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Interview: Colm Callanan on goalkeeping—handling pressure, visualisation & the most lethal forwards

Updated: May 1, 2021

All-Star and current Galway goalkeeping coach Colm Callanan provides his insight on a range of topics, including handling the pressure of a big game, how to bounce back from a mistake, his visualisation technique, and the most lethal forwards he encountered.


The Match On Sunday: Goalkeeping at the top level can be pressurised. How did you handle it?

Colm: For an intercounty player, the pressure is constant, even at training. There is pressure to perform with your club too.

For Galway, I felt the pressure, but I was conscious of projecting calm and control. It reassures your defenders. I’d never mention it to anyone if I was feeling nervous. There is always that bit of anxiousness when you’re playing at the top level, but you can’t show it. If you do, you’re finished.

We played Clare in 2007 on a summer evening in a packed Cusack Park, Ger Loughnane was managing Galway—my first game of that magnitude. Some of the Clare supporters behind the goal were trying to distract me during the warm-up. The sub-keeper rolled a ball to me, I flicked it up in the air and caught it behind my back. It momentarily quietened the Clare supporters—it was my way of saying “I’m in charge here.”

I started to feel really confident from 2015 on. I was in my 30s and had gained some experience, so it definitely took time to feel comfortable at that level. I would never have mentioned that to anyone at the time though.

Ultimately, all you can do is concentrate on your own performance and see where it gets you.

How do you bounce back after making a mistake?

Block it out and focus on the next ball. It’s easier said than done but that’s what you have to do.

I wasn’t happy with the two goals that Waterford scored in the first half of the All-Ireland Final in 2017. So, I had two options: either stand there listening to the Waterford supporters on Hill 16 shouting “dodgy keeper” at me, or choose to focus on the next ball. I had to focus.

When I coach goalkeepers, they all say they are weak under the high ball. Going into a game, you’re probably going to have to deal with a high ball, and you have to be confident you’re going to catch it. I advise young goalkeepers to visualise game situations, such as catching the ball.

Personally, I chose to reverse the psychology of fear. Instead of worrying about the ball dropping in, I would hope for it to be dropped in. I would say to myself “drop it in, I’ll catch it, I’ll clear it, and we’ll get a score.” You have to take that mental approach.

Colm Callanan saves from Maurice Shanahan in the 2017 All-Ireland Final.

In a noisy stadium, how do you communicate with your defense?

Going into a big game, you know that the noise of the crowd will make communication difficult. It’s out of your control so you just have to deal with it, and take advantage of opportunities to communicate when they present themselves. You can get your message out through the lines, by asking the centre-back to relay a message to a midfielder, or during a break in play.

How do you approach puc outs?

You have to be able to deliver it short and long. And it takes a lot of practice. Dónal Óg Cusack was the first to do it and a lot of people thought it was crazy—now it’s the norm.

In theory, you want to have a player moving on to the ball rather than static. If you hit a static player, they can be closed down quickly. But if you hit a player without breaking stride, moving into space, that’s the golden ticket. The opportunity may only present itself a few times per game, so you have to make the best of them.

If you were giving a masterclass for goalkeepers, what key points would you emphasise?

You have to address everything in your training: mindset, handling, striking, skill level, shot stopping, as well as your weak points.

On mindset, you have to break that down. Visualisation is a key tool.

I developed my own visualisation technique. I would go down to my club pitch when I knew there would be nobody there. I would solo towards the goal from the 21 metre line and, just as I was about to shoot, I’d stop and put the ball on the ground. I’d then look at the goal and visualise where the goalkeeper would be, and where I would aim a shot. I’d leave the ball there, walk into the goal, and stand where the goalkeeper should be. I’d visualise the shot coming in, and how I’d save it. I would repeat this from a multitude of angles.

Visualisation was very useful for me. As the play would unfold, it would give me a better idea of where the ball was going to go. I would visualise a lot of different game scenarios.

