Decision making is an essential part of goalkeeping in the wider role of influencing the game and eliminating scoring opportunities to reduce the number of shots you face during a game. Shot stopping is obviously down to technique and fundamentals (positioning, angles), but decision making is a skill that is so fundamental and essential, yet difficult to learn and arguably something not totally taught by goalkeeper coaches, in the sense that if you are working purely and simply on technique. You may be able to do well in training focusing on shot stopping and foot work and so on, but if drills are not representative of in-game action or skills, then maybe it is possible to argue that.
Reading the play and making decisions
You have to ‘read’ the play (something I’ll try and discussion in more depth in another article), think things through and analyse the attacking dangers and factor in various potentialities, to be able to make the right choice and apt decision. And getting involved in the play by coming out to block, tackle, or disrupt a pass, is how these decisions come into play. But whilst it often boils down to in-game scenarios like breakthroughs into the D and through your defence, it also relates to things like short corner defences where you decide on the routine to use and the way in which to structure your defence to make the save and shutdown consecutive corner opportunities.
Training sessions and games
For me, the main form of decision making is responding to game changes rather than shot stopping. Stopping is down to angles; being in the right position at the right time, arguably, whereas tackling is getting there at the right time. The decision to come out and tackle and eliminate a breakaway or the decision to intercept a pass is the kind of decisions that impact a game. Too late and leave yourself exposed for a goal, too early and theoretically miss the tackle. Mistiming and not reading cues properly is going to have a knock-on effect on things.
But you don’t really get to experiment and learn timing or interceptions in training, unless you’re doing practise matches on a half pitch say. A lot of club work on drills outside shooting which aid the goalkeeper, but not always. Obviously, you can work on save technique and decisions that affect making the save. And in club training, you may get the chance to work on set piece scenarios within the session, but unless you training sessions are orientated to replicating game experience we’re not getting the most out of it. But without this types of drills (you get it in other sports, why not hockey?!), you cannot really, truly, work on this important skill. Which is where game experience comes in; games are where you get the chance to find out how and when to intercept a breakaway or pass, and game experience is what you build off when you are learning the things you cannot during a training session. Which is why game experience is so crucial. You can be taught it, but in games, that is where you are learning how to apply it properly.
To some degree, the randomness or unexpected turn of events aren’t procured in a rigid, organised drill. It’s not exactly like you learn how to deal with a breakaway or intercept passes so easily in training sessions. You do; you learn the technique, but unless you’re practising something like it with proper intensity (making sure no-one gets hurt though in the process!), then you’re not replicating a true form of what is going to happen a game. Especially if you’re doing club training and all that’s being focused on is shooting practise for the outfield players! Or training without proper direction. There are going to be cases like this, however small, but it depends on the club, coach and whoever runs and organises the drills, perhaps?!
But how it affects us as goalkeepers means we may have to lean on game experience more. This imbalance in training versus games is something football goalkeeping analyst and writer Justin Bryant has written about in regards to football, where he argues that drills need to be altered to accommodate our approach to games, obviously in respect of that goalkeeping style:
Either, training has to change to accommodate situations that help us goalkeepers, or we have to accept that we need to use games as a place to learn ‘off the cuff’, especially early on as we get into the position of goalkeeper.
Decisions and saves
Whilst I would consider tackling and interceptions as the main form of decision making, there is also the obvious choice of how to make a save relative to what you are facing. Say when to leave your feet to dive high or low against a corner’s drag flick, or when to save from a standing position and remain upright. Or when to use a barrier on a short corner etc. The video below shows an interesting example. At 3:32 you can see the goalkeeper is confused whether to stay up to save or push out for a mid-height dive. Over thinking and caught in two minds, they end up not making the save because of this confusion and indecisiveness.
As the goalkeeper goes down, they end up bringing the glove down with them, turning it away from the ball as it comes in from the drag flick and missing it as a result, to end up conceding. He could have stayed up and moved the glove down and across, or gone for the dive to extend and save and push away. But by getting confused and blurring the options and trying to do two things at once, this, the goal, happened. This is national premier league level, so pedantic possibly, but also goes to show the level of acute analysis that is required for performance analysis and such.
Decisions and game involvement
For me, the main featuring of analysis and making choices for decisions is ‘going with the flow’. To analyse and read the play well enough to know how to respond and act accordingly with the decisions you make. When you are playing, you need to be able to have an impact on the game with challenges and the like. You need to be more than just a shot stopper and a ‘keeper’ of you goal (as I will write about at some point!). Something I tried to point to when discussing the ‘sweeper keeper’ because this is the pushed extreme of acting like another defender and taking charge of your D to reduce scoring chances. When playing, you need to be getting involved and doing ‘your bit’. Decision making in this regard relates to being aware of gaps in your defence, timing and a consciousness of what is going on around you and how things will pan out, enough to be able to come out and tackle and so on. You are in the game and you should be a part of it rather than a shot stopping bystander!
Making the ‘right’ decision?
