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How the secret psychology of 'wishful thinking' could propel England to World Cup glory

Forget feet: is the key to success really in the mind?

How the secret psychology of 'wishful thinking' could propel England to World Cup glory
12 June 2018

Belief and positivity can take you a long way in life. In football, it is sometimes the only commodity you have access to in abundance to help you achieve goals far beyond what appear to be the financial and technical constraints of your team.

In English Football League Two this season, Gareth Ainsworth got his financially hamstrung Wycombe Wanderers side promoted by making his squad of freebies achieve more than they thought they ever could, by simply being positive and instilling belief.

It can work on the international stage too. Iceland played their way into the hearts and minds of football fans all over the world with their fantastic run to the quarter-finals of Euro 2016, despite having a population of just 330,000, no domestic professional clubs and being co-managed by a part-time dentist.

Speaking to the Guardian just after their defeat to France at Euro 2016, manager Heimir Hallgrímsson described how they did it: 

 “Our success owed much to a gradual, tangible increase in belief. The first group game, against Portugal, was absolutely critical. They were better than us but we restricted them to just one goal and then, when Birkir Bjarnason equalised after half-time, we got ourselves back into it.

“Psychologically that was a key factor in everything that followed; it was a point against the best team in the group and the players took heart. From then on I felt we played better and better in each game, the confidence growing even as the hurdles got taller, negotiating every challenge until that first half against France.”

The final challenge that Iceland overcame was defeating an England side hamstrung by fear and expectation in one of the most embarrassing defeats ever for the Three Lions. 

So, can Gareth Southgate learn the lessons of positivity and belief from their Euro 2016 conquerors to lead England to World Cup glory?

“Positivity and belief are important if they are based on reality and evidence rather than sheer faith and fairy tales.”

Positivity and belief. Sounds simple, really; so why isn’t everybody improving their everyday lives by just thinking positively and believing?

Sports psychologist and director of Sporting Edge, Michael Caulfield, his voice crackling enthusiastically out of my phone, talked me though it: 

“Positivity and belief are important if they are based on reality and evidence rather than sheer faith and fairy tales.

“Leicester City winning the Premier League was built on belief. At the beginning it was unlikely, but in the end it became a belief system which they repeated week in week out because it was based on evidence - winning most weeks, rather than hope.

“Once you have those belief systems in place, they help you form your view of the world and it helps you form a view of how you see the world panning out in front of you and that’s exactly what happens in sport. When you start building belief, it’s quite hard to stop it and it’s a wonderful habit.”

But, how on earth are we meant to believe in the evidence of Gareth Southgate who was ushered into the job as the safe, corporate option following the sacking of Sam Allardyce? In his only managerial role in club football he got fired by Middlesbrough after getting them relegated out of the Premier League, whilst as a player for his country he - famously - missed a penalty in the pressure cooker scenario of a semi-final.

Caulfield, who worked with Southgate for three years at Middlesbrough, views Southgate’s past as a positive.

“What we all do in a very outcome based society, we just look at the raw result which in football is a very binary system - win or lose. If you win you are a legend and if you lose, you are completely hopeless.

“It’s been accepted since that he was handed a hospital pass by the Middlesbrough chairman at the time because the club funding wasn’t as strong as it was in previous years, so he was given a very difficult task.

“What we are seeing now though is a result of the most important learning process in your life, which is bouncing back from failure and disappointment, and the one thing that Gareth Southgate is able to do is bounce back from failure and disappointment. In my view there is no one better at it because of what he probably went through as a player,” says Caulfield.

“He survived, he got better, he thrived and that is why I think he will be able to bring something so different because he has played at the highest level. He’s captained his clubs, he’s captained his country, he’s had the famous penalty miss and he’s come through that. It was a hurtful and wounding process and he is reminded of it everyday. But did it define him? Absolutely not.”

