Developing Your Goalkeepers’ Mental Skills

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“You don’t have to be mad to play in goal, but it sure does help”

When I was a young goalkeeper, I heard this quote often, and now that I’m older and wiser, I can definitely say there is some truth to it.

A good goalkeeper is a breed apart and therefore requires some coaching separately from the rest of the team. This needs to occur both during training sessions and during games. Because goalkeepers stand alone in their position, their performance is more visible. For example, outfield players might be able to hide some of their mistakes, but goalkeepers do not have such a luxury since all eyes are on them and the ball when it’s coming their way.

For a goalkeeper to be truly successful, a good self image is required, along with an ability to withstand high pressure situations. Because of the amount of attention on this player’s position, goalkeepers must be able to psychologically overcome their own mistakes as well as any errors that their teammates might make.

You can help your goalkeepers develop a thick skin and the ability to deal with stress and pressure using a system that we call The Three Cs:

Courage, Concentration, and Confidence

Let’s take a look at how The Three Cs can help you help your players.

Courage

Mouth action against goalkeepers can be fast, physical, and intimidating; insults and criticism can overwhelm players that don’t have a great deal of self-esteem or courage, which they can use in situations in which they are being criticized harshly.

Goalkeepers have to be single minded in their pursuit of the ball. At any time during a match a goalkeeper may be required to dive at an opponent’s feet, catch a fast moving ball under pressure from attackers and their own defenders, and do whatever it takes to keep a clean sheet. If a goalkeeper feels insecure or half-hearted, the result could be a goal for the opposing team, or even an injury.

So, goalkeepers need to be instilled with courage: courage to face the ball, their opponents, and their own teammates.

Courage is developed through confidence and by knowing how to refrain from thinking about mistakes or the possibility for error during the game.

Concentration

Concentration is all about focus, and the value of focus cannot be emphasized enough.

A goalkeeper must be intent on the game from the first kick off until the final whistle. Although there are stretches of time when the goalkeeper is more a spectator than a player in the game, their position requires that they stay attuned to the action of the game at all times, even when the ball is at the other end of the field – even when the ball hasn’t entered their immediate area for some time.

As a coach, part of your job is to make sure that the goalkeeper learns how to focus on plays during the game. Goalkeepers must understand that poor focus can lead to silly mistakes as well as both physical and emotional or mental injury.

When goalkeepers get stuck on a mistake, mulling over it endlessly, and obsessing over what should have happened, their attention to the game will only cause yet another mistake. It’s your job to make sure the players know that once a mistake has been made, they need to forget about it for the time being and move on, concentrating on what’s happening in the now, not what happened moments ago. Assessments take place after a match, not before or during!

Here’s a useful saying that helps build concentration and focus on match days: “You play like you practice.”

Also, it’s imperative that during soccer practice and training, you incorporate potential scenarios that a goalkeeper is likely to face during a real matched game. This will help them become better prepared, both mentally and physically, for a wider range of situations.

Confidence

When players are confident, they can perform at optimum levels, and they can relax better in critical situations that require their utmost concentration. You can help your keeper develop confidence by teaching them that they can learn something from every game they play, whether their performance was excellent or poor. Remember that reviews and assessments should only take place after a match, not before or during.

Teach the goalkeepers to focus on strengths and encourage them to talk to you about the things they would do differently next time around whenever they’ve made a mistake.

Know that a confident keeper resonates with the rest of the team. By earning teammates’ trust, a goalkeeper is integral in elevating the entire team’s performance on match days. How does a keeper earn the trust of teammates? Performing well is one way, but this isn’t always feasible.

As the coach, you can help establish trust among the team players through praise, which should take place throughout a match, especially at the halftime talk. Once a match is over, it’s crucial that you communicate a job well done to the team. Every goal scored by an outfield player is a win, and every goal blocked by the keeper is another. Use specific examples of great maneuvers by the goalkeeper so the entire team is reminded of the keeper’s value. Areas that require improvement should be addressed after praise has been given, and should be communicated in a respectful, tactful manner.

I remember a game I played in which I performed terribly during the first half. I made a few mistakes and started feeling the pressure of intimidation by the opposition forwards. During halftime, my coach pulled me aside and reminded me how I’d won many games for my team on different occasions. He told me that the second half of this game marked a clean start, and said that if I performed as I normally do, we could come back and win the match.

He did not point out the mistakes I’d made, or mention the goals that had gone in. He focused on my strengths, and because of his astute coaching skills, our team did indeed come back in the second half of the match and in the end we managed a draw.

Always remember that what you say to your players and how you say it affects the keeper’s performance. Before and during a game, always focus on players’ strengths. Hold off on criticism until a match is over, and always use The Three Cs to help your goalkeeper succeed and flourish.