Updated: Apr 19
Non-league football is an incredibly challenging environment to navigate as a player due to the unpredictable, results orientated, fast paced nature of the leagues. With a number of academy players dropping down into non-league football without the experience of navigating a men’s dressing room, players need to learn quickly to adapt to the demands of the environment or face dropping down further within the pyramid.
The position of goalkeeper is extremely unique in its nature and presents a completely different set of technical, tactical, physical and psychological demands comparatively to other positions on the pitch. Considering this within the context of non-league football, this can place great psychological strain on young non-league goalkeepers who have little to no experience playing senior football. That is why it is becoming increasingly important for goalkeepers at all levels to be equipped with knowledge about their mindset to deal with the challenges that occur in non-league football.
Speaking from experience, I dropped into non-league football from the academy system at 18. I thought I knew it all and thought I would walk into any non-league team straight away because of my training and playing experiences.
IT WAS A HARSH REALITY CHECK
I think being a goalkeeper in non-league is one of the most challenging jobs in non-league football. So here are some of the lessons I have learned during my time as a performance psychologist and non-league goalkeeper…
1. Drop Your Ego: Games over Levels
This is perhaps the most common thing I see in goalkeepers today. They’re happy to sit on the bench at a higher level as opposed to dropping down a league or two to play a full season of 40+ matches.
If I didn’t admit that I used to be that guy, I’d be the worlds biggest hypocrite…
I used to play for a Step 3 club but I couldn’t get near the first team. The manager offered me a loan move to the league below in order to get some game time, but my ego was too fragile. All I cared about was telling people that ‘I Play for a Step 3 Club’. Did I really play for them? Not really because all I did was watch football whilst others in similar positions progressed because they were playing week-in-week-out albeit at a lower level.
Playing matches matters as a goalkeeper because managers want goalkeepers who are tried and tested. They want goalkeepers who they know have enough experience to get them through a 40-50 game season, and know that they’re going to be a minimum 6/10 in most of those matches. Inexperienced goalkeepers who have a lack of match experience WILL MAKE MISTAKES. If you don’t have first team matches on your footballing CV, you’re setting yourself up for failure.
THE SCIENCE SUPPORT THIS IDEA…
This isn’t just my opinion…The science actually supports this! Two Psychologist by the names of Anders Ericsson and Walter Kintsch developed ‘The Theory of Long-Term Working Memory’ in 1995, which explains that expert performance happens when athletes are able to bypass their ‘working memory’ (the conscious mind) and enter their ‘long-term working memory’ (the unconscious). To simplify this…a goalkeeper who has 100+ matches under their belt will be far better at reading a strikers body shape than someone who has not played because their brain can respond faster and more efficiently to the stimulus. In fact, it’s because of this reason that professional clubs who have promising young goalkeepers send them out on loan to get ‘first team experience’. Clubs aren’t just sending their young goalkeepers out on loan to play football…they’re sending them on loan to play football under the context of pressure in environments which will help them transfer more skills and decisions into long-term working memory.
MY ADVICE: PRIORITISE YOUR DEVELOPMENT
That season didn’t end well for me. I played 3 matches (all in irrelevant cups) all season and when I went to look for another club, I knew I didn’t have anything to show for my previous year in football. The number of goalkeepers who tell me that they’ve been offered to be a number 2 at Level X knowing that they wont play is rife in non-league football. If you’re serious about climbing the ladder and forging a career…
DROP YOUR EGO AND GO PLAY GAMES
2. An Unprofessional Environment Requires a Professional Approach
Non-league football clubs are often constrained by financial limitations that professional clubs do not have to contend with. This often means that the training environment can appear unprofessional, with many clubs being unable to afford a goalkeeping coach, physiotherapist, sport scientist and dare I say performance psychologist.
Despite a lack of holistic support available within most non-league clubs, the expectation is still the same:
Perform or be replaced.
This means that players operating in this environment need to find other ways to make marginal gains that they may not have considered before…
I can speak from personal experience – leaving the academy system at 18 and dropping into non-league football was a huge culture shock. I had to wash my own kit, clean my own equipment, bring my own drinks, even at times had to create my own gym programme.
As a good friend of mine Nathan Ashmore puts it:
“When you’re at the bottom of the pyramid, its cold showers, and sandwiches. Every level you climb, the showers get a little bit warmer and you might get a hot meal eventually after a game.”
