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How the psychology of the England football team could change your life

Team bonding … Kieran Trippier, Jesse Lingard, Jordan Pickford and Harry Maguire play with inflatable unicorns. Photograph: Eddie Keogh for FA/Rex/Shutterstock

By Emine Saner, The Guardian Newspaper,

England players seem happier and more grounded – and much of the credit goes to psychologist Pippa Grange. What can the team’s approach teach us all about facing fear and failure?

This week, the England midfielder Dele Alli was asked if he was nervous about the big tests up ahead: first, of course, the team’s semi-final against Croatia on Wednesday. “Excited, not nervous,” he replied. His apparent happiness and confidence reflected an England team that seems transformed from previous incarnations. Where once it was stuffed with entitled, surly stars, burdened with the weight of history and the pressure of expectations, it now comes across as a hungry, humble team, playing with lightness and joy.

“We’ve spoken to the players about writing their own stories,” said the manager, Gareth Southgate, after the team beat Colombia in an unprecedentedly victorious (for England) penalty shootout. “Tonight they showed they don’t have to conform to what’s gone before. They have created their own history … We always have to believe in what is possible in life and not be hindered by history or expectations.”

The team appears in a better place psychologically than it has for generations. Much of the credit has gone to Southgate, but also to Pippa Grange, the team psychologist, who has been working behind the scenes. “She’s an amazing person,” Alli said on Monday. “Everyone listens to her when she talks.”

Grange was appointed by the FA as its head of people and team development in November last year, given the job of building resilience while confronting the pressures and psychodramas faced by previous England squads. The FA has said it searched globally for the right person for the job, but Grange, like most of the young players, isn’t an obvious superstar in her field; there is no self-promoting social media presence or bestselling self-development books.

She wrote in 2013 that being a woman in a male team environment “is a constant navigation, for everyone. I have no interest in being one of the lads and I don’t quite fit in the ‘nurturing mother figure’ category in terms of the leadership work I do. I would be professionally ineffective if I remained in the background, psychologically safe with minimal voice, and I am not here to be the centre of attention as some form of entertainment. I don’t want to be completely separate because that would make me inaccessible and probably be a lonely place to operate from.”

Born in Yorkshire, but said to be an Arsenal fan, Grange graduated in sports science from Loughborough University and played basketball in England’s National League, before moving to Australia in 1996, where she undertook a doctorate in psychology. Since then, she has been working as a “culture performance coach” for sports bodies including rugby teams in New Zealand and the Australian [Rules] Football League’s player association. Her expertise is in changing the culture of groups, and she built a reputation in Australia as someone unafraid to confront issues head-on.

The midfielder Eric Dier said: “I think a lot of the work that we’ve done with her has been prior to the tournament starting, over the last six or seven months.” This has reportedly included getting the players to sit down together in small groups to share their life experiences and anxieties, and to reveal intimate truths about their character and what drives them. The point, Southgate has said, is to build trust, “making them closer, with a better understanding of each other”.

Pippa Grange in Melbourne, Australia, in 2010.
Pippa Grange in Melbourne, Australia, in 2010. Photograph: Fairfax Media

The England football team has focused on the mental side of the game before, most prominently with the psychiatrist Steve Peters, who was recruited before the 2014 World Cup. What is new is the extent to which psychology has been embraced (prior to Grange’s appointment, the performance consultancy Lane 4 was working with the FA on psychological tactics). Access to Peters, it was reported, was offered to the players only if they felt they needed it – and not many would have admitted to wanting help.

“The whole group must buy into the idea that the sports psychologist has come with a specific set of skills and practices that are really worthwhile,” says Andy Lane, the professor of sport and learning at the University of Wolverhampton. “A recent turnaround in professional soccer is the preparedness to use sports science in an integrated way. It’s that acceptance by the whole group that gives one professional the chance to be effective.” Much of that culture shift will have been down to Southgate, who has shown his support for Grange, whom he clearly respects. “She is a strong and important addition to the team,” the manager said in May.

