‘It’s an isolated position and it really needs specialised psychology,’ wrote former Scotland manager Gordan Strachan on goalkeeping in 2004. 

The most obvious mental challenge that ‘keepers face is the big, goal-conceding mistake that thrusts them into the limelight cast by pundits and social media experts alike. So, how can a goalkeeper be coached back from the worst-case scenario setback? Or, should they already have the mental foundations in place from psychologists? What’s more, how do they deal with the unique trials and tribulations of their position: being a No.2 or even No.3, feelings of isolation from outfield players and the evolution of goalkeeping?

The use of psychology within other sports has been on the rise since the early 2000s: psychiatrist Dr. Steve Peters began his highly-publicised work for British cycling in 2001. So is football late to the game in using psychology as a tool for improvement?

“There’s been for some time a lot of sports psyche at academy level, I think more and more they are going to be at first-team level,” says Dan Abrahams, sports psychologist renowned for his work with teams such as AFC Bournemouth, England Rugby and England Golf to name just a few. “Jurgen Klopp after winning the Champions League brought in a sports psyche to work three days a week there.”

While goalkeeper coaches, mostly ex-goalkeepers who understand the stresses and strains of the position, have almost become part-coach, part-psychologist for their ‘keepers since their introduction around 30 years ago. “Probably the bigger part of my job, than just coaching somebody and teaching them the basic fundamentals and how to become a professional goalkeeper, is the psychological side of it,” says Andy Marshall, Charlton Athletic’s goalkeeping coach and ex-professional goalkeeper.

Andy says his experience playing for teams like Norwich City, Ipswich Town and Milwall was a world away from that of the current crop of goalkeepers in English football. “From when I first started… 34 years ago the outlook of goalkeeping has completely changed,” he says. “You were literally there as a bit-part player, stuck in the corner to do your own warm-ups, not really included in-game situations, not included in the team situations in training until the end when they wanted to do some shooting at you.”

Whereas now, Andy says the evolution of the position has given keepers extra responsibility alongside more respect as they are valued as an integral part of the squad: “about ten years ago when it first came to light what Pep Guardiola was doing at Barcelona and then more predominantly when he was at Bayern Munich with his inclusion of the goalkeeper as a fundamental player… From that moment the inclusion of goalkeepers and the importance of them has gone through the roof.”

Without reeling off a list of top ten goalkeeper howlers I’m sure a particular image springs to each football fan’s mind. What often isn’t considered though is the process of recovery after being dropped from a high-profile mistake or series of mistakes.

So, how does a goalkeeper recover their confidence, form, and morale to claw their way back to the No.1 spot?

“If I take an example and I look at one of my goalies at Charlton, Dillon Phillips,” says Andy. “Who, last season was an up and down season. First six games (he) wasn’t playing to the standard that myself and Lee Bowyer and the coaching staff wanted him to get to. He felt he was doing better than what he was, but he had a harsh, harsh lesson. He came out of the team, a goalkeeper we had on loan came in, Jed Steer, and it was tough on Dillon.

“Come January he got back in the side, and from that moment when he got back in the side in January 2019, he hasn’t missed a game… That culminated in the end of the season where Dillon played in the play-off final against Sunderland and one of the things that myself and Dillon was always trying to work towards was how to deal with mistakes … Dillon made the biggest mistake on the biggest occasion you could possibly make in the play-off final when the ball went under his foot and into the goal from Naby Sarr (an own-goal from the Charlton defender’s pass back). That put us 1- 0 down against Sunderland.

“It shocked the team and for 15 minutes we were all over the place as a team and then Dillon makes a save 15 minutes after a mistake… Suddenly, the team grows into the game and history will show that we went on and won the game 2-1. His mental approach to this (was): ‘Ok, I’ve made a mistake it’s how I now deal with this and come back from it’.

“As much as it was the team and us winning the game, for me the big turning point in the game, and I’ve said this to many people, was the save he made after 15 minutes because it calmed the whole team down and brought us back on a level footing.”

Dan Abrahams says understanding how benching a player after a mistake will impact them mentally: negatively or positively, is crucial in their recovery from a drop in form. “Some goalkeepers will be grateful for the opportunity to take some time away from being in goal; train, get their focus back,” he says.

“And the others are going to be enormously disappointed straight away and I would say the latter group are the bigger group. That’s where the relationship between the coaching staff and the goalkeeper is really, really important. Having a conversation with that goalkeeper, explaining the situation. Listening to the goalkeeper and what he or she has to say about that mistake… and co-creating a plan with the goalkeeper. A training plan, a mental skills plan that’s what’s required and providing as much support for them as possible.”

