Building Confidence in young Goalkeepers

Building confidence in young Goalkeepers.

“To risk life and limb and subject oneself to the ridicule that follows in hot pursuit of any silly error demands a special sort of courage and confidence” – Bob Wilson, (Arsenal Goalkeeper 1963-1974).

The importance of the mental aspect of being a goalkeeper has been universally recognized. But it takes a long time for a young goalkeeper to feel truly comfortable with his skills, and to understand the responsibilities that the role requires. As a coach, it is our responsibility to integrate this facet of the position into the training program as early as possible.

Knowledge and Understanding breed Confidence.

“You have to have fun. Once you work hard and do everything you can, the result is irrelevant. The key is to have conviction that what you are doing is the right thing.” – Ivan Lendl (Former #1 ranked tennis player and 8 time Grand Slam winner).

There are two very important statements in this Ivan Lendl quote. The first one is that you have to have fun. That doesn’t mean that you have to walk around with a huge grin on your face all the time, but it does mean that you have to enjoy being a keeper, that you are on the practice field because you want to be there, because you want to get better, not because your calendar says that practice is from 3 to 5.

The other important statement is that, not only should you have the confidence that you can do the job, you have to know that what you’re doing is right. So not only does a goalkeeper have to know where to position himself in relation to the ball, but he also has to know why he has to stand in that particular position and understand the reasoning behind this.

This understanding is crucial for a keeper to remain confident in the face of adversity. It is easy being confident when everything is going right. The difficult thing is remaining confident when you give up a goal, even if you are doing everything right.  But if you are 100% sure that what you did was the right thing, you can accept the fact that sometimes things don’t go your way, and remain confident.

Dennis Bergkamp once stated that he likes to curl the ball in the far corner because that is the most logical thing to do if the goalkeeper is positioned correctly. You can drill the ball right at the keeper and hope he makes an error but if you can curl it around him, the keeper has very little chance to make the save.

This is solid logic on the part of the Dutch striker. And it leaves goalkeepers with an apparent dilemma. Should you still cover the short corner, knowing that Dennis is going to curl the ball to the far post. The answer, of course, is a resounding yes. Because if you leave the near post, you give up the easy shot that anybody can take. By staying there, you take away the easy option and force the striker to take the difficult shot. Thankfully for goalkeepers – but unfortunately for football fans – there are only very few Bergkamp quality players in the world.  But even if you did give up a goal on a shot like that, your knowledge will tell you (or should tell you!) that what you did was the right thing, that you were beaten on a great shot and that by sticking with your position you have prevented many more goals than you have surrendered. “Once you work hard and do everything you can, the result is irrelevant”.

The knowledge which is at the core of this confidence cannot be gained only from games. It begins in practice. Coaches have to teach the position, not just the mechanical skills that are part of the position. Repetition and communication are key in achieving that.

Repetition and Communication.

Pressure is something you feel when you don’t know what the hell you’re doing.”  ― Peyton Manning (Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos QB)

Good players practice until they get it right. Great players practice until they never get it wrong. For a keeper, repetition is crucial. Not just for the muscle memory that it provides but also because it reinforces the knowledge that he has the understanding of the game to be in the right place, at the right time to take the right action to keep the ball out of the net. Or in Lendl’s words: “The conviction that what you are doing is the right thing”

Communication and discussion are crucial in teaching a goalkeeper the intricacies of the position. In most instances, there is more than one correct way to get the job done.  Sometimes it comes down to personal preference, sometimes there are other concerns that make you favor one approach over another. Telling a young goalkeeper to do something a certain way “because I said so” doesn’t teach him anything. Explaining why you want him to perform a certain action does. Explaining why different professional goalkeepers sometimes have different techniques helps a young keeper understand the thought process behind their decision making which in turn helps him develop his own style

For instance, if a goalkeeper asks why he was told not to come out for crosses outside the 6 yard box while Buffon does it all the time, a coach has to tell him that it is because Buffon is 6’3” and has been playing for decades while the goalie is 12 years old, 5’4”, and in his first season as a keeper. A question like that would be a good point to begin explaining how a goalkeeper’s physical attributes are among the factors determining a keeper’s playing style which in turn would be a good starting point in discussing with the player what his strengths and weaknesses are.

Finally, knowing what the right thing to do is also aids a goalkeeper in putting an error behind him. If you know what you did wrong (or even if you did something wrong to begin with), and know how to fix it, you will be able to tell yourself that this will not happen again, and believe it. An added benefit is that seeing their goalkeeper maintain his confidence and poise after making an error has a calming effect on the rest of the team.

No Pressure, No Diamonds

Football’s not pressure; it’s fun. If you want to heap the pressure on, then that’s you as an individual. But you play football as a game – Brad Friedel (Liverpool, Blackburn, Aston Villa, Tottenham and US MNT GK)

A professional goalkeeper like Friedel will have to deal with a few thousand people standing just behind his office, throwing a variety of objects while loudly questioning the purity of his father’s heritage or the marital fidelity of his mom. And although high school age goalkeepers play in front of much smaller crowd, the knowledge that the spectators are often family, friends, peers and students from a rival school can be quite daunting for a teenager.