Grange is a fan of inspirational quotes, from Oscar Wilde to Nelson Mandela to Michael Jordan; some adorn the training gym walls (“Success isn’t given, it’s earned,” reads one). She is also said to encourage the players to get off their phones and play games with each other – including one in the hotel pool with inflatable unicorns after the win against Tunisia in the group stages; and she is said to dislike social media, which she expects the players to use wisely. Southgate hasn’t banned social media – unlike previous managers, he hasn’t appeared to ban anything – but has apparently taken Grange’s thoughts on board. While he acknowledged it was good for the players to engage with fans, he added: “Personally, I’m not sure there’s value to reading comments that come in. It comes back to: what creates pressure, or what creates misery in your life?”

The psychological transformation of the team has taken them much further than anyone could have expected at the start of the tournament, and raises the question of what the rest of us can learn from England’s awakening, and from sports psychology more generally. When it comes to life’s penalties and pressure points, Lane suggests thinking of the critical inner voice as “the yobbo in the crowd shouting at you. If you present it that way, [the player] will say: ‘Well, they don’t affect me.’ Sometimes [it helps to] see your own thoughts as a third person and, when they come in, choosing to see them as not relevant.”

The sport performance consultant Andy Barton says: “Often, it’s the spin you put on things.” Emotions can be reframed – as with Alli saying that he was excited rather than nervous. Barton has worked with England players in the past, and they would “talk about the dread of taking a penalty, as if it’s the worst thing you could possibly do. We create this narrative in our heads and live it.” What he thinks the England team have done is to rethink the idea of a penalty from a threat to an opportunity. It helps, he points out, that the team is young and relatively “unsullied by past failures, so [Southgate has] been able to create a more positive narrative. They’re playing with freedom; there’s no fear of failure. Fear is essentially made up because it is a projection into the future, where you have created a narrative of something badly going wrong. We all do it, and we get very good at creating the negative [future] rather than the positive one.”

Michael Caulfield, a sport psychologist and the co-director of the consultancy Sporting Edge, says Southgate, with whom he worked at Middlesbrough, has a leadership style “built on incredible levels of trust between him and his players and staff. He was determined to convince the team there was nothing to fear from playing in the World Cup for England, whereas in the past people were nervous or fearful. He was determined to change that mindset from one of fear to one of adventure. That’s the biggest thing he’s done.”

Simply thinking positive isn’t helpful, says Barton. “If the team just imagined themselves lifting the World Cup, that’s positive thinking but it doesn’t serve any real purpose.” Instead, he says, we should visualise what we need to do to perform, rather than the fantasy result. “The skill is in your application to a task because that’s the bit you’re in control of. Say you have a big presentation to do, or a big event, or job interview – if you’re feeling fear you’re already mentally rehearsing it in a negative way. [In mental rehearsal] you prime your brain to play it how you would like to be. You might want to be confident, speak clearly. It’s not just positive thinking.”

Routines can be useful, he says. “If you watch Harry Kane, if he’s been interrupted [before taking a penalty], he starts again – he picks the ball up and puts it down on the spot and goes through his whole routine again, and that’s something I’ve never seen England players do before. They usually want to get it over with as quickly as possible, but fear causes us to do things that are unhelpful.” Routines, says Barton, help to keep us in the moment, focused and in the right frame of mind.

When someone is under a moment of extreme pressure, using a tactic such as mental cues can be helpful, says Kate Hays, the head of psychology at the English Institute of Sport. “People will have cue words that will bring them back into focus on the task at hand – for some, they could be emotional cues; for others, it could be technically focused. It’s just one or two words that can get people to focus on the right thing.”

In dealing with a negative event, she says, “the reflection component is critical. It allows people time and space to work through that emotionally and be able to go back to what happened, to process it and be able to move on.” We could also learn to view failure as having potentially positive consequences in the long term. “There is some evidence that people have been able to be successful in sport because of previous [adverse] early experiences, not necessarily in sport,” says Hays. “Overcoming difficult situations and building resilience potentially contributes to success.”

