Behind the Mask: Perspective from Between the Pipes

July 17, 2019, 9:40 a.m. (ET)

Written by Megan Bomba, USA Field Hockey Content Development Intern & Messiah College Student-Athlete

Eleven players take the field. Ten are focused on the ball going into the opposing cage, while the eleventh is solely focused on preventing the ball from hitting the backboard behind them.

The final player is the goalkeeper, as you may have already understood. What many people do not understand is the unique job that is asked of the goalkeeper. There is only one on the field per team. While defenders are in a similar goal-prevention mindset, the goalkeeper position requires a different set of skills from an on-field player. They must wear extra layers, master specific techniques and stay confined in the circle. They train to see each split pass and open player on the defensive and offensive side. Every inch that the ball draws closer to their defensive zone, they must organize and direct their teammates while remaining focused on the play unfolding in front of them. It is a tough job, and few choose the path for themselves. 

U.S. Women’s National Team Goalkeeper Kelsey Bing can attest to this phenomenon.

“I became a goalkeeper because my school team in the seventh grade had 30 girls on the roster,” said Bing of her beginning in the role. “My coach made a deal that if you signed up to play goalkeeper, then you would be rostered for every game. I did the math and realized that I would get a lot more playing time on the field if I chose to be a goalkeeper.”.

Once the feeling of confidence sets in for goalkeepers, the position becomes one that is full of empowerment and simultaneous struggle. When a save is made, being a goalkeeper is the best. When a goal against occurs, being the goalkeeper is the worst. Coaches have different ways of creating mental toughness within their players, the most common being a one-play mindset. Whether the ball goes in or a save is made, you must move on and focus on the next shot.

While it is easy to say that the ball slipped past ten other players, it is always the goalkeeper that feels the burden of a goal scored. They were the last line of defense, and they likely know exactly what went wrong the second the whistle blows to signal the goal. It is simple to replay that moment over and over, analyzing the outcome and vowing to take repetitions to work on it at the next practice. But this can be detrimental because each situation is different and cannot be replicated exactly. It is much more beneficial to move on and simply learn from the prior play.

“I try to have a short-term memory in all situations, good or bad,” commented Bing. “This means that if I’m not doing really well, I try to move forward and forget the past. The same is true for a good save. I want to be grounded in the moment. If I am really struggling, I try to find other ways to make connections with my teammates to stay in the moment. Sometimes, I try to do this by communicating more out of the backfield until I feel more grounded.”

Games are the ultimate test for goalkeepers, but practice presents its own unique struggles. During practice, goalkeepers are constantly battling against their own teammates. Of course, this is to make both sides better, stronger and more resilient, but it takes a mental tole. On top of the mental toughness that is required of the position, goalkeepers are also pushed to overcome the stigma of being scored on at practice.

“The most unique part of being a goalkeeper is that although you are a member of the field hockey team, you are essentially playing your own sport,” explained Bing. “I think the juxtaposition between being a team and individual sport is so interesting, and I love that goalkeeping is a way to bridge that gap.”

This feeling of being an individual within a team can create a riff in the team dynamic. As Bing mentioned earlier, finding the connections with teammates and staying grounded in the good and bad times are crucial to keep the chemistry. Lifting up teammates in times of adversity is an easy way to stay positive and keep the focus off the score.

“I think one of my biggest struggles, especially in high school, was just learning how to believe in myself,” said Bing of her journey in developing her mental game. “I am very analytical by nature, and this often led to me criticizing myself way too much. Sometimes I still struggle with this. However, I think I’ve done a pretty good job of learning to approach failures in a positive way and to have a growth mindset about being a goalkeeper.”

The goalkeeping position can feel like a daily battle in many ways. Whether it is playing time, believing in oneself, how to properly combat a particular penalty corner play or staying hydrated in the heat of the pads, being a goalkeeper is full of adversity. However, overcoming all the obstacles and making that game-winning save makes it all worth it.

Bing advises goalkeepers on how to overcome said obstacles: “I would just say to keep working hard. Goalkeeping is just as much a mental struggle as a physical one. It is important to work on both of these qualities to grow. Moreover, I genuinely believe that you can never grow and learn if you do not fail. Take each step back as a way to learn how to get two steps better. Mistakes will happen no matter how good you are. Try to frame the adversity as a way you can make yourself into an even better goalkeeper.”