Making the right decision obviously equates to working out the right choice from reading the game and then responding appropriately. A case of making the right selection of save or tackling actions. But even if a goal is scored, have we made the ‘right’ choice? Say sliding out to tackle and only to have the ball lifted over you, like Tindall’s goal against South Africa in the Bejing Olympics where Hibbert made the decision to slide out to meet the GB player, only for Tindall to get the lightest and skilful of touches to get it over his prone body shape coming his way. What more can you do? As demonstrated here:
Even if you allow a goal, for me and me personally (I can’t speak for someone else, if it’s my opinion, which may not be right admittedly!), it’s more important that you commit to the right decision, even if it doesn’t go to plan. Maybe the simplest way of thinking things through is what is the best option is: that you select the best thing to do and do it, then you cannot be at fault, or are at less fault than staying rooted and not committing! Like coming off your line to tackle when it is important you do. Say you decide to leave your post, but you come off your line too late. You get rounded and they score. Well, they were probably going to score if you stayed rooted to the spot on your goal line and didn’t come out to challenge, with the greater amount of exposed space to exploit and smash the ball into, giving them a free shot/’free pass’/goal scoring opportunity without them having to earn it.
For example, see how this sequence of a goalkeeper rushing out off their post pans out. It’s an international game, so (who better else to learn from than the best!), but also a better example and I struggle to find club footage! At 2:05, the goalkeeper decides the course of action is to come off the post and go in for the tackle. They slide in, arguably making the right choice, but still concede. Perhaps they needed to be a little quicker or go for a stick tackle, to take away the ball, as the player carrying the ball managed to lift it over them, but all the same, for what it’s worth, they left their post and didn’t stay passive:
And . This is obviously the game at the highest levels (for club standard arguably! It’s not an international game, but a match in the Hoofdklasse), so criticism is to the minute levels and . At 1:50 the goalkeeper (Cortes for Den Bosch in white) potentially could have gone for the pass and dived out to intercept it and therefore shut down the scoring chance.
As a goalkeeper you should know whether or not to do certain things, or at least, know when to from experience! If say you leave your post to make a tackle along the baseline or dive off the post to stop a pass along the face of goal. Rather than leaving it, you have committed yourself. Showing that you have made the commit to arguably what the right choice is, what you should be doing, I can’t see how staying deep and reacting was going to help, as there are multiple options for the ball carrier to pass to and then to shoot at goal from said pass! At one level, it is the ability to make right choice, and above that, is the ability to do it properly and make the save or stop a goal being scored by taking away the pass from its intended recipient. So should coaches ‘score’ goalkeepers on making the ‘right’ choice rather than not making it at all?
Learning to make decisions
For me, it’s game situations that allow for you to learn how to make decisions and properly. You get the chance to put things into action in a game and the more you experience high level, pressure games, the more you will learn. Soon enough you’ll get to know what works and what doesn’t! Obviously, goalkeeper coaching and coaching from coaches, or advice from older goalkeepers etc. will help things, but at the end of the day, it’s you who has to do the learning. You learn from your mistakes. That’s how things tend to work. Mistakes are life lessons; you prove it, by not letting it happen again! So, hopefully, you can learn from the way you concede goals and learn from it to play in a way where you don’t!
Over thinking is corrosive to the psychology of decision making. Like self doubt when it comes to your shot stopping, if you start to question yourself or think too much, you won’t be able to do your ‘job’ properly. It’s a lot like when de Gea was settling into playing at Man Utd: he wasn’t letting in goals because of other affects on his ‘mental game’, he was afraid of all potential options rather than reacting to what happened in front of him. If you allow this to happen, then you aren’t helping yourself. Analysing is dreadfully important, but over analysing to the point where you can’t make a decision because there are so many potentials running through your mind, isn’t going to help either! You have to see what is happening in terms of attackers getting through your defence and take it from there. The more you over think things, the harder it becomes to make the right choice, as the clip earlier demonstrates. If things get too much, maybe tone it down a lot and just react more to what’s going on in front of you?!
Whilst making the right choice is the most important thing, you have to be decisive enough to make the choice and stick with it. Like anything in life really. You have to stick to a decision and follow it through. If things don’t go to plan, then afterwards you’re going to have to evaluate what was the right course of action. But if you doubt or question yourself too much, you’re never going to make a decision on what to do in the first place! And it’s not like anyone can do it for you!
Committing means more often than not you are taking yourself out of the play. Especially if you are going down against the run of play, for a slide tackle or dive to intercept etc. because you are taking yourself out of the game, by ‘hitting the pitch’ as you will have trouble getting up immediately after (you’re going to have to be quick with recoveries and quick like you should!), but the point is there. When you commit, that is it: you are not standing up and able to react anymore, you are potentially ‘down and out’, especially with a slide out.
To use an oft used clichéd metaphorical analogy, you come across a juncture or crossroads and you have to make a choice, but you can only take one of the paths, because you can’t go down both! So, what is it going to be?! In decision making, you have to be decisive with your gutsy attacking play and able to know what is right for the outcome. You make a decision and it leads to a goal, but if you hadn’t made that decision, would they still have scored regardless? Maybe you could go so far as weighing up percentages to compare, but it’s not always that simple. So when it comes to decision making as a goalkeeper, it’s all about making a choice and ‘sticking to your guns’. Whatever happens afterwards can be analysed and absorbed after the game, but for now, you need to focus on the present of your game and the next scoring opportunity! Go with what works and ask questions later!
Make the decision! Or make sure you make the right one! I couldn’t decide on a final sub-title to go with the rest of the write-up. That’s it really: at the end of the time, you need to make the right one and do it properly not to concede, ultimately, because otherwise they’re scoring on you! Once you get the hang of analysing and reading the game and then how to react, decision making should make more sense. But of course, you need to have the confidence to do so in the first place!