Updated: Apr 26
Fear is one of the most crippling feelings to experience as a goalkeeper. I can remember before games, I would sit in the changing room and play a thousand situations in my head over and over again before I had even stepped out onto the pitch.
I could see myself coming and dropping a cross.
I could see myself taking a bad touch and getting closed down by the forward.
I could see myself rushing out to sweep-up and misjudging the bounce of the ball.
I was crippled with fearful thoughts.
I began to feel anxious and nervous about the 90 minutes ahead. At times, I would even question whether I wanted to play in the game because the idea of the game being cancelled or called off seemed more appealing than living through the next 90 minutes.
I can even remember one game when I was an U14 where we were due to play Millwall FC at home, where I celebrate the game being cancelled due to a frozen pitch.
Why was I celebrating a game being called off?
There’s only one answer:
The feelings of fear and anxiety have the ability to completely change your perception of the game. They can turn the sport you once loved into your worst nightmare, to the point where performing becomes more of a burden versus something to look forward to.
If this is you…
You are not alone.
I’ve been lucky enough to work with hundreds of professional, semi-professional, academy and grassroots players over my career and nearly all of them had some level of fear or anxiety in their game.
For goalkeepers, this becomes an increasingly significant factor in performance given the nature of the position and the amount of responsibility you hold on the pitch.
The feeling of fear can lead you to play a number of situations in your head in prediction of what might go wrong in the game.
When we experience fear, the brains automatic response is to avoid doing actions that may lead to the fear or prediction coming true. We engage in what are called ‘avoidance behaviours’.
Take crossing situations for example…
If you are scared of coming for crosses in fear of dropping the ball, I know without having see you play that you’ll more than likely:
1. Have a deeper starting position
2. Pray for the ball to land as far away from you as possible in your head
3. Shout away before you have even assessed the flight of the ball
4. Take a less active role in organising those around you
These are all classic avoidance behaviours for goalkeepers because our minds are telling us that these are the safer options to avoid making a mistake.
Human beings have developed these behaviours over thousands of years because they improved our survival chances in the wild. Think of cavemen for a moment – if they didn’t have a strong ability to avoid threats and danger, they wouldn’t live for very long...so over many years, they learned how to avoid danger through engaging in behaviours that allowed them to avoid threats in the wild.
The problem is that with goalkeeping you cannot afford to go into matches whilst engaging in avoidance behaviours…
You have to have an aggressive starting position to deal with crosses
You have to play high to sweep up behind
You have to take some risks to play through the press
You have to find a way of being comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Overcoming your fears and entering matches with the confidence that you can deliver under pressure is a challenging skill to master. So here’s three simple yet highly effective techniques that I've used successfully to help goalkeepers overcome fear:
1. Focus on the Opportunities
When I was 18 years old and had just been released by Stevenage Football Club, the drop into non-league was huge for me because it was the first time in my career that I was actually playing for results that meant something.
While some may have thrived under the pressure, I saw it as one of the most psychologically challenging situations I had faced in my career.
While preparing for the game during the week, all I could think about was how much it meant to deliver 3 points on the weekend.
I would think about how much it meant to the fans
How much it meant to the manager
How embarrassing it would be if I was the reason we didn’t succeed as a team
How a bad performance would cost me my place in the team
In other words:
I was seeing all the threats of the situation as opposed to the opportunities:
It was a chance to test my skills under pressure
It was a chance to play in front of a decent crowd
It was a chance to play senior men’s football which I needed for my development
When the brain feels under pressure, it focuses on the threats. This is a huge issue because when we focus on the threats, we are far more likely to engage in those avoidance behaviours I have mentioned above.
But, why don’t we focus on the challenges and the opportunities of the situation?
Whenever I work with players and we talk about fear and anxiety, one of the first things we discuss is why we play the game in the first place.
If you think back to when you were a kid, nearly all of us play football because we enjoy the sport.
We enjoyed rolling around in the mud.
We enjoyed being part of the action
We wanted to be involved in the game
We saw matches as the opportunity to play and compete
Why is it that as soon as you have a league table, results and some shouting fans and a manager that all of that needs to change?
The honest answer: It doesn’t.
If you focus on the opportunities and see games as a challenge to be enjoyed, you’ll have a much better chance of accessing your best.
So the next time you worry about making a mistake, or have fears over an important match, just remember that amongst all the emotion, there is an opportunity to be great.
Find that reason, focus on it and deliver.
2. Stop Caring so much - it's just a game
Another key reason why goalkeepers and players struggle to deal with their fear and anxiety is because they care way too much about performing well and the outcome of the game.
