Goalkeeping is a complex position that requires physicality, a strong mentality, and a highly unique set of skills.
While every good Goalkeeper must be able to produce a range of different saves, there’s a lot more to Keeping than just technical ability. A top Goalkeeper needs to be brave, an excellent communicator, focused, determined, and willing to endure the criticisms and disappointments that come with the job. The very best Keepers are not only equipped with the know-how and right mindset — but also the fitness and strength levels required as a footballer.
Here’s what traits and skills make a truly great Goalkeeper — the kinds you’ll find at the very top levels of football.
1. Focus / Alertness / Concentration
More so than any other position on the football pitch, Goalkeepers need to be alert 100% of the time.
With no backup from behind, it’s imperative for Goalies stay focused on the game, on their toes and ready to be called into action.
Every experienced Goalkeeper knows all too well that games are won and lost through lack of attention. The very best Keepers are prepared for anything, and will remain alert throughout the entire 90 minutes.
2. Speed & Agility
Whether it’s sprinting off their lines to make a clearance, rushing out to gather a cross/corner, producing a diving save, changing direction for a deflected shot, or getting up and down for repeated efforts on goal, the top Keepers are always fast.
Through agility and fitness training the very best Goalkeepers have developed incredibly short response times, which gives them the ability to pull off the most spectacular — seemingly impossible — saves.
For Goalkeepers to stand the maximum chance of dominating their area, they need to have physical strength — particularly in their upper body.
The best Goalkeepers, although slim in build, are deceptively strong. This is important when gathering high balls in the congested goal area, and diving at the feet of players in 1v1 situations.
There’s nothing to say that you cannot become a successful Goalkeeper if you’re of below average height. However, there’s no doubt: it doesn’t hurt being tall as a Keeper.
Having the ability to reach above attackers to gather the ball, or gaining extra inches when diving at full stretch for a shot, is what could make all the difference in a game. Hence why the majority of the world’s top professional Keepers are tall. It’s not a coincidence.
The top professional Goalkeepers are all in great shape. They look just as fit as outfield players, nowadays.
Keepers devote a large portion of their match preparation efforts to diet, fitness and physical training in order to improve their speed, agility and strength. This is vital for maintaining quick reactions in match situations, as well as meeting the growing expectation of playing as a “sweeper Keeper” in the modern game.
Goalkeepers must be capable of not only beating attackers to the ball in defensive scenarios, but also being incredibly mobile around the goal mouth and penalty area. That’s why high fitness levels are imperative.
6. Handling Technique
Being comfortable at handling the ball is an expectation for every Goalkeeper, at any level. From the moment you become a Keeper, right up to the highest levels of the game, you’re constantly practicing the basic handling techniques.
One of the things that separates the very best Keepers from those beneath them is that they’ve mastered the art of bringing the ball to safety in as many situations as possible. Great Goalkeepers keep spillages to a minimum. They make handling look routine.
Putting in a great performance is all well and good, but Goalkeepers are (harshly) judged by the most recent mistake they’ve made. Therefore consistency is key.
The best Goalkeepers in professional football are those that stay out of the spotlight for months — even years — on end. The reality is that when the public is frequently talking about a Goalkeeper, it’s probably because they’re regularly doing something wrong or erratic.
Indeed the regular — yet highly important — contributions made by Goalkeepers go largely unnoticed. But the top Keepers know that all too well, and accept it.
Gathering crosses and diving at feet for 1v1 situations requires immense bravery. Only the Goalkeeper is required to put their head into the path of the oppositions’ feet! Similarly to playing Rugby, Keepers have to expect collisions and must take measures to protect their body.
In a non-physical sense, Goalies also have to be brave enough to face criticisms that come with the role. After all, no matter how good you are as a Goalkeeper, you’re destined to make a lot of mistakes throughout your career.
9. The Right Equipment
It’s easy to overlook the fact that professional Goalkeepers are armed with the best training equipment and gloves.
While most of us are limited by budget when it comes to purchasing sporting goods it is essential to, at the very least, source Goalkeeper gloves that have adequate grip for the conditions you’re playing under. Any experienced Goalkeeper will feel disadvantages by wearing a very cheap low-quality pair for flat cut gloves, compared to those using pro level grip. It certainly impacts performance, to an extent.
10. Positional Awareness
A great Goalkeeper aims to be in “the right place at the right time” in every match scenario. As a result, those Keepers don’t need to constantly produce heroics to prevent goals.
Good positioning is vital for pulling out saves, putting in a defensive clearance, catching a cross/corner, and diving at the feet of opponents. The best Goalkeepers instinctively ‘feel’ where they ought to be in any scenario. However, even the best GK’s in the world get caught in the wrong position.
11. Foresight / Anticipation
A Goalkeeper can be fit, strong and agile — but foresight is just as important. Whether it’s a shot, a cross, or a through ball for a 1v1 situation, Keepers cannot simply react to an event once it has already occurred. By then it’s too late.