Being the No.2 or No.3 goalkeeper requires a unique mental approach because it is the position within a football squad that has the least playing time. Whilst the fabled ‘goalkeepers union’ shows a certain level of comradery and respect between keepers, within a squad, there are still three competing for the one starting position.

How does a keeper stay motivated if they are training in the week and warming the bench at the weekend?

Conor O’Keefe is a 24-year-old professional goalkeeper who made headlines in 2017 when he sent out 48 letters in golden envelopes to Spanish clubs and landed a contract with Fuenlabrada. Now, he is playing in the Gibraltar Premier Division alongside running a successful YouTube channel for aspiring goalkeepers.

Conor O’Keeffe in action

“What I try and do if I find myself as a No.2, I look at it in the fact that because I’m not playing I’ve been given a bit of extra time each week for me to do something else to improve,” says Conor. “Can I do an extra gym session, can I do an extra kicking session, can I do an extra analysis session for example, or an extra sports psychology session… My first time when I was a pro when I was 18, Macclesfield in the Conference (now National League), I was a No.3 for a full year. So my matchday wasn’t a Saturday, my matchday was every day in training.”

While the top level of football is slowly adopting the use of sports psychology, do goalkeepers in the tiers below need more mental training and support?

“It’s probably as close as you get to an individual sport within a team sport, you wear a different kit, you have a different coach you have different rules that only apply to you,” says Conor. “It needs to be understood as a position where people need to have a different perspective and approach than they would with outfield players. I still feel like the mental side of goalkeeping is the last area that’s probably looked at.”

That’s why two seasons ago Conor took the initiative to begin working with Your Athletic Zone, a team of mental strengthening coaches. “I’ve gone from probably having quite inconsistent, very good to very bad performances to consistently performing well which is obviously a trait that’s needed in goalkeepers,” he says.

What mental techniques can goalkeepers use to calm nerves, overcome mistakes and improve confidence?

“We do a lot of imagery and visualisation work before a game,” says Conor. “So, I’ll be walking to the stadium and I can feel the weather, I can hear the sound of the crowd… I can see myself either in third person or first person walking out onto the pitch seeing the crowd, seeing the team, shaking hands with the ref, going to my goal. If you have an imagery routine to run through all the senses that you’re going to experience when it comes to having that moment you’re not going to be overwhelmed with adrenaline or with nerves.”

While Dan explains some of the techniques that a goalkeeper can use to maintain their confidence and composure during a match after making a mistake. “If you feel very flat and down and despondent about a mistake you’ve made often that despondency is embodied,” he says. “That’s where having the capacity to say use the psychological technique called self-talk is important. To be able to utilise your body language in terms of how you hold yourself…So a very basic thing is to be able to shift your body in the moment, all your internal feelings, to be able to re-focus back on the game.”

Another of Dan’s go-to techniques is getting his athletes to create what he calls a ‘game-face’. “It is the personality you want to have on the pitch, the attitude you want to portray,” he says. “When you compete there’s a lot of players that really need to come away from there day to day personality and get into a competitive personality… At the moment I work with a goalkeeper who his game face is: brave, confident, Ederson. So if he does make a mistake his self-talk might be ‘come on get back to brave, confident, Ederson’”.

Can football improve how it uses psychology for all players?

The use of psychology across all positions within professional football has grown exponentially since Gordon Strachan’s article in 2004. Yet Dan says that clubs are not using the growing number of psychologists that effectively yet: “what clubs get wrong at the moment is that they bring in a sports psyche… without really knowing how to use that sports psychologist, without really understanding the importance of integrating sports psychology into the day to day practice of coaching and into the day to day processes across the organisation.”

Which in turn leads to many goalkeepers seeking individual psychological support and mental strength training from professionals such as Dan or companies such as Your Athletic in Conor’s case. At lower levels of the game clubs simply don’t have the resources to give their players the same support systems as at the elite level. However, coaches communicating with more clarity and a better understanding of the mentality required to be a goalkeeper is something that can be improved across all levels of football. “They need to find better coaching processes to help goalkeepers become better mentally,” says Dan.

While Andy concludes: “you will make mistakes in football and you will make mistakes as a goalkeeper and as a goalkeeper they will be highlighted so much more. It’s how you deal with (those) mistakes mentally that will make or break you as a professional footballer.”