I know this to be true because when I start my work with goalkeepers as part of my masterclass programme and ask them what their goal is every time they walk out onto the pitch, 85% of them say they want to keep a clean sheet and produce heroic performances that win their team the game…
They care a lot about how they perform, and expect themselves to be producing 9/10 performances every single week.
The problem with expecting too much of yourself is that you become overly invested in the outcome of the game. You place emphasis on winning, performing well and the results table.
The more you care, the more you have to lose. Period.
Let me explain…
If you go into a match and you are purely focused on how well you play and attempt to get through the game without making a mistake, all your actions in the game will be focused on avoiding mistakes vs performing the way you normally do when you are at your best.
If you place less emphasis on being perfect and trying to play the perfect game, your actions and thoughts will follow.
Setting realistic and relatively controllable goals for your performance is crucial to deal with fear.
This is because setting high performance goals makes your brain believe that you have to live up to these performance goals, and if you don't reach those levels, you experience somewhat of a mental catastrophe - hence why you always hear the cliche "control the controllables"
I love that expression, but I think we need to take it further to get value out of it in order to deal with fear...
What is actually in your control as a goalkeeper?
The nature of the shots you face?
A Clean Sheet?
A world Class save?
Actions are the most controllable aspect of your game as a goalkeeper because you have the power and free will to control how you behave on the pitch.
Focus on being actions that you normally are when at your best:
Positive – with your decision-making and start positions
Loud – with your communication and organisation
Confident – in your body language and actions
Shifting the focus from the outcome of performance to controllable processes can make the game seem more manageable to the mind. The mind likes to deal with as little information as possible, so keeping it simple by having actions you can focus on will allow you to perform at your best and control your nerves/anxiety with greater ease.
Find your winning formula and stick with it.
3. Change your view of nerves and anxiety
A key thing that prevents goalkeepers and players from overcoming their fear and anxiety, is the way they view it and respond to it.
When we have negative thoughts and feelings before a game, those that view nerves and anxiety as a 'massive issue' enter a cycle of negative thinking which makes them even more nervous.
They begin to think about potential situations in their head, visualising the negative outcomes and suddenly, the average nerves they were experiencing before escalate into something more significant.
In other words, by viewing nerves and fear as a problem before performance, they actually get worse.
A great way to deal with nerves before a game or in general is to change the way you view nerves in the first place.
Rather than seeing nerves as a significant issue before you go and perform, what’s stopping you from seeing them as your body and mind telling you that you are prepared to perform?
In fact, that’s exactly what nerves and anxiety are: They are your brains response to prepare you mentally and physically for performance!
The way you know this to be true is scientific. When you get nervous:
Your breathing rate increases – increasing the oxygen supply to muscles and the brain
Your heart rate increases – increasing blood supply to deliver the oxygen
Adrenaline is released – increasing alertness and reactions
Ever had those butterflies? I have!
When you break it down logically, getting nervous before games is just your brain telling you that you body and mind are ready to perform! The key to performing under these conditions is to ensure that they don’t get so high to the point where they become debilitating to your performance.
All the top athletes in the world across all sports get some form of nerves before they go out to perform. The difference between those that thrive and those that crumble is:
1. The top athletes have a good gauge of how they feel before competition
2. The top athletes see nerves as a sign of readiness to perform
3. The top athletes use breathing techniques and mental skills to control their nerves
By simply changing the way you view nerves, you can change the way your mind and body responds to them pre/during performance.
Nerves are a facilitator of performance. Treat them as your friend and they will work for you rather than against you.
My Final Thoughts
While there are many different ways to deal with fear as a goalkeeper, these are three basic techniques that the goalkeepers I have worked with have gained success from.
For me, dealing with fear and anxiety is perhaps the most important skill you can learn because both in sport and life, there will always be situations you find uncomfortable.
It is one of the most crippling emotions you can experience on the pitch, and there are countless examples of how truly expert performers break down during performance because of fear and anxiety.
Sport is a strange world that seems to emphasise the importance of being technically, tactically and physically equipped, whilst completely ignoring the psychological side of the game.
You’ll hear managers constantly talking about their teams being ‘confident’ and making great ‘decisions’.
So why are we so keen to train everything but the mental side of the game?
I’ve been on both sides of the fence as a player and now a person working in elite sport.
I say it to literally every person I talk to about mindset and psychology – if players invested in their mental game and understood how their mind works, they would have a far better chance of forging and sustaining a career in the game.
It’s a growing phenomenon in the world of sport and the top athletes are all working with psychologists.
The question is:
What are you willing to do to get ahead of the rest?
For information on how sport psychology and mindset can raise your game, click here.
For insight into those that have worked with us at the pinnacle of professional sport, click here.
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