The best Goalkeepers are able to read the game, and have an eye for anticipating what’s going to happen next. On the other hand, weaker Goalkeepers will regularly mis-read the game, get caught in the wrong position/situation, and put themselves and their team under unwanted pressure.
Good anticipation comes with regular match experience (and concentration, of course).
12. Accurate Distribution
It goes without saying that Goalkeepers must be able to distribute the ball the required distances via dead ball kicks, drop kicks, underarm rolls, and overarm throws. They need to be able to do so under pressure from attackers, when it comes to back passes.
But one of the key elements football scouts look for is a Keeper’s ability to accurately pick out a player by distributing the ball. This is what helps teams to maintain possession of the ball and launch quick attacks. It goes back to the idea that modern day Goalkeepers must demonstrate on-field qualities as well as being “shot stoppers”.
13. Decision Making
Indecisiveness is one of the main stumbling blocks for Keepers. The best Goalkeepers are able to make wise split second decisions, and stick by them.
No Goalkeeper makes the correct decision in every situation. But the top Keepers will get it right the majority of the time and, when they’re wrong, often still find a way to adapt to their misjudgments.
Learn more about the difficult decisions Goalkeepers must make.
Goalkeepers constantly encounter situations that lead to goals and losses. Staying confident is one of the biggest challenges.
The best Goalkeepers are able to maintain belief in their own ability after rough patches, and keep commanding their area in both a vocal and physical sense. The world’s best Goalkeepers do not simply throw in the towel as soon as they hit bumps in the road.
There’s no doubt that Goalkeepers of all levels disguise their lack of confidence. But every top Keeper knows not to reveal a weakness, as the opposition will sense it and take advantage.
15. Strong Communication
It doesn’t come natural to everyone to be vocal on the football pitch. But it’s essential for every Keeper to organise their defense and highlight dangers (e.g. unmarked attackers) before it poses a serious problem. In particular, Goalkeepers need to show assertiveness to arrange their players for a set piece — such as constructing a wall for a direct free kick.
Some professional Goalkeepers are reserved characters off the pitch, but are still able to give loud, direct, and constructive orders to their team during games. The best Goalkeepers can “switch it on” from the first whistle to the last.
Anticipation and sound decision making go a long way to preventing goals. But some match situations require Keepers to simply act on instinct — such as the goalmouth scrambles, point blank saves, and altering their dives for late deflections.
The best Goalkeepers have cat-like instincts that come from years of match experience, as well and fitness and reflex training. But there is certainly an element of natural ability, and even creativeness, in being able to respond well to dangers that are difficult to rehearse for.
17. Thick Skin
Being the last man in the line of defense means there’s an added expectation for Goalkeepers to consistently perform well in games.
Goalkeepers are criticised for mistakes far more than they are praised for the good work they do. One negative moment undoes a series of positives. Criticisms will come from teammates, the manager, and the touchlines. In professional football, Keepers are heavily ridiculed by pundits and fans alike.
Goalies regularly take blame for situations that weren’t entirely their fault. Poor weather conditions, bad back-passes, and other defensive errors can lead to joint mistakes — yet the Goalkeeper takes the slack. That’s the harsh reality of being a Keeper.
So at all levels of the game Goalkeepers have to be extremely thick skinned just to survive.
18. Quick Footwork
It’s often forgotten that Goalkeepers aren’t only reliant on their hands. The ability to execute quick, sharp footsteps is one of the reasons that Goalkeepers are able to get to shots and crosses to begin with.
The best Goalkeepers adjust their feet to find the optimal position in any match situation. This skill can be refined in fitness and agility training exercises, with the Goalie weaving through a course made up of cones and/or ladders before being called into action (e.g a shot on goal).
It’s not easy for Goalkeeper to hide their frustration when things aren’t going their way. But the most successful Keepers are able to maintain positivity, energy, and enthusiasm throughout both the good and the bad times.
An experienced Keeper knows that they possess the power to alter the course of games and seasons. A series of saves and clearances can uplift a team, and in some cases, help propel the team to victory or an unlikely draw. So it’s vitally important for Keepers to maintain a positive outlook — and to also savour those great moments, of course.
The Goalkeeper has to be a team player.
Aside from the occasional penalty save, the instinctive reflex stop, or dive at feet to thwart the striker there aren’t too many moments of glory for the Goalkeeper. In contrast, even defensive players are still in for a chance to score a goal, or regularly make assists. For that reason it’s not uncommon for outfield players to get away with a low work rate, or a highly selfish attitude towards the game.
Self-interest doesn’t work for Goalkeepers. The sole aim of the Keeper is assist the team, and to reduce goals conduced. Unfortunately that means only the odd moment of praise and glory.
There’s so many specialist skills, traits and attributes required to become a good Goalkeeper that there’s no doubting it’s the most challenging position to learn. Use the list above to identify your strengths and weaknesses, and where you need to focus your efforts going forward.