Colm Callanan saves a penalty in the 2017 Leinster Final.

Did you learn from goalkeepers in other sports?

The concept is the same across codes: keep the ball out of the net and find your player with the ball. I met Shay Given a few times through a mutual friend and he had interesting thoughts. There was no rocket science to it; he helped to reinforce my own ideas and methods.

It is helpful to bounce ideas around, to get out of the bubble of your own sport. While you need to be confident about what you’re doing, you should keep an open mind as to alternative methods.

What are the characteristics of a top-class goalkeeper?

The ability to stay in the moment, to concentrate. You can often tell from a goalkeeper’s body language that they are still thinking about what just happened—their mind is a minute behind the play. You have to be in the moment and have your full concentration on what is about to unfold. If you can do that, you’ll be in a good place.

You also need all of the skills, but really focusing on what’s about to happen is key.

Is an intercountry goalkeeper provided with analysis during a match?

You are given some data, but you would generally be aware of it already from your own observations. For example, you would have a feel for how well the puc outs were working. James Skehill and I used to speak at half-time to share observations. We would rely on each other to flag key points, such as where one of our players was on top so we could try and exploit it further.

From your playing days, which saves were you particularly pleased with?

In the All-Ireland Quarter-Final against Clare in 2016, the sun was in my eyes and Aron Shanagher hit a hard, spinning shot that bounced just in front of me. It might have looked straightforward to some but I was pleased with it.

Colm Callanan saves from Aron Shanagher in the 2016 All-Ireland Quarter-Final.

Lar Corbett pulled on a ball from close range in the All-Ireland Semi-Final in 2015. I got a touch to deflect it out for a 65. It was towards the end of a tight game that we won by a point. If they had scored a goal at that stage, it would have been hard to pull it back.

Colm Callanan saves from Lar Corbett in the 2015 All-Ireland Semi-Final.

Who are the best defenders you played behind?

I’ve been lucky to have played behind some of the best. Shane Kavanagh was excellent for Galway, and for our club, at both full-back and centre-back. Ollie Canning was on another level. He was always in control, never stretched. Daithí Burke is one of the best full-backs to ever play the game.

In your playing days with Galway, which forwards were particularly lethal?

Eddie Brennan was a master finisher. He didn’t care about scoring a spectacular goal: he would shorten the grip, aim low, and slip the ball past you—job done. His movement was excellent and he was always looking to get a goal. When the ball was on the opposite side of the field, you had to keep one eye on the ball and one eye on Brennan. I recently saw a highlight video of goalkeepers making great saves, but Eddie Brennan didn’t feature in it: he scored every time.

The two Eoin Kellys were lethal finishers. Séamus Prendergast was a huge full-forward. He’d spend a lot of time right on the edge of the square—you knew high ball would be dropping in and he’d make it awkward for the goalkeeper.

Of the current players, Patrick Horgan and Shane O’Donnell are top class. They both have excellent movement, so you have to communicate well with your defenders.

All of these guys were out for the kill.

Is there any rule change you would like to see implemented?

At underage, I’d like to see a rule tried out, similar to soccer, whereby, if the goalkeeper controls the ball in the small square, play continues but they can’t be tackled. I’ve noticed that a lot of kids don’t want to play in goals, so we need to help coaches to make the position more appealing. Oftentimes, smaller kids are put in goals so this rule would offer them a bit of protection.

There is an increasing emphasis on data analysis in the modern game. However, some people see the game as free flowing and instinctual. How do you view it?

I see the modern game as a balance of both the data analysis approach and the free flowing nature of the game. Hurling is an instinctual game, you have to express yourself. But everyone is looking for an edge, and if the data analysis gives you that, you have to take it. The game is so skillful and fast that there will always be hurling off the cuff.

The Match On Sunday will make a donation to a cause of your choice. What cause would you like to support?

The Irish Cancer Society is an excellent cause—one we should all support.

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