Goalkeeper Psychology

By @Fawdry23

As we all know, an enormous component of goalkeeping success is mental strength. I fired off some question to Gavin Wilson, an FA-qualified goalkeeper coach and Senior Sports Performance Coach at MINDSi Sports Performance. He and Tom Fawdry, another MINDSi coach, have delivered some truly insightful responses which can benefit goalkeepers playing at any level. Big thanks also to Jessica de la Souza, another MINDSi team member who facilitated this Q&A. You can keep up with MINDSi through their goalkeeping blog. MINDSi have also teamed up with KA Goalkeeping (you’ll recall my interview with KA proprietor Kenny Arthur a few weeks ago) to provide special deals on KA gloves for newsletter subscribers. It’s all happening at MINDSi (“mind’s eye”) so check it out – but read the Q&A first.

As Gavin says, “From a psychological perspective, the goalkeeper engages in arguably some of

the most demanding and difficult situations within modern-day football. The

psychological approach of the goalkeeper plays a significant factor in the success

of the team. Due to the specialist nature of the goalkeeping position, it is essential

for both goalkeeper, and goalkeeper coach to understand the psychological

requirements of the position.”

1. Many goalkeepers worry about pre-game nerves. Can you explain what’s going on when we feel nervous, and if there is a way to make sure nerves enhance rather than inhibit performance?

Pre-game nerves are a natural feeling prior to a game situation, and put simply,

demonstrates that the goalkeeper cares about their own personal performance

and outcome of the game. The goalkeeper coach must work tirelessly with the

goalkeeper to establish a state of psychological and physiological readiness, whilst

attempting to channel pre-game nerves into a positive mindset, utilising their

energy in a positive way. Common indicators of pre-game nerves can come in the

form of stress and anxiety, however, can also be apparent in physical indicators,

such as trembling, sweating, or even tunnel vision. Some goalkeepers at the top

level work through a pre-game psychological checklist, enabling them to delve

deeper into their own understanding of how they feel when they are mentally

prepared for game situations.

Ultimately, pre-game nerves can be channelled into positive thoughts, reminders,

and affirmations, which will allow the goalkeeper to perform above and beyond

their capabilities. A little bit of nerves can be a good thing! Contrastingly,

it is essential that the goalkeeper does not allow pre-game nerves to hinder

performance, and get the better of him or her; the goalkeeper should take

ownership of the situation, and not let the situation take ownership of them.

Furthermore, it is important to establish that every goalkeeper is different, and

have different approaches to the psychological elements of goalkeeping. For

example, the differing perceived psychological approaches of top level goalkeepers

ranges from the enthusiasm and enjoyment of Joe Hart, to the calmness and

relaxed state of mind of Edwin Van Der Saar, to the seriousness and apparent focus

of Oliver Kahn.

2. Confidence seems to play a huge role in successful goalkeeping, but some keepers are trapped in a Catch-22: they can’t play well unless they feel confident, and they can’t feel confident unless they play well. Any strategies to break this thought pattern?

Confidence, or ‘self-confidence’ is largely perceived to be an absolute statement,

either the goalkeeper is confident or completely lacks confidence. However, it

is essential to perceive confidence as situation-specific, not as an entirety. For

example, the goalkeeper may consider themselves to be a fantastic shot-stopper,

however, struggle when dealing with crosses. Contrastingly, if the goalkeeper

is very confident in an increasing number of situations and scenarios, it will

positively influence the goalkeeper in all other scenarios, as the goalkeeper can

draw confidence from previous experience. The most influential source of self-

confidence is for the goalkeeper to gain as much experience in deliberate practice

and game situations, as the best way of improving is to work tirelessly in the

correct way.

When the goalkeeper is training it is essential to approach any area of

development systematically, determining that before the goalkeeper can

master high diving saves from an angled approach, they must first be technically

proficient in their correct starting positions, line and angle of approach,

coordination of handling and footwork, setting off on the correct foot, etc.

The goalkeeper must master the basics before incorporating advanced training

methods, and then work systematically through the process, steadily increasing

the level of complexity. Positively, the goalkeeper will draw confidence from

performance accomplishments, and will endeavour to achieve a higher level of

confidence, if the mastery of the skill has been achieved with hard work and

dedication. Success at difficult tasks will affect confidence to a greater extent.

Furthermore, the goalkeeper has to acknowledge that confidence can be attained

from various sources, for example, a coaching demonstration may allow the

goalkeeper to understand that the task in hand can be achieved, or through

watching and analysing other goalkeepers to draw information through the

experience of others. Additionally, the goalkeeper can analyse their own game,

as watching themselves perform skills through video analysis will give them

gentle reminders that they have what it takes to succeed. Additionally, the use of

imagery and visualisation can be incorporated into the pre-game preparation of

the goalkeeper, as processing positive images helps the goalkeeper to experience

the situation before he or she has encountered it. This method is only successful

when the images that are constructed are positive, as the brain cannot distinguish

the difference between events that are processed, and events that have actually

happened. When the goalkeeper has reached an advanced level of imagery/

visualisation, the goalkeeper may even process images of themselves making a

mistake in a game situation, and then reacting positively to it.


