It’s tough being a Goalkeeper: The Guardian

23rd June 2010

Rob Green. The name on everyone’s lips at the moment. Calamity James come back, all is forgiven.

It’s a tough life being a goalkeeper. By far the toughest position on the pitch. Mistakes here change people’s perspectives on football from being a team game to an individual sport; it’s their mistake and that’s it. Reminders abound on the mishaps of previous keepers and these become the talking point of fans and media everywhere. David James, Scott Carson, Paul Robinson, David Seaman – the list goes on, and its easy to remember because the mistakes are in high-profile matches, and the images are run and re-run in every format imaginable. The email and text jokes will be out already, and the goalkeepers recover; that’s what they do, and they do it well. Green is no exception.

How do the mistakes happen? Sometimes you just have to accept that these things happen and you cannot fathom a reason. It might happen once or twice in a career and, unfortunately, you’ll be reminded of it more than you would like to be. Generally, it’s a case of players trying to do more than they need to, in order to justify their selection in their own mind. This was Green’s first World Cup start. Like many players, he wanted to impress. Whether he was already thinking of how he was going to set up a counter-attack when Clint Dempsey’s shot came in, I can’t say. But the mistake was highly uncharacteristic.

Players need to remind themselves that they are selected on their “normal” performances. They don’t need to go out and prove anything different. This perception of needing to prove they are good enough can lead to mistakes when players try too hard to impress. Particularly when it leads to a player literally “taking his eye off the ball” in order to start thinking of his next move too early. Here, experience is key, along with an understanding that you deserve to be there. The World Cup is the highest level for a footballer and some players take time to adjust to new levels of competition – and psychological preparation is as crucial as tactical, technical or physical preparation.

Being a Premier League goalkeeper says something about your psychological build-up and your mental toughness. Taking the obvious talent aside, goalkeepers live and die by their performances in the highest media-covered sport. Their performances are analysed week in and week out. One thing they get used to (or they simply don’t make the grade) is taking the blame, many times unfairly. (How many “mistakes” have been made by outfield players before the opponent who scores is allowed a scoring opportunity?)

Keepers must be good “responders”. Just take a look at David James. A brilliant goalkeeper who has had to endure the “Calamity” nametag for longer than most. Green will recover and move on. Having worked with him over a couple of difficult seasons at West Ham, I know. He has the character, temperament and work ethic that will help him endure a difficult time. Should he be selected to start as the No 1 choice, I believe he will demonstrate why he is a top-flight keeper. But he needs the opportunity, and it’s one that he may not get, due to the nature of the World Cup competition. Sentiment will be left aside as Fabio Capello selects the team, and the keeper, that he feels will give England the best chance to win.

There are many techniques and strategies used to help sportsmen get back their confidence after setbacks. I tend to refer to these as the Laws of Effective Performance, and list 10 of the more popular ones I have developed here.

The Law of Acceptance

Every sportsperson needs to accept that things are not going to always go according to plan. Acceptance can lead to less anxious and generally better individual performances, and is the first “law” that needs to be learned and understood. It’s about planning for predictable problems and having strategies to deal with them

The Law of Selective Memory

Top performers should have selective memories. Dwelling on mistakes make matters worse. Learn from it, correct it in training, and forget it. Remember what you do well.

The Law of Previous Performance Accomplishments

Linked to selective memory, remind yourself of what you do well. Highlight DVDs of previous performances can have an incredibly uplifting effect on your ability to recover from setbacks. Nowadays, athletes can carry these personal motivational videos on their phones.

The Law of Response

“It’s not what happens. It’s how you respond” is a well known phrase in sport; and it’s true. So becoming good at responding to adversity is key.

The Law of Being Comfortable Being Uncomfortable

Playing high-level sport puts athletes in situations that are, by the very nature of competition, uncomfortable. Learning to accept you will be uncomfortable, and to deal with this discomfort by developing key strategies and plans is essential if you want to recover from setbacks, and perform when the heat is on.

The Law of Controlling the Controllables

Sportspeople cannot control what has just happened. They cannot control how the media or fans will respond. But they can control their own performances, particularly in terms of work-rate, attitude and responses. Simple things to focus on can help players maximise their chance to get back on track, or to maintain high levels of performance.

The Law of Choices

Every moment of a match, or competition, a sportsperson needs to make choices. Dwelling on uncontrollable situations is counterproductive. You need to focus on what you need to do now, to give yourself the best opportunity to perform your best. In a keeper’s case it might be organising the defence, or ensuring your start position is good, or “do I come or do I stay” for a cross. It’s also about making a choice about how and what you think about. Do I dwell on what might happen or has happened, or do I focus on what’s important right now?

The Law of Focusing on the Processes (rather than the outcome)

Similar to controlling the controllables, by focusing on one or two key performance techniques, sports people are encouraged not only to deal with important aspects of how they are to perform, it helps distract from negative aspects or thoughts that may impair performance.

The Laws of Verbal Persuasion and Vicarious Experiences

The help of teammates, friends and even other competitors can be another important factor in getting over setbacks. Learning from others’ mistakes, and how they overcome them, can help you overcome similar issues (or even avoid them all together). James will be a great ally to Green in this respect. Ultimately, by Capello selecting him in the next match, this will show a huge vote of confidence.

The Law of the Price-tag – A Strong Determination To Do Whatever It Takes and Work Extra Hard To See It Through

Sportspeople understand that there is no easy way to reach the pinnacle of their career aspirations without enduring long, sustained, hard work. Dr Anders Ericsson’s 10,000 hour, 10-year rule applies. You want success, you have to work hard. You want to overcome a setback, same thing: hard work. Are you willing to go through what it takes? Are you willing to pay the price? If so, you give yourself a chance to bounce back and succeed

In general terms, the British psyche is not one of “winning mentality”. We simply do not have that arrogance of the Americans, Latins or even Aussies when it comes to sport. That’s why Sir Clive Woodward’s achievements were so outstanding. He changed the mindset of English rugby players into winners. José Mourinho does it with every team he manages, even in England. It’s not an easy process, and many British sportspeople, including football managers, really do not understand the importance of developing a winning mindsets to want to incorporate performance psychology into their everyday programmes. There’s a fear factor of “messing with minds” along with an “I know best attitude” or “I never done that when I played”, which excludes a lot of benefits our sportspeople could gain from utilising specific and experienced psychological support within their training programmes.

The lack of mental strength is simply reinforced by the media – how many times in the past weeks have we heard: “We’re no good at taking penalties”. Sport has moved on. Sport science can help players raise their performance. Helping develop winning mindsets and mental toughness is key in today’s high pressured, and much publicised sport.

Rob Green has already recovered from his mistake. He’d recovered by the time England took the restart.