Originally Aired On: NBCSN
When a goalkeeper lines up a wall and prepares to repel a free kick lined up by Cristiano Ronaldo from 25 yards out, does he feel an adrenaline rush or a burst of fear?
What goes through a keeper’s mind immediately after conceding a goal when he picks the ball out of the net and throws it upfield in disgust? Does it sting more if that goal was conceded at the dreaded “near post” or worse, via the kind of nightmare howler YouTube will never let die?
Either way, what psychological tricks does he employ to repress the negative emotions of panic, anger, and self-criticism, and refocus as the game recommences instantly to rage on around him?
I began to think about these questions this season after spending time with a glut of NFL kickers and punters in the run-up to the Super Bowl. We watch special teams players all season long, without ever really understanding the emotional, psychological, and tactical dimensions of their position. Most of the time, we only really notice them when they fail.
Premier League goalkeeping is similar. The players are part of the team, yet separate from it. They train apart, can use their hands, and even wear different jerseys. I realized how little I knew about their approach to corner kicks, penalties, and defensive organization. Even less about their approach to training, opponent research, and pre-game visualization routines.
Much of what I did know was the inherited “knowledge” provided by broadcasters. Former professionals, none of whom were goalkeepers. All of whom are obsessed with the keeper guarding the near post, and never permitting a rebound to trickle forwards, no matter how physics-defying the save.
To spend time talking with the four Premier League goalkeepers who gave their time to this project was to be enlightened. To understand what drew them to such a thankless, high-risk profession, where one calamitous mistake can suddenly undo their own career. To learn about their distinct and different perspectives on a game I thought I knew well. And to gain a sense of “The Goalkeepers’ Union,” a proud voyage of the damned, based on a mutual understanding of the extreme emotions they grapple with psychologically over the course of a season.
One of my favorite moments from filming was talking to Aston Villa’s United States international Brad Guzan about the immense adrenaline rush he experiences when sent up into the opponent’s box in search of a desperate last-minute goal that could empower him to experience the thrill of scoring afforded to strikers on a weekly basis. “You’re hoping you can be the man,” he admitted. “You are hoping the ball falls beautifully and you connect with it and it goes into the top corner … you almost dream of scoring that goal as a goalkeeper in the last minute.” He paused for a moment, then grinned, and added sheepishly, “Though I’m not really sure what my celebration would be.”