Selsport 2013/14

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Good Form - What It Is And How To Stay In It

It's an old footballing cliche: 'Form is temporary, class is permanent.' But why is form temporary? And what, exactly, is it?

I think we can agree that form is simply how a player has been performing over a given span of games. How many games? For me, between three and ten. Fewer than three is not enough to establish a trend, while more than ten indicates something more than just form, but base ability.

Base ability is how good a player should be. It's a combination of skill, athleticism, mental toughness, and sport-specific intelligence. But base ability is not always an indicator of actual performance. Performance in sport, especially short-term, can be greatly affected, in either direction, by confidence. It will come as no surprise to anyone that confidence plays an enormous role in goalkeeper performance, but it might do us some good to examine exactly why this is.

Confidence is important for every athlete, but especially so for goalkeepers, who, by virtue of our position, have a lot of time in games to think about how we are playing and worry about situations that make us nervous. If you consider goal kicks to be a weakness, you're going to have anxiety during the match thinking about taking them. That anxiety can have physiological effects - shallow breathing, muscle tension, excessive nervous energy - which make executing the skill of kicking a football a long way even more difficult. It's easy to see the vicious circle of anxiety, poor performance, and lack of confidence.

Quite the opposite happens to a goalkeeper who believes he takes a good goal kick. He isn't worried about his expectant teammates, or his coach,  or the watching crowd, and he doesn't anticipate the situation with dread during games. So when it's time to take a goal kick, he's relaxed and confident, and performs to the best of his base ability, not handicapped by stress.


This thing is weird



Now, no matter how brilliant a goalkeeper may be, each of us has game situations that stress us. You may be a brilliant shot stopper and dominate your box, but are sometimes unsure about balls over the top. Is that mine or my defenders'? Stress. You may kick like Joe Hart and have the reflexes of a mongoose, but you dropped a couple of shots in training yesterday....Stress.

What happens to a keeper in any one game, and indeed over the course of a season or an entire career, is largely random. We can't determine whether a player shoots or crosses, plays a long ball over the top, shoots when clean in on goal or dribbles.  If a keeper is an excellent shot stopper but weak on crosses, and just happens to play five games in a row without having to deal with any difficult crosses, chances are he's going to play quite well and be in 'good form.' Closer to the truth is that he's just a bit lucky to have had his strengths tested, but not his weaknesses.

I recall a situation like this a couple of seasons ago, when Heurelho Gomes was catching hell for mistakes, but made a couple of brilliant late reaction saves to salvage a draw with Chelsea. The commentators praised his 'mental strength' to overcome his demons, but firstly, reaction saves simply happen too fast to have much to do with mental toughness or confidence. But more importantly, reaction saves were always one of his strengths. Most of his mistakes came from poor decisions. The situation conspired to give him a chance to do what he does best, and he performed. If Chelsea had instead floated a few go / no-go balls into the box, it may have worked out differently.

The inverse is when a keeper who struggles with, let's say, balls over the top, finds himself in a run of games where it seems the opponent just keeps playing this type of ball. Because he struggles in these situations - and because he knows he struggles - chances are good that he's going to make mistakes. The stress rises, the confidence drops, and even if the mistakes aren't disastrous, he will feel like he's playing poorly, like everyone notices, like he's letting the team down. He's in 'bad form.'

(It should go without saying that if your opponent notices you struggle in certain situations, you better believe they will change their tactics to exploit it.)

All the above is, to a degree, a simplification. It's important to understand that a goalkeeper can make a mistake doing something he knows he is good at, and suffer short-term confidence problems because of it. He can also claim a cross under heavy traffic, his biggest weakness, and feel on top of the world. Temporarily.

The random nature of the game's demands are one good reason why what we call 'form' doesn't last forever. Base ability and confidence can only indicate how a keeper should or probably will handle a given situation. It's no guarantee. I remember, toward the end of the 1995 season, coming for a cross, timing it perfectly, and simply dropping it. My defenders scrambled it away, and we won the game, but it shook me. I had had a strong season, especially coming for crosses, which I always regarded as a strength. But I replayed that drop over and over in my head, and went into the next game silently hoping every corner would be an outswinger. As it happened, nobody challenged me for the first cross that came in, I caught it cleanly, and the problem was solved. But who knows what may have happened had I fumbled it?

All this talk of strengths and weaknesses begs an obvious point: train your weaknesses. Improve. Go into games with no weaknesses, afraid of nothing.

Still....

Even if we reach that level, there are going to be situations we can't account for that bring us stress. It's a fact of the position. We have to manage our expectations with a degree of reality, because expectations are an important aspect of confidence.

An example from golf: a few years ago, the Nationwide Tour wired some players with heart monitors during rounds, with TV viewers able to see the displays live. Which situations caused the most stress - bunker shots, long approaches over water? Nope, it was three-to-four foot putts. Pros make those at a rate of nearly 90% - and that's the problem. They are expected to make them. There are no built-in excuses for missing. The player holds himself to an unforgiving standard, which leads to stress. What's important, though, is that despite the stress, they do roll those putts in at 90%. They perform in spite of the stress. That's mental  toughness.

So if you happen to be in good form, how do you stay there? First, recognize the element of chance and realize it won't last. Maybe you're just brilliant at everything, but if you aren't, understand that turning a weakness into a strength starts with doing it right just one time. Struggle with crosses? The next time you take one cleanly, don't think, "Thank God, I got through that without a disaster." Instead, just tell yourself, "If I do the same thing the next time, and the time after that, it isn't a weakness anymore." If that sounds like delusion, well it is, to some degree. But it can work. I hate to dip into pop psychology, but there's a hell of a lot of good that can come from thinking, "I'm a good kicker" multiple times before taking a goal kick - even if it isn't true. The fact is that the skills required to play most sports are fairly basic, and they can be mastered, as long as you don't unduly handicap yourself.

If you're on the other side of the road, going through a dip in form, may I suggest exhaustion? There's nothing like a few punishing training sessions to force you to make saves without thoughts clouding your brain. Excessive self-evaluation is a luxury that you simply can't afford when you're hurling yourself from post to post. Train hard and don't think so much, and your performance will surely go back to where you base ability says it should be.

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