While you eventually notice how much of a difference these things make on your overall performance as a goalkeeper, the one thing I really struggled with was the lack of goalkeeper training. Don’t get me wrong, we were lucky to even have a goalkeeper coach at our club because I can think of several others that don’t bother investing in the position. However, we only had two short 20 minute sessions a week. Whilst I was in the system, we’d get an hour a day 4 days a week…
I felt sluggish. I didn’t feel sharp. I lacked confidence in my ability. I didn’t trust my hands. I needed another way to feel good about myself on a football pitch. I needed to find a way to be a high-performer without having access to the things that would make me one.
I had to go out and find an external goalkeeping coach to get more sessions. I had to change the way that I fuelled my body from a nutrition perspective. I had to change the way I slept because training was in the evening and not during the day anymore. I had to make sure I was fuelled because I began to work and study during the day. In essence, I had to become more professional that I was the year before because I had to contend with more factors that could hinder my performance.
It was a huge challenge
Research into organisational cultures indicates that the environment in which players operate have a huge impact on their behaviour and performance. The trouble is, if your operating in an environment that doesn’t appear to be professional, you don’t have the option to not be professional in your approach or you risk being replaced.
MY ADVICE: CREATE YOUR WINNING FORMULA
My advice on this point is to develop an understanding of what works for you. Each goalkeeper will have their own unique method for preparing the week of a match and its about finding a formulate that works best for you. Cover all aspects of performance: sleep, nutrition, gym work, recovery, training, goalkeeper training, tactical work. If you’re professional in your approach, you’re ahead of 80% of the players at your level before you even walk onto the pitch. There isn’t a quick solution to this point. It’s going to take lots of reflection and evaluation to find your winning formula. Be patient. Understand that this is part of your development journey. One you have your formula, be consistent and trust it.
3. Stop Chasing Perfection
One of the things I really used to struggle with as a goalkeeper was trying to be perfect all the time. After leaving the academy system and dropping down into non-league, I still had the ‘Academy Bug’; that everything had to be completely perfect or it was deemed a failure. I can remember playing in pre-season matches where I would get frustrated about kicking the ball out of play. Not catching shots in and around the goal, and making saves which didn’t feel clean or perfect. While I thought I was thinking the right way, ultimately, I was just putting so much pressure on myself every week.
It got so bad that there were some games where I would make a number of saves and if I made one minor error (even if it didn’t lead to a goal), I would view the entire match as a bad game. This then progressed to the point where if I conceded a goal, I would blame myself even if it was in the top corner and completely un-saveable. In short:
I WAS EXPECTING TOO MUCH OF MYSELF AND CHASING PERFECTION
This is one of the most common things I see with non-league goalkeepers today. They believe that in order to climb the ladder, the need to be perfect. They need to look the part in case someone is watching. They need to have pinpoint distribution, catch everything around the goal, and make saves where everyone in the ground go: “How the hell did he save that?!”. Don’t get me wrong, doing those things can help you climb the ladder. They can make you stand out against other goalkeepers in the league…but the reality is:
GOALKEEPING ISN’T A GAME OF PERFECT
I’ve sat down with so many managers and discussed what they want from the goalkeepers at non-league level. Of course, they want a goalkeeper who can kick it a mile, come for crosses and makes saves…but interestingly, none of them said they have to be perfect (I can think of a few who do, mind you…). They recognise that goalkeepers in non-league are going to make mistakes. What managers actually want is a goalkeeper who is going to be a 6 or 7 out of 10 for 50 games a season. Someone who may make a mistake now and again, but generally they can rely on and know exactly what they’re going to get week-in-week-out.
After reflecting on these conversations, it began to make sense to me. I remember my time at Wycombe Wanderers where Nikki Bull was the number 1. This is a guy who has played 500+ league matches in his career from the conference to league 1. He won’t mind me saying this (I hope!)… Was he always perfect in matches? No. Did his saves look tidy? No. Was his kicking extremely accurate? No! He was the most perfect imperfect goalkeeper I had ever seen. He bailed the team out more times than I can remember…and yet he never cared what he looked like to the outside world. He was eventually voted the league’s goalkeeper of the year.
MY ADVICE: IMPERFECTION IS PERFECTION
Goalkeeping isn’t a science. There is no right or wrong method to save a football. We become so self-consumed about making pretty saves, catching everything and looking great on the eye that we often forget the fundamental purpose of goalkeepers: TO KEEP THE BALL OUT OF THE NET. It doesn’t matter how you do it, as long as the ball isn’t in the back of the net, you have done your job. In order to reframe your idea of what the ideal game looks like, you first need to change your expectations. We are all at this level for a reason. We’re not perfect. The guys at the pinnacle of the game are not perfect. So why would you expect yourself to be? Accept that you’re going to make mistakes. Accept that you’re not always going to make the perfect save. Then you will be able to play with a freedom that allows you to achieve high-performance.
