The Game-changing skill you need: How to Deal with mistakes as a Goalkeeper
Updated: 2 days ago
“Being a goalkeeper is like being the guy in the military the makes the bombs. One mistake and everyone gets blown up.” – Arthur Boruc
The beauty of goalkeeping is that every single person reading this blog, regardless of whether they’re playing in the Premier League or Sunday League, has at some stage had to deal with the trauma of making a mistake.
Even while writing this, memories of some of the many mistakes I have made in my career come flooding back.
Despite goalkeeping being one of the most psychologically demanding positions on the pitch, very little work is done by clubs, goalkeeper coaches and goalkeepers on how to use the brain to drive performance.
It seems crazy to me that we invest so much time training the technical, tactical and physical components of the game, but rarely invest in training our minds to deal with mistakes, overcome fear and play with confidence.
The reality for goalkeepers is that at some stage over the course of a 40+ game season:
YOU ARE GOING TO MAKE A MISTAKE.
It’s an inevitability…so why aren’t goalkeepers taught how to deal with mistakes?
Common phrases I’ve heard from players, coaches and managers say when addressing the goalkeeper after a mistake include:
“Just forget about it”
“It’s done now, move on”
This is normally accompanied but a significant amount of shouting and, depending on your age, swearing.
Yes because that’s going to make everything better…
Did anyone else start to think about the mistake even more than before? Did anyone start to play it in their mind over and over again? I certainly did…
The reality is that when you make a mistake, the memory and thought of the mistake can live long in the mind due to the emotional connection you build to the event. Mistakes can leave small forms of trauma, embarrassment, frustration and a sense of judgement, making them extremely hard to “just forget about”.
The problem with having mistakes linger in the back of your mind is that they make you change the way you think, feel and behave after the event…They make you:
Go quite and not communicate
Avoid being involved in the game
Lose enjoyment for the occasion
By changing all of these aspects of your performance and mindset, you’re likely setting yourself up to achieve one thing:
MAKE MORE MISTAKES
I speak from experience…not being able to deal with mistakes is one of the most crippling mental barriers you can face as a goalkeeper.
This is the factor that separates the high performers from the average performers:
The ability to deal with a setback during performance and return to previous performance levels.
You have a technique for taking a cross…
You have a technique for your goal kicks…
Why don’t you have a technique for dealing with mistakes?
Goalkeepers should have a mental framework to deal with mistakes during a match so they can return to their best performance levels.
It’s the one skill you will inevitably need during your career, but probably haven’t been taught during your football education.
While I understand that everyone is different and that there is no ‘correct method’ to deal with mistakes, here are the 4 main techniques I have successfully used with professional goalkeepers to help them recover from mistakes when performing in front of thousands of people.
1. TALK YOURSELF BACK TO YOUR BEST
Self-talk is the voice inside your head that guides and dictates your thoughts and actions. It’s that voice which motivates you to get through those high-pressure situations when you’re 1-0 up with two minutes to go. It’s also that voice which gives you a telling off when you are below your expected levels of performance.
You’d be surprised at how many of the world’s best goalkeepers engage in self-talk as a skill to recover from mistakes. I’ve see it countless times across the leagues where goalkeepers will say a few words to themselves after a mistake which helps them overcome the embarrassment and trauma associated with the event.
Self-talk helps you switch your focus from the past where the mistake occurred, allowing you to focus on the present and near future. It allows you to cope with the emotions you are experiencing and the mistake itself, giving you control over your future actions by reminding you of the things you should be focusing on during a match.
A great way to begin developing your self-talk is by creating some trigger words or phrases which describe you when you’re playing your best…So for example one professional goalkeeper I worked with described himself as:
Confident – to be involved in the game, be heard on the pitch at all times and be counted for regardless of the situation
Dominant – of his back four and making really clear and simple decisions to bring calm to the team
Aggressive – with his start position to sweet up behind and come to take crosses. Aggressive in the way he strikes the ball when kicking.
After making a mistake which either leads to a goal or comes to nothing, he would go back to these words and say them to himself over and over again: “CONFIDENT, DOMINANT, AGGRESSIVE. BE BRAVE. BE CONFIDENT, DOMINANT, AGGRESSIVE”.
Other goalkeepers I’ve worked with like phrases such as:
“Stay in the game. Stay Vocal”
“Focus on the next 5”
“Stick to the process”
Self-talk is a great technique to help switch your focus away from the mistake and onto thoughts and behaviours you would normally do as if the mistake had never happened.
The key to executing this skill is to pick words and phrases which have deep meaning to you – the reason why this is important is because under the pressure and stress of the game, you need words that mean something or they become superficial and consequently ineffective.
Spend some time reflecting on what you are like when you are at your best. Have a go at creating your own trigger words and repeating them to yourself during training and matches.
Remember to reflect on how effective and meaningful you feel these words are during your training match performances – if they don’t feel like they have meaning, go back to the drawing board and change them!
