Few positions in all of sports are as mentally demanding as a goalkeeper. Although they may not be running around the field for 90 minutes like their teammates, the difference between success or failure comes down to just a few split-second reactions. No single moment is more intense than a penalty kick. We sat down with USA U-23 goalkeeper Zack Steffen to find out how he handles these pressure-packed situations.
EASTBAY: What is the hardest part about being a goalkeeper?
STEFFEN: “Staying focused for all 90 minutes. It’s very tough when you’re young and not getting a lot of action. To help, we communicate and move around a lot during the game.
EASTBAY: One of your strengths is your ability to defend penalty kicks. As you mentioned, it’s hard to stay focused. In just seconds, you could go from being completely uninvolved to being the center of attention as you attempt to save a penalty. What goes through your head in those moments?
STEFFEN: “I really don’t like them. I get very nervous, but it’s a lot of instincts. You kind of have a gut feeling where the striker is going. You kind of read the player’s hips and feet and look at his eyes, but it’s a mental game.”
EASTBAY: Is there any sort of intimidation or interaction with that striker?
STEFFEN: “Yeah, goalkeepers definitely try to intimidate strikers by staring them down. We try to make ourselves look big, put our arms out, and get in their head a little bit.”
EASTBAY: When he takes that first step toward the ball. What are you focused on at that point?
STEFFEN: “I’m focused right on the ball. When the ball closes in, your instincts kick in. The more games you play, the more comfortable you feel and the better chance you have of making those plays.
EASTBAY: What does it feel like to make that save?
STEFFEN: “When you make the save on a PK, it’s one of the best feelings. When it’s a close game and all your defenders come up and hug you, it’s an awesome feeling.”
EASTBAY: What if you don’t make the save?
STEFFEN: “It’s happened to me a couple times. You’re going to get scored on in life and in your career. You just have to move on, because there are always going to be more shots coming your way.”
EASTBAY: What kind of physical traits does a goalkeeper need to come out on top?
STEFFEN: “You definitely need to be on the bigger side. You need to be quick, strong, and agile so you can make those big saves.”
EASTBAY: How do you address that in your training sessions?
STEFFEN: “For flexibility and agility, we do a lot of stretching. I also learned a lot of weird drills with hands and feet while playing in Germany. They involved jumping over and under big circles and poles. It really helps with reaction time.”
EASTBAY: What advice would you give a high school goalkeeper who wants to be in your shoes?
STEFFEN: “Keep working hard. Success doesn’t come right away. It takes a lot of training and a couple of years to really find your technique. You’re going to make mistakes, so you’ve just got to learn from them.”