4. Expect the Unexpected – Managers are always looking to upgrade
While in academies you often have the security of a 1 year contract, non-league football is a different game altogether. Most players are only registered to play for their respective clubs, which makes the market for players extremely volatile. This is something completely new to most goalkeepers experiencing non-league for the first time because they believe that once they have registered for a club, they are going to be the number 1 for the season.
I can speak from experience. I have played for managers who have promised me the number one shirt. You train and play matches through the whole of pre-season, putting in a string of solid performances only to find that prior to the first league game, the manager has brought in another goalkeeper. This is often done without explanation or warning.
The same happens mid-season when team performances take a turn for the worst. I can remember a number of times where I have played in teams who have gone through a 4-5 game wobble. Without any logic, reason or analysis, the first thing the manager will look to change is the goalkeeper to, I quote: “freshen things up”.
The moral of these two scenarios is:
IT DOESN’T MATTER HOW GOOD YOU ARE. YOU ARE ALWAYS REPLACEABLE
For a number of years, this always came as a shock to me. It really affected me because I went into matches feeling vulnerable and replaceable which really didn’t help my confidence. I played to avoid mistakes as opposed to playing for high-performance. It made me do things in matches that I had never done before.
It’s understandable for younger goalkeepers to go through this early on in their non-league career because young players are always out to impress. They take decisions and criticism to heart, and when they aren’t communicated to, it can be soul destroying.
The number of goalkeepers I have spoken to who have been dropped after one mistake, or have been replaced without a conversation with the manager is frightening. But as I always say, you can’t control a manager’s thoughts or actions…no matter how illogical, unfair or flawed their decision is. What you can control is how you respond to it, and how you mentally prepare for the unexpected to happen.
MY ADVICE: ACCEPTANCE IS YOUR BEST FRIEND
A great way to overcome the fear of being replaced or dropped is to accept that at some stage, it will happen. Ultimately, there is going to be a time in your non-league career where a manager just doesn’t fancy you. Most of the time, you won’t even get an explanation as to why…That’s why it is important to mentally prepare yourself for a setback, so when it does happen, it doesn’t feel like a complete catastrophe to you.
It's like mistakes – If you constantly fear mistakes and hope they never happen to you, when they do happen, they feel even worse than when you’ve accepted that they might occur. Being proactive in your approach to the unexpected situations and events is the best way to navigate the uncertainty of non-league football.
5. Remember the reasons why you’re doing this
It has taken me 7 years to understand why I play non-league football. The mission has always changed dependant on where I have been in my career, and like many of you reading this, your motivation to play at this level will forever change. It started by trying to make my way back into the club system through climbing the ladder. I had a dream that I would get re-signed by a professional club by playing a high level of non-league football…
Slowly but surely, life and work takeover. For some of you, your interests will shift and you will find comfort at your level with a successful career away from football to go alongside. For others, there will constantly be a burning desire to continue to climb and play as high as possible and potentially get back into the professional game. Everyone has their own story.
Despite having a goal in mind that you want to achieve, it is important to remember why you’re doing this in the first place. I, for a long time ignored the ‘why’ and just played for the sake of playing. It didn’t help my performances and at times, my commitment suffered as a consequence.
If I could turn back time, I would make my soul focus of playing non-league football to enjoy the pressure that comes with performance, but to focus on the enjoyment aspect of being able to compete week-in-week-out. I think we become so obsessed with performance that we often forget to enjoy ourselves in the process.
MY ADVICE: REFLECT, REFLECT, REFLECT
Understanding and reflecting on your WHY is perhaps the most important part of this process, because without understanding what motivates you to train after a hard days work, or sacrifice your entire weekend travelling to games, you will find yourself drifting through the season without ever reaching your peak performance. Your WHY is central to your performance because it allows your brain to take control over the controllables. It motivates you to invest in your game through further coaching, having a better diet, getting more sleep and ultimately, committing more towards your performance.
MY FINAL THOUGHTS
Non-league football is a challenging environment that will test the level of passion you have for the game. It will throw every possible scenario your way both on and off the pitch, and will often make you question your motivations and desire to persist with playing football at this level. By gaining control of your mind, you can navigate these situations with greater clarity, allowing you to enjoy your non-league journey to the fullest whilst maximising your performance simultaneously. Remember why you’re doing this. Have a goal in mind and do everything in your control to get there.
If you want to find out more about how mental skills and mindset training could benefit your goalkeeping performances, feel free to get in touch via the contact page. For more insight from the Pro's I've worked with, feel free to check out the testimonials page.