And yet, for those called to the role, there is nothing better. “I wanted a better chance to influence whether my team won or lost,” says Justin Bryant a former professional goalkeeper, current goalkeeper coach and author of the book 'Small Time: A Life in the Football Wilderness.'
”When I was a young player, I got tired of losing games because whoever had reluctantly gone in goal kept letting the ball dribble through his hands. After that happened two or three times, I volunteered, and never looked back.”
This interview talks about why he kept on going in goal, what he learned and his ideas on coaching for the role.
Blueprint for Football: When did you decide that this was something that you wanted to do for the rest of your career?
Justin Bryant: It didn’t take long. I immersed myself in goalkeeping almost immediately. I would say that by the time I was fourteen, it was my identity. I never considered anything else.
BfF: What level of coaching did you receive?
JB: None, at first. I grew up on an island on the east coast of Florida in the 1970s. Nobody in that area had any appreciable background in the game. When I got to the high school level, I was lucky enough to have an expat Englishman, John McGeough, as a coach. His goalkeeping background was limited, but he knew enough about the position to help me understand the basics.
I got a lot from reading interviews with Ray Clemence and Peter Shilton in old ‘Shoot’ magazines, and from watching professional goalkeepers in the league we had in the States at that time, the NASL.
BfF: You've written a book about your experiences playing in a number of leagues. What brought that about?
JB: I’m not really an ex-player who wrote a book; I’m more a writer who just so happened to have been a goalkeeper when he was young. By the time I wrote ‘Small Time,’ I’d already published a novel, had a dozen short stories and essays in journals, and earned a Masters in Creative Writing from New York University. So, as a writer with a footballing past, it only made sense to write about my experiences as a player.
BfF: In the book you write in detail about the stress and anxiety. Is that part and parcel of a goalkeeper's role more than other players?
JB: I think some element of stress and anxiety is unavoidable. The potential for catastrophic, humiliating mistakes is there. Just look at YouTube. I skewed to the more extreme end of the anxiety spectrum, although my problem wasn’t simply pre-match nerves. I had them, but so does everyone else. My problem was much bigger and more overriding. I put huge pressure on myself to succeed, because the only identity I could imagine for myself was professional goalkeeper, and anything short of that would be not just professional but also personal failure. That was a pretty heavy burden to live with every day, and long term, it took a toll.
Outfield players have to deal with pressure too, but they have more opportunities to make up for mistakes, as they’re generally more involved in the flow of the game.
My anxiety is not gone. It’s much less severe now, and I know how to manage it far better, but it’s still there, even at age 50 and with the pressure of chasing a career in professional football decades in my past. So it’s not something I can blame on goalkeeping. Indeed, going in goal these days is an absolute joy. I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to do it, so I treasure it now.
BfF: Going by your own experiences, what do you tell other goalkeepers today who struggle with anxiety? How important is getting the mentality right and do you think you developed that aspect of the game?
JB: If someone gets to the level of anxiety I had, they really need the professional help that I didn’t get at the time. If it’s the more standard pre-match nerves, or fear of mistakes, my preference is to focus on the positives of nerves. That adrenalin coursing through your body can help you make saves you simply can’t make in training. Pressure also helps you narrow your focus. So I try to help them accept the nerves, and make them work for you, rather than against you.
Getting the mentality right is at least half the battle. If a goalkeeper has the ability but not the mentality, you are not going to see consistently good performances. More and more, I think of these things in a holistic way. If a goalkeeper is struggling mentally, I ask them what it is they want from the game, what they hope to achieve, why they play. Is it fun? Okay, then have fun. Is it an identity, a calling, like it was for me? That can drive you to higher levels, but almost inevitably comes at the price of peace of mind.
I think I did develop the proper mental approach to goalkeeping, but it took time. I didn’t have the right balance until the last year or two of my playing days.
BfF: How does a goalkeeper deal with letting in a goal largely because of a mistake he made? How do you recover?
JB: Well, there’s how a goalkeeper recovers, and how a goalkeeper should recover. Many goalkeepers - young ones, especially - will dwell on the mistake. This will either negatively affect their confidence, or force them into acts of crazed bravado, in an attempt to ‘make up for it.’
A far better reaction is to allow yourself a natural moment of disbelief, anguish, and regret, and then file it away to be dealt with later, getting on with the game in the meantime. It’s not easy. You might, after all, have ten or twenty minutes with little else to do following a mistake, so it’s natural to dwell. It’s not a bad idea to have some sort of ‘move on’ trigger, like saying “That’s it” aloud to yourself, to refocus.
BfF: What is harder a match where you are constantly in action against a superior team or a game where he rarely touches a ball but is then called into action? And how does one prepare for both?
JB: For me, the latter was always much more difficult. The longer you go with nothing to do in a game, the further you get from the time when you were handling shots and making saves in the warm-up. That’s one reason I admired Ray Clemence. In his and Liverpool’s prime, he often had just one save to make in games, and he would usually make it.
BfF: What are the biggest misconceptions that pundits say or fans think about goalkeepers?
JB: For a start, there’s the myth that getting beat at the near post is somehow worse than getting beat anywhere else. In some cases, such as from very tight angles, it is, but commentators and pundits use this as a catch-all critique, and it is generally nonsense.
Put it this way: if a keeper gets beat at his near post, by a shot just two steps to one side, it would be just as bad if he got beat to the far post by a shot just two steps to his side. The mistake isn’t that it was at the near post, but that it was a shot well within reach.
‘Goalkeepers are crazy’ is also largely a myth. I have personally known hundreds, perhaps close to a thousand, goalkeepers in my life. The overwhelming majority are perfectly normal men and women who just so happen to enjoy diving around trying to catch a ball.