Gareth Southgate celebrates with Jordan Henderson after beating Colombia.
Gareth Southgate celebrates with Jordan Henderson after beating Colombia. Photograph: Tim Goode/PA

Southgate, who has experienced his own disappointments – that missed penalty at the semi-finals of Euro 96, and his managerial career at Middlesbrough ending in relegation – has said as much: “I have learned from things that have gone wrong and had to pick myself up …

Because of those failures, I feel it gives you the freedom of being able to say, ‘How might we be the best possible team?’ and not be afraid of what goes wrong – because whatever goes wrong we can deal with, as I have lived through it.”

Grange has no fear of failure either. She has written: “I’d like to turn this unhealthy preoccupation with success on its head and put it on the record that I think failure is really useful. For without failure we cannot progress longer, higher or faster. It’s a funny paradox – our successes are achieved through trying, and trying most often ends in failure. Every day in our general lives and our sporting lives we will win some and lose some; it’s just part of the way life should be. It could be missing out on a promotion, being pipped at the line in a running race or bombing out in an exam – it doesn’t matter – the important lesson is to learn from our failures, reassess, rethink, move forward (sometimes in a different direction) and keep those dreams and goals alive.”

Those in a managerial role – or teaching, perhaps, or parenting – may find praise can be more motivational than a telling-off, or allowing someone to dwell on mistakes. Raheem Sterling may have missed a couple of chances in the game against Sweden, but Caulfield says Southgate won’t be focusing on that. “[Sterling is] playing so well and creating mayhem for the opposition defences, so Gareth will be praising that. He won’t be criticising him for missing a chance, he’ll be doing the exact opposite – he’ll be praising him for contributing so much to the team.”

Kevin George, the author of Soccology, who works with clubs and coaches on performance, also says that respecting the individual qualities and personalities of your players (or your employees) is key. “To instil confidence in one player might be to give them freedom, so they know you trust them,” he says. “For somebody else, it might be a lot of praise. For a group of people, you have to tap into who they are individually, but as a group, give them the belief that you trust them.” Singling people out for praise in a group setting can be tricky, he adds. “People can think: ‘That person’s a favourite, I’m not a favourite.’ It is tough.” Southgate doesn’t play favourites; everyone feels as if they have a chance.

The era of hard-talking, tyrannical managers is over – both on and off the pitch. “Football, which I love and work in, is really bad at talking,” says Caulfield. “It does instructing and telling off but it doesn’t do talking and listening and empathy that well. It sounds a bit fluffy but that’s the world in which we now live, and the world in which these players have grown up.” Southgate, he says, realised early in his coaching career that instilling fear wasn’t going to work. “We all need a telling-off now and then – and he’s good at that, by the way – but you’ll get far more from putting your faith in people than you will anything else. People had this lazy opinion that he’s too ‘nice’ and they see kindness as weakness, but it’s the most unbelievable strength if you use it in the right way.”

As for nerves, it is a mistake to think it is essential or even desirable to eliminate them – from sport or from life. Caulfield says they can be “wonderful. They keep you alive and make you realise something important is about to happen. If you discuss what the nerves mean to you and how you deal with them, then they don’t become a threat to you. They become this wonderful cortisol that runs through your veins and you deal with the problem, and then you rest afterwards.” With or without an inflatable unicorn.

Five top tips for success

Don’t fear failure. “Part of what it takes to be courageous is overcoming the constant battle between the desire for what we want and the fear of failure. Most of us don’t expose ourselves because we are fearful,” writes Grange.

Reframe emotions: you’re not “nervous”, you’re “excited”; a penalty shootout/job interview/important speech is not something to dread, it’s an “opportunity”.

Positive thinking is unhelpful if you’re simply fantasising about achieving an Oscar/the World Cup/a fuller social life. Instead, focus – positively – on the steps that could get you to your goal.

Treat your employees/children/customers as individuals rather than a homogenous group. Different approaches will work for different people.

Kindness, listening and empathy will take you further than barking orders. Use praise to motivate people.