3. When the worst does happen and we make a mistake, what does a goalkeeper need to do to recover?

It is inevitable that each and every goalkeeper will make a mistake throughout

their career; however, it is essential for every goalkeeper to have a positive

mindset, enabling them to believe that they can save everything thrown their

way. In reality, this is unrealistic, as it is the unavoidable task of the goalkeeper

to concede the occasional goal! The dilemma is, that any mistake made by the

goalkeeper will be highly publicised, and can often be detrimental to the outcome

of the game (re: Wojciech Szczesny vs. Birmingham City – Carling Cup Final

2011). Subsequently, it is essential that the goalkeeper must not be defined by

their mistakes, however, react positively to them, as dwelling on a mistake WILL

be detrimental to the performance of the goalkeeper. It is important for the

goalkeeper to attempt to erase the mistake which has just occurred (at least for

the duration of the game), and re-establish their focus to the task in hand. The

mistake has occurred, it cannot be rectified, although, the goalkeeper can still

have a positive influence on the remainder of the game. Positive affirmations,

reminders, and reinforcements will allow the goalkeeper to rediscover their focus,

and the goalkeeper can draw positives from the experience through evaluation,

analysis and training. Never make the same mistake twice!


4. What can goalkeepers do between games, or in training, to work on their concentration and mental strength?

Concentration is a necessary pre-requisite for any modern-day goalkeeper to

have. Previous analysis suggests that the goalkeeper will touch the ball, on

average, approximately 27 times per game, further emphasising the goalkeeper’s

apparent need for enhanced concentration, and complete focus throughout a

90-minute match. Maintaining focus throughout a 90-minute match is a difficult

task, particularly for younger players with limited attention spans. Numerous

external factors that can potentially cause disturbance or disruption to the

goalkeeper during game situations include: the crowd, the weather, a mistake by

a teammate, and lengthy periods of time without seeing the ball. It is essential

for the goalkeeper not to allow external factors to have detrimental implications

on their performance, especially when these factors are out of the goalkeeper’s


The goalkeeper can incorporate intervention strategies that may enable

themselves to recognise when their concentration is diminishing, consisting

of reminders that will instantly reinstate their concentration. For example,

the goalkeeper can immediately take a deep breath, tell themselves a word

like ‘concentrate!’ combined with a physical reminder, for instance, a single clap,

or a tap of their boot. However, the action should take place at a time where it

does not hinder the performance of the goalkeeper, potentially when the ball

is far away from the defending goal, and the goalkeeper has a few seconds to

perform the reminders, not allowing the action to become detrimental to the

performance, or obsessively performed by the goalkeeper. At this stage, and only

on completion of the reminder (physical or psychological), the goalkeeper’s focus

should be reinstated, without any disturbance or disruption to their performance.

Furthermore, goalkeepers within the professional game have been known to

separate a 90-minute game into different periods, for example, 3 X 30-minute

periods, with the aim of achieving a clean sheet within the individual period.

Several key ingredients can be drawn upon to provide the goalkeeper with ‘mental

toughness’, for example, mental toughness can be a measure of the goalkeeper’s

concentration, self-confidence, use of imagery/visualisation, ability to deal

with pressure or setbacks, motivation, and positive and negative energy control.

As previously mentioned, the use of analysis, imagery/visualisation, positive

reminders/reinforcements, and the assistance of a goalkeeper coach will all

contribute to enhancing ‘mental toughness’. Additionally, basing your game on

a goalkeeper or performer you admire may also have a positive influence on

performance. For example, whenever former Estonian international goalkeeper

Mart Poom felt as though he lacked self-confidence, he would model his game on

his hero, Peter Schmeichel, placing himself in the shoes (or gloves) of the great

Dane to enhance his self-confidence.

5. What are some common self-defeating mindsets you encounter and how can goalkeepers conquer them?

Largely, the most negative mindset of the goalkeeper can be associated with

their personal attitude or approach to goalkeeping. Negative thoughts, disbelief

in ability, poor preparation and mindset, are all detrimental to performance.

The key method in conquering these negative associations is for the goalkeeper

to take ownership of their own development, and to change their mindset and

approach into positive outcomes. The potential of the individual goalkeeper

cannot be measured, so the goalkeeper must do everything in their power to train

relentlessly, think positively, and evaluate/analyse their performance in training

and game situations.

It is essential for the goalkeeper to discover their ‘winning formula’, and

approach to goalkeeping. If the goalkeeper was to work on every possible facet

of goalkeeping, the result or outcome could be limitless. For example, regular

technical/tactical training (shot-stopping, distribution, dealing with crosses,

etc), physiological development (flexibility, power output, agility, reaction

time, hydration/nutrition, etc), psychological development (pre-game routines,

imagery/visualisation, positive reminders/reinforcements, etc), combined with

regular evaluation and analysis of performance.

If the goalkeeper applies a holistic approach to their own development, they will

experience positive outcomes, leading to enhanced performance, however, it is

essential not to over-analyse or get caught up in the details, as despite the endless

potential for the goalkeeper to develop, it is still essential for the goalkeeper to

establish their love for the position, and approach every game and training session

with the enthusiasm and enjoyment they had when they donned their first pair of

Reush or Sondico goalkeeper gloves.

The original interview can be found here