This is such a simple skill, but when used correctly, can have a profound impact on the way you think, feel, act and ultimately perform after making a mistake.
2. HAVE NON-NEGOTIABLE BEHAVIOURS
While being able to manipulate and control your thinking is a great way to deal with mistakes, being able to manipulate your body language and behaviours can also act as a great tool in overcoming mistakes.
When I was a goalkeeper at Wycombe Wanderers, I was lucky enough to have a goalkeeping coach at every single one of my matches. When I made a mistake, I would look over at him and all he would do was gesture at me to lift my head up and put my shoulders back.
I never understood it at the time because as goalkeepers, when we make a mistake, we just want the ground to swallow us up.
The issue with this is that football and sport waits for no one. You don’t have time to feel sorry for yourself and you don’t have time to show the world that you’re unhappy with yourself!
Few goalkeepers realise that the mind controls the body just as much as the body can control the mind. For example, research has shown that those who show ‘confident body language’ (e.g. Straight back, broad shoulders) activate different areas of the brain in comparison to those who show ‘non-confident body language’ (e.g. lowered shoulders and curved spine). This shows that there is something about body language that impacts the way that you feel and the way that you think.
Non-negotiable behaviours are a technique that I like to use with goalkeepers to give them concrete actions they can do regardless of the events that happen in the game.
All too often, goalkeepers stop communicating, play 5 yards deeper and make safe decisions when things don’t go right for them in matches. Their body language turns negative, they look frustrated and ultimately this just leads them to, you guessed it:
I can relate this this because I remember a game during my scholar where I dropped a basic collapsing save to the centre forward and he scored the rebound. I played the rest of the game in fear of making another mistake and began parrying pretty much every shot that came at me.
When something negative happens in a match, we change our behaviours through fear of the event happening again.
This is why having non-negotiable behaviours is a great way to use the connection between the mind and the body to drive performance. By using specific actions that you would normally do when you’re at your best, you allow the mind to overcome thoughts and feelings associated with the trauma of mistakes.
When asking goalkeepers what some of the non-negotiables could be when they’re performing, common answers are:
Aggressive Start Position
We then create a rule for matches where if they make a mistake, these are the things that they should revert back to. Regardless of what the score is, how bad the mistake was and whatever period the mistake happened in, I should be able to turn up to one of their games as a spectator and see those few things as a minimum requirement.
Non-negotiable’s are simple behaviours that you can go back to in the event that you make a mistake. These are basic but highly effective actions which allow you to switch the focus away from the mistake and onto something that will benefit your performance thereafter; impacting your future decisions by using the relationship between the mind and body.
3. BUILD ACCEPTANCE AROUND MISTAKES
“THE NEXT ONE IS AROUND THE CORNER”
One of my biggest fears as a goalkeeper was the fear of making mistakes. It used to consume me before games.
I can remember one situation during my time at Wycombe Wanderers where we were due to play Millwall FC in a U14 match at Bisham Abbey. It was the first time I was due to play up and age group and I remember constantly telling myself that:
“This is my big opportunity.”
“I cannot afford to make a mistake today.”
I remember it so clearly – it was a late morning game in November and it must have been about 3 degrees outside. I remember waking-up in the morning and praying for the game to be called off. I was hoping that somehow, god could make the pitch frozen, or that a random torrential downpour could waterlog the pitch. I know it sounds crazy but they were just my thoughts at the time…
Pulling into the car park I began to feel nervous. I began to doubt myself. I began to see images in my head of myself making a mistake.
The story I was telling myself was that under no circumstances could I afford to make a mistake.
The reality was that there was a chance I could make a mistake.
I just wasn’t willing to accept it.
In other words:
I was arguing with reality
If you argue with reality and approach a match with the mindset that you can’t afford to make a mistake, and you end up making one, the emotions and thoughts you experience are going to be significantly harder to deal with as opposed to if you accept that a mistake might happen.
Some might say that planning for a mistake is setting yourself up for failure; that if you believe you will make a mistake then it will inevitably happen.
What might be worse is telling yourself that a mistake will never happen, and then when it does, it hits you like a tonne of bricks, meaning you can’t recover during a game.
This used to be me… I would tell myself that I can’t make a mistake…
Eventually, optimism at the opportunity turned to fear. I began to do things in matches to avoid making mistakes as opposed to executing actions and decisions which would normally allow me to high-perform. The thought of making a mistake began to limit my abilities and through a build-up of fear over time and when the mistake came along…I really struggled to cope and process the trauma I was experiencing.
During my playing career, I was fortunate enough to learn from a goalkeeper who has since gone on to play in the Premier League. At the time, he was on loan from a Premier League club playing in the EFL. I asked him a question related to how he deals with thoughts about mistakes…His answer shocked me:
“I prepare as if the next mistake is always around the corner. There is no point in me fighting with reality. At some stage this season, I’m going to make a mistake. It’s inevitable. Rather than fighting the idea of making a mistake, I just accept that it’s there. That way, when it happens, I can embrace it and move on from it quickly.”
