What Does It Mean to Have a "Clean Sheet"?

Mark Wollacott

A “clean sheet” occurs when a sporting team manages to prevent its opponents from scoring any goals or points during a game. With a no-score-draw, it is possible for both teams involved to keep a clean sheet. The idea is more commonly expressed as a “shutout” in American English, a term not used in countries such as Britain. Shutouts are more likely in some sports than others.

It's very unlikely to have a clean sheet in a professional rugby game.
It's very unlikely to have a clean sheet in a professional rugby game.

The exact origin is unknown, but is thought to have come from a time when scores were written on pieces of paper. If one team failed to score, then its piece of paper would be blank. As the paper is rectangular and white, it would resemble a freshly-washed or clean sheet.

Soccer is one of a few sports where having a clean sheet is common.
Soccer is one of a few sports where having a clean sheet is common.

The likelihood of such a non-score occurring varies from sport to sport and from skill level to skill level. Professional teams in high-scoring sports such as rugby and basketball are extremely unlikely to go a game without scoring. In low-scoring sports such as ice hockey and especially football, it is more likely. This is because teams can cancel one another out defensively.

A "clean sheet" occurs when a team is able to prevent opponents from scoring any goals during a game.
A "clean sheet" occurs when a team is able to prevent opponents from scoring any goals during a game.

Nil-nil draws and games where only one team scores are a regular occurrence in soccer. This includes games at the highest levels, including World Cup finals. In 1994 in America, Italy and Brazil drew 0-0 before the game was decided on penalties. Spain won the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and Brazil the 2002 World Cup in Korea while keeping clean sheets.

The level of achievement in keeping a soccer clean sheet depends on the nature of the game and the two sides. It is possible for a team to be rarely challenged defensively, yet still concede a goal while another team spends most of the game defending, but somehow keeps its opponents out. A “clean sheet” is a mark of distinction for a goalkeeper, but is rarely applied, as a statistic, to defenders who are measured on passes and tackles.

A “clean sheet” is less likely in rugby and American football. There have been shutouts in rugby, including a few rare 0-0 draws. An example occurred in the 2010 premiership in England when the eventual champions, the Saracens, beat Leeds 39-0. The longest run of shutouts in American football stands at 52, set between 1942 and 1949 by the Bedford County Training School Fighting Tigers of Shelbyville in Tennessee.

Earning a this distinction is almost impossible in basketball, but it has been done. Most shutouts have happened in girls’ high school games. In one example, a team from Texas beat a local rival 100-0. Instead of celebrating, the victorious school sacked its coach for being un-Christian in allowing the game to be so one-sided. In this case, keeping a “clean sheet” is not always a good thing.

A clean sheet is typically called a "shutout" in ice hockey.
A clean sheet is typically called a "shutout" in ice hockey.

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Discussion Comments


In terms of trying to keep a clean sheet, I find it interesting that those in America and those in Britain use completely different terms to describe a word that still means the same thing. Not that I have a problem with this, but it does show some of the cultural differences in relation to sports.

As an example, what Americans know as football is actually soccer in Spain. That makes sense, because in soccer, you're only allowed to use your feet. Hence the name foot-ball. It's an interesting comparison, and can definitely get people confused. However, back to the article being discussed, not only does it do a good job at discussing clean sheets, but even more so, I like how it's mainly associated with (American) soccer.

It's a very intense sport, and one of the hardest to get a perfect score in. Lastly, I do agree with the article where it states that getting a "clean sheet" isn't always a good thing. While it can certainly give one a good sense of victory, other times, it's just not worth the effort.


@RoyalSpyder - Not only do I agree with you, but you make some convincing points as well. In fact, adding onto what you said, I feel that in sports (soccer in this case), not only is getting a clean sheet something that happens only after you have a lot of experience, but more importantly, at the end of the day, clean sheets aren't as important as some people make them out to be. The reason why I feel this way is because in some ways, it relates to people trying to be perfectionists. When you're in a sports game, it's all about winning.

After all, whether you're opponent scored some goals or not, as long as you win the game, that's all that really matters, right? On the other hand, if you have more than enough experience with what you're working with, then I say go for it. In fact, as the article also indirectly mentions, sometimes, getting a clean sheet might be based out of luck, especially if someone spends all of their time defending. While I'm not trying to discourage anyone from getting a perfect score on their sports games, my point stills stands, and it's something to consider.


Based on my experience, sporting games can be pretty intense, and for the most part, getting a clean sheet certainly isn't an easy feet. Overall, in order for someone to prevent their opponent from scoring any goals or points during a game, I feel that they need to have a lot experience with what they're working with. For example, if someone is a rookie as a soccer goalie, they will probably have a lot of trouble in preventing others from scoring, especially if said opponents have more experience. After all, the more experienced you are, the more knowledge you have of the sport, and one may even end up using some tips and tricks to outwit their opponent, who is just getting started on the game.

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