The Psychological Dimensions of Goalkeeping

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What I always find is that as you go further in the game and you gain more success, then that brings more pressure on you to perform.  But it’s the outside pressures, not the pressures of the game.  The game is easy.  It’s when you get in front of big crowds and something’s at stake like winning the match, that’s when the mental side come in.            -Pat Jennings

While a soccer goalkeeper’s performance involves such physical elements as quickness and power, it is often the psychological component which determines success.  At every level, there are goalkeepers with exceptional quickness and great jumping ability, goalkeepers with good size and flexibility, and keepers who can make the great save.  Goalkeeping, though, demands more than physical prowess.

The way in which goalkeepers chose to deal with the pressure they experience, in part, determine their success.  By virtue of their position, goalkeepers are put under enormous amounts of pressure to perform mistake-free, not to relinquish even a single goal.  One mistake can lead to the goal being scored which may mean the loss of the game.  How should they deal with this kind of pressure?   How should goalkeepers deal with the fear of making mistakes and the expectations to play flawlessly?  In short, how should goalkeepers think about keeping goal to give themselves the best chance of being successful?  

While it is true that goalkeepers must be physically able and ready to perform, equally important is their belief in that ability.  At the moment of truth, goalkeepers must be able to remain focused and not be distracted by self-defeating thoughts.  Simultaneously, they must be able to throw away fear and be decisive while remaining composed under constant pressure during the entire game.   Goalkeepers must also have courage-a particular kind of courage.  Of course, they need the physical courage required to sacrifice their body to stop breakaways and challenge for crossed balls, but perhaps more important, they need the emotional courage to face adversity, the brutal slump, relentless expectations, mistakes, and setbacks, the persistent injury, and cope with it in an effective manner.

It is the supreme confidence which seems to separate the great soccer goalkeepers from the mediocre!  Perhaps Brianna Scurry, the former United States Women’s National Keeper, said it best, “If you don’t believe in yourself, you have no chance.  It is important within goalkeeping, in your whole life you have to believe in yourself.  You must have a little...egoism.  You must have that, otherwise you have no chance to move up.  If you don’t have it, you can’t get out of the middle.  You can’t get to number one or be one of the best.  You have to believe it when you say ‘I can get it,’ I can make it,’ ‘I have the possibility to get great.’  It is not enough to just say it, you must believe it.”

The sort of pressure goalkeepers experience is in many ways different from field players.  Since the goalkeeper “is an isolated person,” as Hope Solo calls it, she stands alone, constantly being exposed, while field players can hide if they do not want to move or pass.  Field players also have the luxury of making mistakes and getting away with them, then making up for their mistakes in the 89th minute of a game by scoring the winning goal, or by clearing a ball off the goal line to gain a draw.  Goalkeepers have no way out. One minute they can be the hero, the next minute, be the goat.   If they make a mistake, there is nowhere to hide.  If their mistakes result in a goal being scored against them, they must rely on their teammates to score for redemption.

Concentration in goalkeeping is often the difference between making a save and not making it, making the right decision or making a wrong one, and making decisions without hesitation.  For the goalkeeper there is a certain intensity of spirit, a youthful enthusiasm for the game which makes it easy them to fall into concentration almost naturally.   If a goalkeeper can’t concentrate during a full match and have fun, then there is no other time to have fun.  That’s your time in the spotlight!  It’s show time then!   You show people what you can do!  What drive most keepers?  Studies have suggest that “mental pressure” was the number one thing that drove keepers. The more pressure goalkeepers seem to deal with, the more effective they seem to perform and to focus.

Goalkeeping is for the ‘complete athlete,’ someone who doesn’t shy away from a big challenge, a person who is willing to step up to the plate and win a game by making a HUGE save or sacrificing their body for the success of their teammates!  If there is anything you will remember about playing keeper, it will be that at of all the teammates on your team, you will always be known as the one everyone respected the most, because without you, a team never has a real chance to win!