I am no football expert, and what I know about football strategy and tactics wouldn’t fill all the space on the back of a fag packet. However, as an organisational psychologist and psychotherapist with over 20 years’ experience working with organisations including professional sports clubs, what I do know is how to develop winning mind-sets and behaviours for improved performance in any organisation.
What I saw as the England v Iceland game progressed was:
- England players found it increasingly difficult to execute simple tasks accurately, including passing, taking corners and free kicks.
- The movement of most players decreased significantly
- The manager was non-communicative during the game
As a psychologist, this tells me:
- Iceland scoring resulted in both the players and the manager going into shock.
- This happened because they lacked the emotional resilience or psychological toolkit to prevent themselves going into shock.
- The shock undermined their confidence to undertake even basic tasks and completely removed their creativity (excluding Marcus Rashford)
- With the exception of substitute Marcus Rashford, there was no-one to snap them out of shock – they had no leader equipped to do so.
- There was no team, there was a group of individuals
What leaders can take from this is that they can prevent such catastrophic results (which in this case cost the manager his job and inflicted significant reputational damage) by developing the capability of their people to stay functional under immense pressure. That requires the right psychological support for your organisation to build effective mind-sets and behaviours both as individuals and as teams.
Both Greg Dyke (outgoing chairman of the FA) and Martin Glenn (CEO of the FA) have noted that greater psychological support should be made available to players to ensure that they don’t ‘freeze’ in future. Whilst I concur with them that psychological support is fundamental to their future success, I think the problem is more complex than that and there are three things which must be addressed for it to work:
- They need to change the culture – having worked in sport, the macho culture that exists (not just in football) means players see support as weakness and are often fearful of how seeking support will impact their place on the team and future careers. Having a psychologist doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with an athlete’s or manager’s mental health, just as having a personal trainer doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with their physical health or fitness. It’s about keeping the mind and body strong to stay on top of their game.
- Managers need to receive support as well – when Roy Hodgson said “I didn’t see the defeat coming” that tells me that he doesn’t have the right people around him to ask the difficult questions to prepare him for the unexpected. All leaders need challenge and support – we cannot grow in a vacuum.
- The psychological support at an individual level needs to look beyond the sportsperson and at the whole individual, because most of the issues which affect performance stem from events and issues off the pitch. To be totally effective, this psychological support needs to take place not just at the individual level, but at the team and organisational level as well.
If you always do what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got. England’s future success depends on the openness of the new manager, coaching staff and the FA to adapting to new ways of thinking in order to develop the manager’s and the players’ resilience, confidence and creativity that will drive their performance and success.
Mary Sherry is an Organisational Psychologist and Psychotherapist, she is the British Psychological Society’s expert point of contact with the media on the topic of performance and she is the founder of APPS. Mary works with individuals, teams and organisations to develop the right mind-sets, behaviours, culture and infrastructure for success.