How Southgate’s England stayed calm when faced with penalties

Author: Jon Rhodes, Associate Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Plymouth

Preparation is key

Germany out, Spain out, and a path that looks as smooth as it ever will for England to reach a World Cup final. But in a tournament where the only certainty is uncertainty, how can Southgate’s men prepare themselves?

Team cohesion and taking risks

Making a group into a team is simply about one thing – a shared vision. There is more to sport than winning and losing, there’s learning. And it’s something that this young England team can do well. 

The newly appointed England team psychologist, Dr Pippa Grange, is primarily focusing on creating a resilient culture. This means that individuals can mutually share ideas openly and are not afraid to take risks that are aligned to team development. 

Studies* have shown that perceived team cohesion correlates with success. Focusing on team cohesion through culture and learning, minimises team expectations and maximises individual effort, thus leading to a better team performance.

Resilience – and training for penalties 

We’re hearing chants of ‘it’s coming home’ but, however the tournament progresses, there will be setbacks. England will be down a goal (or two) on occasion, and there will be plenty of analysis completed, so England must be resilient. 

A recent study** I collaborated on used multisensory imagery to train professional footballers to become increasingly gritty and, consequently, players perceived that mental imagery improved performance. Footballers’ perceptions and beliefs can be controlled given the right training, and through using multisensory imagery, every scenario in performance can be managed.

For example, if and when Harry Kane steps up to take a penalty, he would have already imagined the process through all of his senses. He would already know where he is going to place the ball, already have felt the direction the goalkeeper will dive, and would have already heard the ripple of the net as the ball makes impact. All he has to do upon placing the ball down in real time is kick – simple!

Self-control and ruthlessness

‘Controlled aggression’ or ‘focused ruthlessness’ is key to avoiding red cards and ensuring all England players stay on the pitch. From the outset, the pressure is very high and having interventions to reset any unwanted emotions is essential. 

Cristiano Ronaldo has been referenced a great deal during this World Cup for pulling his shorts up during free kicks. Is this a method of ‘peacocking’, showing off his muscular legs to opponents? Possibly. But this could also be a method to reset his breathing and a cue for him to relax into his confident pitch persona.

Mixing work and play

In Gareth Southgate’s England team, like Roy Hodgson’s before him, there has been an interesting use of…inflatable unicorns while players including Jesse Lingard and Jordan Pickford unwind in the swimming pool. 

For effective communication, there must be a mixture between fun and work. Knowing your teammates and merely training and competing with them has its drawbacks, as players may not want to disclose personal issues due to lack of trust. 

Therefore, there is a time for fun and games for the squad, thus developing team rapport, enhancing communication and impacting performance.

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References

*Carron, A. V., Bray, S. R., & Eys, M. A. (2002). Team cohesion and team success in sport. Journal of sports sciences, 20(2), 119-126.

**Rhodes, J., May, J., Andrade, J., & Kavanagh, D. (2018). Enhancing Grit through Functional Imagery Training in Professional Soccer. The Sport Psychologist, 1-22.