can come to the reality of the game, time will tell. At this moment, it’s more than worth trying it out because I can feel a lot of connection between goalkeeping and VR.

“On the idea of getting as accurate to the game as possible, I know you as a coach place great value on anticipation and acting ahead of time. What about Cleansheet attracted you to help with improving the goalkeeper's perceptual abilities”?

FH: That’s the whole key. How many times as a coach do you work on reading the game? Coaches have to be very honest about that. And we also have to be honest that on the moment that the goalkeeper plays 11vs11 or 5vs5, the focus is always on not letting the ball in. A lot of times, the goalkeeper doesn't see the whole game. That’s why the older goalkeepers are better because they have more experience in situations. So the fact that the goalkeeper in virtual reality doesn’t have to be afraid about the ball going into the net, I think that adds calmness to really read the situation and focus on that. And sure, let them shoot, if the ball goes into the goal no problem at all, learn from that, play it back, and what shall I do next? What did I do? What can I do to improve? It’s only a big advantage in that sense.

“We at INCISIV come from a scientific background and I know you’re very interested in science as well, Frans. What do you think attracted you to INCISIV and our science? Is that something you’ve always had a natural curiosity towards?”

FH: When you’re a coach you always want to make players better. So I think it’s an obligation that you know exactly what's going on in the world that can be beneficial for improving goalkeeping. I go far away, I work with even Volleyball teams for improving footwork, with a specialist in breathing to make comments that come out better. If you coach, what do you coach, how do you coach but also need to be vocal. So the moment these opportunities are there, I will take them very seriously and try them out before I have an opinion on it. What I see is many people having an opinion before they even start with it. Which in my opinion is not correct. I know if I train in a game-related scenario it’s as close as possible to the game, I know when I do a deduction of it, it’s still close but at the same time far away. If I do exercises, for example, such as reflexes where you are touching a screen full of lights, I doubt how that will help me to be a better goalkeeper. My doubts are very big on that. We need to prove it actually works that way. If it really works, it will then become an integrated part of your program. So when virtual reality came and already some time ago I started to see it and we worked a little bit on it, it was amazing and it was amazing what options and possibilities it brought. And to be honest, if you look at Fifa games, it can already help you a lot in developing how you look at the game and that’s more general! If you look at virtual reality, it’s already much more specific and I’m very confident that the development will go very quickly. So I’m curious and I want to really use everything I can if it convinces me to make somebody better. I think it’s an obligation for coaches to be aware of what’s going on in the world, what can help us to make goalkeepers better and what does that mean for me as a coach. Listen, the first time I saw a computer, I worked on it for 5 minutes, it broke and I didn’t work on it for another two years. But everything is so improved nowadays, I mean if my computer doesn’t work, I switch it on and off and it works again. It’s improving so quickly and I’ve seen the value of it with me and I also look at other people and I listen and in that sense I’m a real student of the game. Everyday I learn new things and I always think “how do I integrate that?”, “how can I use that tool to make my goalkeepers better?”. And listen, not everything works. I know what works, I know that some things I work on and doubt there is a direct connection. But you need to work on it and try it out and give it a chance.I think that’s the most important part there is for a coach. It’s important to remember that virtual reality comes out of the scientific world which is not the football world. So it’s very important that both sides, the football world and the scientific world are coming closer together to understand and influence each other to come to the best possible product. So we really need each other to create the understanding of “what’s the reason we’re doing this?”, “how can we improve it?” and so on.

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