Playing On The Edge: The Psychology Of A Goalkeeper

Goalkeeper

Japan's goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima failed to stop any of Paraguay's penalty kicks.  Paraguay won the match after a penalty shootout with Japan: 5-3 Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP

The first thing Michael Tuckman, who tends the goal for the South Lads, a recreational league team in New York City, wanted to make absolutely clear to me about goal keepers is this: “We are all crazy.”

“You have to be a little off your rocker to voluntarily put yourself in front of a ball being smashed at you,” he elaborated, “not to mention people running full speed at you and a collision almost guaranteed, all to keep an inflatable ball out of a net.”

Tuckman’s not alone in his assessment. Another amateur league New York keeper, Mike Reuter of FC International, concurs.

“The best keepers play on an edge. They realize they shoulder the responsibility of the team’s final result. That kind of pressure is sadomasochistic, and some keepers thrive on it. Yes, I think we’re all crazy,” says Reuter.

Must mean I’m crazy, too.

In my occasional daydreams about playing competitive soccer, I usually imagine myself on goal. The glamor and glory of the striker intrigues me less than the splendid isolation of the keeper, the “lone eagle, the man of mystery, the last defender,” as Vladimir Nabokov called him, who is of the team but still set-apart, solitary, special.

English poet Simon Armitage, in “Why I Love Goalkeepers,” an essay he wrote for The Guardian after England goalie Robert Green’s notorious blunder against the U.S. in the group stage, put it this way: “Goalkeepers are, by definition, weirdos and odd ones out: they put their faces where others put their studs, and their chosen function in a sport defined by its flow and energy is one of apparent inaction followed by occasional moments of joy-killing intervention.”

(I’d only argue that some goalies perform their duties with abundant joy, even exuberance — I’m thinking especially of Brazil’s Heurelho Gomes, who may just be my favorite player on Tottenham Hotspur, if I had to pick one).

Among the first to rally to Green’s defense after the incident were his fellow goalkeepers — including Tim Howard and Brad Friedel. That’s because, as soccer broadcaster and lead analyst for the New York Red Bulls Shep Messing explains, all goalkeepers belong to “a fraternity of renegades.”

Bronx-born Messing would know, one of the most celebrated American soccer players of the 1970s and '80s, he served as goalkeeper for the New York Cosmos when the team included superstars Pelé and Franz Beckenbauer, and for the United States squad at the 1972 Olympics.

Goalkeeping, Messing confirms, is intensely psychological.

“For ninety minutes, you are on the precipice of anger and tranquility," he says. "You have to be coiled and ready to strike, and at the same time have the serenity of a yogi.” He says that juxtaposition is the greatest mental challenge of every game.

Such juxtapositions define goalkeeping. Messing acknowledges that there’s something primal about it. “You mark your territory and defend it," he says, "like a mother bear protecting a den.” At the same time, it is an acutely cerebral undertaking (and probably no coincidence that both Nabokov and Albert Camus were university goalies).

Great keepers need not be book-smart, Messing — a Harvard graduate —maintains, but adds, "they have to have quick, analytical minds. It’s about analyzing, and quickly computing, probabilities. You must assimilate everything going on in a game. If you can’t see how a game is evolving, you can’t make the save.”

Above all, a goalie must be able to read the intentions of other players —perhaps most crucially when they’re taking penalty kicks, as in Tuesday's Japan vs. Paraguay match.

“With penalty kicks, it’s all about increasing the anxiety in the shooter. He should never make eye contact with the keeper. We always knew that, and now science knows it,” says Messing, referring to a recent study by Mark R. Wilson, Greg Wood and Samuel J. Vine of the University of Exeter.

“I love penalty kicks beyond reason,” Reuter told me. "There is a psychology to it," he says, "I can sense a player’s motivations when they come over the ball. I get an immediate read on where they’re going. It’s intoxicating.

“The greatest save of my life was a penalty kick save in an indoor match. It’s the clearest memory I have. Frozen in time. Full extension left, four feet off the ground,” Reuter continued, “It’ll be the last image I see when I pass from this world.”

Okay, Mike. That is pretty crazy.

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