Whatever the situation, at its core pressure is a self-inflicted state of mind, caused by a keeper’s fear of the consequences, either real or perceived, associated with failing to make the save and giving up a goal The mechanics required to make a save don’t change. The underlying physics don’t change. The only thing that changes is what’s going on between a keeper’s ears.

This mental state is not something that can be truly replicated in practice, because you can’t accurately recreate such a game environment You could try throwing hand grenades at a keeper during practice and it still wouldn’t be the same because the worse thing that could happen in that case would be merely death, while a goalkeeper who gives up a crucial goal has to live with that knowledge for the rest of his life whether he is at fault or not (something experienced by goalkeepers from Brazil’s Moacir Barbosa to England’s Robert Green).

But if pressure is self-induced it causes a bit of a Catch-22 situation.  You can relieve pressure by not caring so much about the outcome, but if you wouldn’t care so much, you would not be playing to begin with. And since good goalkeepers care, about their performance, there will always be at least some pressure on them. That’s where the “special sort of courage and confidence” mentioned by Bob Wilson comes in. A goalkeeper has to have the courage to face the fears that are the underlying cause of the pressure he is feeling. Fear can cause self-doubt, which can lead to a loss of focus, which in turn causes can cause a loss of confidence. So not knowing or understanding how to deal with pressure can cause a downward spiral. The way out of this spin is by limiting the amount of pressure you put on yourself, and force yourself to concentrate only on what’s happening in front of you, right now.

Swedish tennis star Bjorn Borg once stated that his greatest strength was his ability to forget about bad shots almost immediately, instead choosing to concentrate on the next point. This is something goalkeepers should try to do as well, and their coaches have to help them achieve that goal. So what to do if your keeper is not blessed with the short-term memory capacity of a Golden Retriever, and instead tends to dwell on his mistakes, however small? Include drills in your training program that force a keeper to maintain his focus and increase his mental strength. One technique I found particular useful is never allowing a drill to end with a goal or a dropped ball. If a goalkeeper gives up a goal on the last shot of the drill, continue until he makes (at least) one save, forcing him to keep his concentration level up and continue, rather than allow him to dwell on the error. By doing this on every drill, it slowly becomes a habit.

Once a goalkeeper has the mental strength to deal with pressure, it will be possible for him to become a diamond.

Set high, but achievable, goals.

It has been my experience that dedicated goalkeepers are much harder on themselves than their coach could ever be. Some of this is no doubt due to the fact that a goalkeeper has immediate feedback on his actions: if the ball ends up in the net, something went wrong. My acid test for evaluating a goalkeeper consists of noting whether or not he gets irked when giving up goals in practice, even during finishing drills. The truly motivated ones hate giving up goals, whether in practice or in a game. Which means that yelling at them during a game for making a mistake or giving up a goal is not going to do anything except destroy their confidence, since they’re already down on themselves for making a mistake in the first place.

That doesn’t mean that a goalkeeper should be coddled or given a free pass every time he makes an error. It does mean that performance should be evaluated in a calm, unemotional environment, not during or right after the match. Analyze what went wrong, why it went wrong, and how this can be fixed. Then design training sessions so that any deficiencies or shortcomings are addressed and demand that the goalkeeper performs the drill at the appropriate performance level. In this environment, the keeper knows exactly what is expected of him.

What I mean by that is that you wouldn’t expect a 10-year old girl to perform a drill at the same level that Brad Friedel does it. Asking players to do things that they aren’t yet ready for is counterproductive. Demanding such a thing only lessens a coach’s credibility while frustrating the player. But practice should force a keeper to perform at the peak of his or her ability. You have to set the standards at a high, but achievable, level. The pressure comes from him attempting to meet those expectations. Confidence comes when the keepers manages to meet the expectations. In a drill, perfection should always be just one save away.

A coach’s “bedside manner” matters. Every goalkeeper’s personality is different. Each individual deals in a different way with pressure, and how it affects their confidence. Which means there cannot be a “one size fits all” approach. Figuring out what approach works best with a particular goalkeeper is a very difficult, but crucial, part of the goalkeeper coach’s job.


“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.” Sun Tzu, The Art of War.

Knowledge and Understanding breed Confidence. Confidence allows a goalkeeper to deal with pressure. Therefore knowledge is essential to a goalkeeper’s ability to perform under pressure. It is a coach’s responsibility to teach that knowledge through repetition and communication, and increase confidence by setting high, but achievable, goals for each drill and training session. The manner in which that knowledge is taught has to be custom fit for each individual goalkeeper, especially in the modern environment where coaches and players often come from a variety of nationalities and/or social backgrounds and have often grown up with wildly different playing philosophies.

About Coach Johan

I was born and raised in the Netherlands, and have been playing "real football" since I was old enough to identify a ball. Currently residing in Maryland, I hold USSF “D” and NSCAA “National” Goalkeeping coaching licenses, and have been a part-time Assistant / Goalkeeping Coach at the High School, Club, ODP and NCAA Div 1 levels since 1999. When not playing, talking, writing or thinking about football and goalkeeping, I remind airline passengers to keep their seatbelts comfortably fastened around them, in my day job as a pilot for a major US airline. I can be reached at jdevicq at icloud dot com. Please note that I do not do private training or camps
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1 Response to Building Confidence in young Goalkeepers

  1. roy dunshee says:

    a really good article from an excellent GK coach

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