As the England football team prepare for their first semi-final appearance in a major tournament since Euro ’96, their rapid progress as a team cannot be ignored.
After all, prior to the 2018 World Cup, England had only won one knockout game since 2006. The low point was arguably a defeat against Iceland two years ago, but things have undoubtedly now changed with a new feel-good factor taking hold of both the team and the nation as a whole.
So what’s different? Much of the credit has to go to coach Gareth Southgate, who has changed the mind-set of the team and used resilience techniques to overcome the fear of failure that often plagued World Cup campaigns of arguably more talented English players.
Overcoming negative thinking
Positivity is large part of being resilient. Although it might sound like a cliché, if you believe you’re going to fail, then you probably will. To be resilient, you need to challenge negative thinking and replace it with a positive.
This is evident within the England team when midfielder Dele Alli said that he was “excited, not nervous” about the upcoming semi-final against Croatia.
Sport performance consultant Andy Barton says: “Often, it’s the spin you put on things. In the past, players 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.”
Emotions can be reframed, and Southgate taught the team to embrace penalties as an opportunity rather than a threat. As a result, they practiced penalty shootouts meticulously and were rewarded with victory over Colombia in the second round.
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, we should visualise what we need to do to perform (in this case penalties), rather than the fantasy result.
Seeing failure as an opportunity
In 1975, the American clinical psychologist Martin Seligman coined the term ‘learned helplessness’ to describe the situation of individuals who, when faced with the realisation that they cannot improve their position, eventually gave up trying to do so. Even when the barriers to success are lifted, the feeling of learned helplessness remains.
Following his penalty miss in the semi-final of Euro ’96, Gareth Southgate could be forgiven for fearing failure all over again. However, he’s used the experience as a learning opportunity.
He said: “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.”
Clearly a failure from a penalty shootout showed him where practice was needed in order to avoid the same result again, and that missing wouldn’t actually be the end of the world for those involved.
Recognising you have a choice
When you realise that you always have a choice to change your situation, it can be liberating and empowering. When you hear yourself saying things like “I have no choice,” or “There’s nothing I can do,” step back and remind yourself that you can always make choices.
Andy Lane, the professor of sport and learning at the University of Wolverhampton says: “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.”
External factors such as luck or fate should be ignored, with the players being responsible for their own success through their actions and beliefs.
Building supportive working relationships
For managers, developing a healthy environment at work will make it a happier place to be. Being more understanding regarding issues such as stress and mental health should help create a more trusting atmosphere.
Strong social networks and open communication will help employees face any workplace problems. Encouraging team social events will help build friendships, and managers being open and honest in performance appraisals will build trust.
Southgate has shown himself to be an effective manager when it comes to building trust amongst his own team.
Michael Caulfield, a sport psychologist and the co-director of the consultancy Sporting Edge, says Southgate 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 mind-set from one of fear to one of adventure. That’s the biggest thing he’s done.”
Southgate has reportedly sat the players 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 aim is to build trust, “making them closer, with a better understanding of each other”.
Although sitting staff in your office down together and asking them to reveal intimate truths about themselves might not be best in everyday circumstances, encouraging honest conversations in one-to-one performance meetings will build that level of trust and engagement too.
Emotional Intelligence will help you become more resilient. If you have a high Emotional Intelligence, you are able to recognise your own emotional state and the emotional state of others to achieve greater success.
Southgate used this when he instructed his players to “own” penalty shootouts. Instead of running up to the ball as quickly as possible and blasting it to simply get the experience over and done with, he encouraged self-awareness and the use of routines.
Andy Barton 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. Routines help to keep us in the moment, focused and in the right frame of mind.”
England’s players trained to ignore the opposition goalkeeper’s actions (an external force), and simply concentrate on taking an accurate, powerful penalty that they can influence themselves.
Whether England can go all the way and win the World Cup remains to be seen, but the resilience shown by Gareth Southgate and his team has been remarkable so far.
If using resilience techniques can help at the top level of football, with a side renowned for continual failure, then it can work in almost any organisation.