In the same way that Southgate can use an adverse past as a positive, an adverse present can also be flipped around to becoming something useful, in the form of the much-discussed siege mentality, a key motivational device used regularly by the likes of José Mourinho .

Looking back to Italia ‘90 and Euro ‘96, the last times England reached the semi-finals, the press were being incredibly negative about the team, and in the case of Sir Bobby Robson, the manager too. As skipper and a stalwart of Robsons club and international sides, Terry Butcher remembers it very well. 

“Following a poor showing at Euro ’88, we just about qualified by the skin of our teeth,” he says.

“Morale was low as there was a press war against Bobby Robson who had already decided to move on after the tournament, so it wasn’t great and we were heading into the World Cup less well prepared than the previous two. After the first game, a poor performance in a poor match against the Irish, all the papers were screaming for us to be sent home as in their eyes we weren’t good enough.”

So how did Robson turn it around?

“He spoke to individuals and he got them going. He knew what pressure points and triggers they had and would get us in ones and twos and have little chats, little words here and there and that meant so much to the players, it really did.

“He highlighted a player’s strengths, told them about those strengths and laughed at their weaknesses and you’d laugh with him and that was the thing, you enjoyed his banter and being with him.

“Sometimes you wondered why you were having a conversation or where the conversation was going but he was just speaking to you, getting a feel for you, pushing buttons,” Butcher explains.

“The Germans believe all the time. They have a real mental attitude that is so strong and we have been very weak in comparison. I think positive thinking is a key to their success without a doubt.”

Robson squeaked England out of the group, bravely changing the tactical system whilst doing so but it got them up and running.

“The system was really important to us and when the gaffer changed it we didn’t have a chance to do a lot of work with it but, he knew his players and what they could do and everybody responded really very well. He believed in us and we trusted him,” added Butcher.

It was a similar story again in the build up to Euro ‘96 as the players took team spirit to a whole new level with an infamous drinking session being splashed across the front pages of the tabloids, resulting in the Gazza ‘dentist’s chair’ celebration.

Once more, a distrust and a gap between the team and the press emerged, as Stuart Pearce explains: 

“There’s no doubt that a siege mentality developed at Euro ‘96 after the dentist’s chair, it wasn’t pre-planned, obviously, but it certainly happened and I think that it did benefit the squad in many ways.”

From a sports psychology point of view, Caulfield agrees: “When harnessed, when it’s used correctly and when it’s right, a siege mentality is a brilliant motivational tool. Proving people wrong is a wonderful motivational driver.”

After the recent press attacks on Raheem Sterling’s gun tattoo being followed by an incredibly open and accessible press session involving the entire squad, it appears that Southgate has spurned a chance to engender a siege mentality for the current squad. Or, is he using positivity across the board as - after countless failures at tournaments with the press as an adversary - perhaps a fresh approach is what is called for?

Caulfield explains: “It’s 2018 and a completely different era. What was excellent at the recent press session was the press access to each of the 23 players.

“By doing this, Gareth has removed this fear of being talked about, this fear of talking to the press because he doesn’t see them as a threat. They might even be used as an ally and a force for good because people try and derail the squad but it’s not working.”

Southgate and Raheem Sterling face the media spotlight head on

Clearly a healthy air of positivity will be vital to forming an invincible team spirit if England are to be successful, but how does an international manager foster that with a group of players who are club rivals for most of the year?

Butcher: “You probably hate each other when you are playing against each other as rivals but what you do is leave your club badge at the door of the hotel. I think players in the past haven’t always been prepared to make it work, and if you bring club rivalry in, you have no chance.”

Caulfield thinks that things have moved on in this respect too. 

“As opposed to the Lampard, Gerrard and Terry era, we now know everything about everyone. Back then, we’d get managers telling their players, ‘don’t tell anyone what we do here at Chelsea, Man City etc’.

“We know everything now, clubs give four press conferences a week to tell us, so in the past it may have been United players distancing themselves from Chelsea players. Now that has completely changed, if you watch players before major games, they are hugging each other in the tunnel.