Telling yourself that mistakes aren’t going to happen is arguing with reality, because statistically, it is highly probable that you’re going to make a mistake over the course of a 40+ game season. By accepting that a mistake will happen at some stage, when the mistake does actually happen, it will be much easier for you to cope with, process and move on from.
YOUR NEXT MISTAKE IS AROUND THE CORNER. EMBRACE IT!
4. IF YOU DON’T LAUGH, YOU’LL CRY
Let’s be honest, no goalkeeper goes into a match trying to make a mistake. We go into matches trying to be the best version of ourselves. However, given the nature of the position, mistakes are going to happen at some stage during the season.
Now I do recognise that when we make mistakes, often our natural reaction is to be frustrated and upset with ourselves – of course this is normal because the one thing that we don’t want to happen during a game is happening to us.
We are living our nightmare on the pitch in front of people who we believe are critiquing and judging our every action.
I also recognise that sometimes we respond this way because it’s what we have been conditioned to do – over the years of being coached and working with lots of different managers, you build the habit of always having to tell yourself off when you make a mistake so other people don’t have to do it for you.
But why do we need to respond in that way?
What benefit does it serve you to be angry, frustrated and upset with yourself?
You’re going to get that from some managers and players anyway, why give yourself more negativity to process?
When done in the right way, a great technique that some goalkeepers have benefitted from after making mistakes is laughing or smiling.
There is a biological reason for this and the science backs it up!
Smiling and laughing trigger the release of feel-good hormones in the body such as oxytocin, serotonin and dopamine…In other words, smiling or laughing is like giving yourself an energy boost during the game!
Ultimately, the most important benefit of this technique is that these chemicals will replace others such as cortisol (associated with stress), and make managing those negative thoughts much easier.
Now there’s an obvious issue here which might cause some of you to be sceptical:
I CAN’T LAUGH AND SMILE AFTER I’VE MADE A MISTAKE BECAUSE IT MIGHT ANNOY THE PLAYERS AND MANAGER…
Here’s the skill – do it when you have your back turned to everyone. Do it when the game has kicked off again and everyone’s focus is drawn elsewhere!
You need to prioritise your needs - if upsetting a few people is going to help you get the best out of yourself, why wouldn’t you do it anyways?
Laughing and Smiling after mistakes are great techniques to help you overcome the negative emotions associated with making mistakes. They help you reduce stress and increase that feel good factor by manipulating the chemical balance in your brain and body.
While this is a hard skill to master and takes commitment and buy-in to do during the pressure of the game, it can significantly improve your mood and self-esteem during low moments in matches, giving your mind the best possible chance of returning to where it was prior to the mistake happening!
MY FINAL THOUGHTS
Dealing with mistakes is one of the most challenging psychological skills to master as a goalkeeper. The ability to overcome strong emotions, the sense of embarrassment, judgement and disappointment whilst under the pressure of a game even challenges goalkeepers at the very top of the pyramid.
The key reason why goalkeepers struggle to deal with mistakes is because they have no mental framework or plan for when mistakes do happen.
They spend all week preparing the technical, tactical and physical aspects of their performance, but significantly neglect the psychological aspect of the game.
Having a framework and using the skills I’ve described above is no different to working on your handling, building your power in the gym or improving your knowledge of football. It's another aspect of the four corner model which seems to be forgotten in football.
I’ve had this conversation with a number of managers in the football league – one key factor they look for in elite goalkeepers is their ability to recover from mistakes, because the position carries so much responsibility and has so much impact on the outcome of the game.
With the way goalkeeping as a position is developing in the modern game, there are increasing demands placed on the goalkeeper to play out from the back and take greater risks. The growth in football analysis has also meant a greater level of scrutiny is placed on goalkeepers, meaning expectations regarding performance have risen, whilst tolerance over mistakes has fallen.
Having a mental plan to deal with mistakes is easily becoming one of the most sought-after skills in the game. Learning techniques like the ones listed above will put you at an advantage against other goalkeepers who do not have these techniques in place.
If there is one regret I have about my career, its that I never had access to someone who could give me this advice. I never had access to sport psychology or techniques to deal with mistakes.
I wish I had invested the time to read and study this information because I’m absolutely certain it would have had a positive impact on my career and weekly performances.
The best advice I can give you around this topic is to understand and reflect on how your mind operates under pressure. While these techniques are a great tools for you to have on the pitch in the moment, ultimately you need to have a deeper understanding of how your mind works in order to gain the maximum benefits of these skills.
Mistakes are always going to happen in any walk of life.
What matters is how you respond to them.
Are you going to let mistakes define you?
Or are you going to control the script?
As I always say to the goalkeepers I work with:
Your Career, Your choice.