A surprising number of pundits and commentators don’t seem to understand direct free kicks. If a goal is scored, they will question the goalkeeper’s positioning, even when it is perfectly orthodox.
I also cringe when I hear a pundit say that every ball inside the six-yard-box should be the keeper’s, taking no account of how many players may be obstructing or challenging the keeper, the pace and trajectory of the ball, etc. Along these same lines is ‘dominate the box.’ Who dominates the box these days? The game has changed.
Some people use the phrase ‘good shot stopper’ in a pejorative way, with the implication being that shot stopping is not what really matters. This is ridiculous. Goalkeeping will always primarily be about making saves.
I could probably give you a very long list of answers to this question!
BfF: You're now a goalkeepers' coach. First off, what does your day to day job entail?
JB: There is no typical day, really. Often, at UNC Wilmington, we have a morning team training session, followed by some time in the office with the rest of the coaching staff, sorting out administrative tasks. I get into the gym most days, and do session planning and coaching education stuff in the afternoons. While you can watch goalkeeper training sessions from all over the world on YouTube, I firmly believe a goalkeeper coach should come up with at least some of their own drills and activities. Otherwise, you’re using someone else’s drill without really knowing what the coaching moments are. So I spend some time every day on the white board, experimenting with new ideas. Two evenings a week, I train youth goalkeepers for a local club, Wilmington Hammerheads. The schedule is different on match days and the off season.
BfF: Why do goalkeepers need their own coaches?
JB: Goalkeepers need to be trained to perform specific tasks in a consistently repeatable way under match pressure, with almost no margin for error. This needs to be done by someone who understands the technique needed for these specialist tasks, and can train, coach, and correct as needed. That’s the dry, factual answer. But beyond that, most goalkeepers benefit from spending time with a coach who understands and can relate to the unique physical and psychological demands of goalkeeping. Put simply, goalkeeping can be a lonely pursuit. Most of us can use an ally.
BfF: Do the coaching needs of someone who is largely a reserve goalkeeper and the regular keeper change?
JB: I think so, yes. I think you prepare a reserve keeper to be able to represent their best form when needed, but you’re flying blind, to a degree, since, without games, you don’t really know what their current form actually is. You also often have to be a little more encouraging, since they aren’t getting the games most players thrive on. You have to guard against them feeling unloved or sorry for themselves, and thinking that putting in hard work isn’t worth it.
With the first-team goalkeeper, you can tailor training to what you’re seeing from them in games. I like to find ways for them to have success with aspects they may be struggling with, while reinforcing what they’re already doing well, to keep their confidence high.
It should go without saying, though, that every goalkeeper is different, and you have to train the individual in the manner that is most effective for them. I can put a goalkeeper I don’t know through a decent training session, but once I get to know them, their personality, and what motivates them, I can put them through a much better session.
BfF: How does one go about ensuring that there is a good understanding between the goalkeeper and his defenders?
JB: They have to train together as a unit, under match-realistic pressure from attackers. Nothing else can replicate that. Ideally, you overload them a little - give the attackers a numerical advantage, award them free kicks in dangerous areas, etc - but not so much that the defensive unit has no chance of success in training. I know most people think defensive football is boring, but I love the sight of a goalkeeper and back four coordinated in their thinking and actions.
BfF: What skills are essential for a modern goalkeepers? And how have things changed from the past?
JB: It’s mostly the same skill set as always: good handling, reflexes, agility, power, and explosiveness, along with the mental skills of judgment, decision making, and emotional control. The biggest change from the past is being comfortable receiving and passing the ball under pressure, and of course, dealing with back passes, which a goalkeeper could pick up when I started playing.
There are some more subtle differences, too, borne from changes in the game as a whole. Compared to decades past, the ball is lighter and moves more unpredictably in the air, the pitches are better (at least at the professional level), leading to less direct, more possession-oriented attacking play, and referees are inclined to protect goalkeepers a little bit more. All this has combined to see a gradual shift away from big, bulky goalkeepers who were relied upon to deal with aerial bombardment, to leaner, more athletic goalkeepers valued for shot-stopping ability.
BfF: Do you see any changes or evolution to the role in the coming years?
JB: A lot of people seem to think Manuel Neuer is revolutionizing goalkeeping, and that his ‘sweeper-keeper’ style, by virtue of being modern and different, is inherently the best way to keep goal. I don’t. This is nothing against Neuer, who is a fantastic goalkeeper. He plays in a way that suits his skills and his team’s needs, but it’s not for everyone. Thibault Courtois and David De Gea don’t spend much time playing passes outside their box, and they’re both quite a few years younger than Neuer. So I haven’t seen a trend towards it, at least from top pros.
Perhaps the next generation will take it to a new level, but I think we are close to being at a point of diminished returns regarding the sweeper-keeper. The value a team gets from the goalkeeper making successful interventions outside the box is balanced by the risk of those interventions. It only gets riskier the further from goal the goalkeeper takes touches, and most managers are risk-averse to begin with. So I don’t think we’re going to see the sweeper-keeper role evolve much more than it already has.
If there’s further evolution coming, it may be in response to another big change in the laws of the game, like we saw with the back pass law in the early 90s. Whatever it is, it will be designed to increase scoring, so goalkeepers will need to change and adapt along with the game itself.
Special thanks to Justin Bryant for taking the time to answer Blueprint for Football's questions. Enjoyed this? Want more? Sign up to Blueprint for Football Extra and as a free bonus you'll get a copy of our exclusive e-book Blueprint According To...Volume 3 that features interviews with six football coaches on how they go about their building their knowledge.