“It used to be ‘eyes forward, don’t look at the opposition’ and now it’s hand clasps and hugs. Those barriers aren’t there anymore, they see each other all the time and there are so few secrets left, if any, in football.”

England can be as positive as they like, but we all know that eventually we will probably have to overcome the Germans. Why are they so bloody good in tournaments when it really matters?

“People who achieve continually train their minds, and when they are hit with defeats and setbacks they keep going and do not let a defeat define them when weaker people may fall away.”

“The Germans believe all the time,” enthuses Butcher, “they have a real mental attitude that is so strong and we have been very weak in comparison. I think positive thinking is a key to their success without a doubt.”

And then there’s that work ethic and as Caulfield explains:“Persistence”. 

“The Germans are brilliant at learning from errors. After England beat them 5-1, they absolutely scrapped their system and put country before club and they devised a new system.

“So they have now, like BMW and Audi, an incredible conveyor belt of players coming through and they’ve all been brought up seeing other people do it and do it well. That’s why I love young players coming into a winning team because they get used to it and they see what it’s like.

“In England we are just beginning to replicate that now at St George’s Park, but it won’t happen straight away. The Germans have a system that works and younger players who come into the team will know nothing other than win after win after win.

“England are winning at 17, 19, 20 and 21 levels and are getting used to it. It’s a fabulous thing to get used to at that stage of your career. Then all of a sudden, the fear factor will have been acknowledged, discussed and dealt with.”

England celebrate winning the U-20 World Cup in 2017

So, we’ve established that you need positivity and belief based on evidence and reality, and that sports psychology is now an important part of the game. 

But for Terry Butcher, the blend of characters is still the key. 

“It was in the game, but we didn’t have one [psychologist] at Italia ‘90. Instead, we had people like Gazza, Peter Beardsley, people like that got you going. Gazza knew nothing but was great fun and we had an unbelievable mix of characters.

“It’s not just about getting a psychologist or therapist in to speak to the players, the players have also got to do it themselves and Gareth [Southgate] too. He wants the players to have those positive thoughts because if you are not positive, there is no point in you playing.”

Although that’s not to say that England should eschew the chance to have their own resident sports shrink, more that it shouldn’t be looked at as the only tool in there cognitive arsenal says Pearce:

“There were no psychologists at Euro ‘96 to my knowledge, but I certainly used them when I was [manager of the] Under-21s, not only to talk to the players but to talk to me and the coaching staff. Any edge you can get is always helpful and I always ask for help from those around me.”

It’s a sentiment that Caulfield agrees with, and has indeed built a career upon: “I think football is the final frontier in the sports psychology profession.”

“Sport is played subconsciously, so whatever is said in press conferences, whatever is posted beforehand on Instagram, it’s dictated by the the subconscious thoughts of the team. Why were the England cricket team so rubbish in the [recent] first Test Match against Pakistan and so brilliant in the second [game]? Because, subconsciously, they approached the two games completely differently.

“Your inner mind can be telling you something else, completely different to what is said in public. Thoughts like ‘we can knock over Pakistan at Lord’s, we will win’ may have crept in subconsciously, and complacency is like woodworm once it sets in.

“For the second Test the inner mind of the players will have been telling them ‘there is no way we will be embarrassed like that again’ and a result, they performed completely differently.”

This is all very encouraging to hear, but surely a lot of the other teams will be preparing their players subconsciously too - and only one team can win?

Caulfield explains again: “People who achieve continually train their minds, and when they are hit with defeats and setbacks they keep going and do not let a defeat define them when weaker people may fall away. Gareth Southgate is an excellent example of this, he is still going despite the setbacks he has faced.

“Subconsciously these England players are better prepared than in the past which is down to the manager. When under pressure, we all look to people who are in control and Gareth Southgate is in control. He is not a ranting out of control mad thing on the touchline. He’s in control and so are the players and I think they might just surprise us.”

(Images: Getty)