The weather has not yet appreciably warmed in New York, but we are in full swing after the mid-winter break. Running goalkeeper sessions on windy, zero-degree nights with keepers of all ages and abilities has revealed a very telling pattern: the best keepers don’t complain about the conditions, or any other variables they can’t change. They simply get on with the job. It sounds simplistic, but there’s validity to it.
Being a goalkeeper means accepting the fact that there is a LOT that is beyond your control. You can’t dictate how well your defenders play (although you can certainly help them). You can’t dictate how many goals your team will score, whether the referee has a good game, the condition of the pitch, or the direction of the wind. The list goes on forever. You can only really control your own performance; and dictating that performance is the work you put in at training.
Here’s an anecdote in contrasting approaches I recently witnessed. Goalkeeper A at my club is quiet, serious, and hard-working. He’s also very, very good. Goalkeeper B is talented but casual. He technically fulfills all requirements of every drill and activity, but often in a half-hearted way. They turned up together for a session last week in biting cold. Goalkeeper A made a joke about it, laughed, and got ready to train, while Goalkeeper B made a sour face and said, “It’s too cold,” before reluctantly putting on his gloves.
What’s interesting is that these mid-winter sessions are not mandatory. I run them for keepers looking to stay sharp during the break. If you think it’s too cold and are going to have an attitude about it, stay home. No work is better than negative work.
There is another critical personality factor I find in every exceptional keeper: competitiveness. From time to time, I like to incorporate competition into training, especially when energy levels are flagging. It raises the stakes and more closely represents the psychological and emotional challenges of a game. In a shooting activity, for example, I may challenge them to allow no more than two goals from ten shots. If they succeed, they get to watch me run a series of short sprints. If they fail, they’re the ones doing the running.
The more naturally competitive goalkeepers see games like this as direct challenges, and as a chance to get one over (in a friendly way) on their coach. They dive, they stretch, they lunge, they strain with ever fibre to keep the ball out of the net, just as they need to do in a real game. They celebrate when they win and howl in mock protest when they lose. They also see it as fun, not work, and the stakes for failure are not punishment, but part of the hard work it takes to get better. The more casual keepers treat it as just another part of training, nothing special. There’s something to be said for treating victory and defeat the same, and never getting too high or too low – but not in training. Training has to matter.
I have a friend, a Doctor of Education in Sport Science and Psychology (and also an excellent goalkeeper coach), who is studying the science of mental toughness, or ‘MT.’ Without giving anything away – he’s still in the early stages of research – it appears that MT is not merely subjective, but can be measured. The exciting news is that it can also be improved. A great many coaches and players are going to be interested in his final findings. Imagine being able to train your mental toughness just as surely as you can train your handling and diving technique. Sports psychologists have made great inroads into the study of peak athletic performance, but this MT study is finding there is a physical, biological component to MT. That means even the most advanced psychological training techniques can’t completely account for an athlete’s mental toughness. There may ultimately be a way to ‘exercise’ a goalkeeper’s MT just as surely as we exercise the body.
I believe we’re entering a Golden Age of goalkeeping, where any kid with internet access can get on YouTube and watch videos of Petr Cech, Manuel Neuer, or Hope Solo training, or see masterful goalkeeper sessions from top coaches all over the world. Top clubs are giving young keepers a chance to play. When Manchester United visit Arsenal later this season, the combined age of David De Gea and Wojciech Szczesny, the two goalkeepers, will be 44 – exactly 2 years more than Edwin Van der Sar’s current age. While experienced keepers such as Iker Casillas and Gianluigi Buffon continue to set standards, Joe Hart, Manuel Neuer, and Hugo Lloris are still in the first acts of their careers, while the immensely promising duo Thibaut Courtois of Atletico Madrid and Marc Andre Ter Stegen of Borussia Monchengladbach are both just twenty. The young generation of keepers play with confidence and style. Goalkeeping has never been as ‘cool’ as it is now; the days of sticking the hopeless kid in goal and hoping for the best are long gone.
Specialised goalkeeper training, still somewhat rare at even the professional levels in the 1980s, is common nowadays. Many youth, amateur, and pro clubs at all levels have goalkeeper coaches, while freelance coaches and companies like Just4keepers fill the gap for those that don’t. Young keepers have access to video, sport science, and sport psychology technology that the likes of Ray Clemence and Peter Shilton could have only dreamed of, not to mention the amazing performance of modern gloves. It’s going to pay dividends. We are going to see better and better goalkeepers starting younger, playing longer, and doing things on the pitch we once thought impossible.
It all starts with attitude in training. There are no guarantees, but keepers who accept what they can’t change (like the weather) and work hard at what they can have the best chance of success. Training is how you improve. Embrace it and you’ll be amazed by how fast you progress. You don’t have to like the cold or the rain, but it comes with the territory. And like every other challenge you’ll face, it’s only temporary.
This article was written by Justin Bryant.