Ok, I know this is a long shot, but what would it take for England to win the World cup? It could be argued that the current squad are not as talented as previous squads, but like any of the 32 teams in the finals they have a chance. So what exactly are the mental challenges that England need to overcome?
The first one that jumps to mind when talking about England in major tournaments is wining penalty shootouts. Unfortunately England have a tendency to self destruct. But is this a psychological problem or a technical problem? The penalties should be relatively straight forward if the player has the control and technical ability to strike the ball accurately into a predetermined position (e.g., the top corner of the goal). If the player has this then the sport psychologist can work on strategies such as pre-kick routines to enable the player to just execute their skills. Decision-making under pressure is difficult, so if you can why not have a predetermined decision (where to put the ball) and then practice executing the kick. So, through well-designed practice England should be able to improve penalty performance, it is encouraging to see that the England Under-17s team won the European Championships this week on penalties.
Another significant challenge relates to the operation and development of the ‘team’. This is more difficult than it can sometimes appear when pulling individual players from a range of different teams, often across different countries, and then looking to get them to function effectively together. For the current England team this challenge is particularly helped by having a number of players from the same club. There are definite advantages to playing a Liverpool-dominated midfield in terms of the pre-existing understanding and shared mental models that the players have developed over the season. To this end if I was the Head coach I would have taken John Terry as well to player alongside Gary Cahill as the two central defenders play together week-in week-out for Chelsea. Developing this shared understanding and decision-making in the team is crucial to overall success, so ensuring players understand what their teammates and their own roles, and crucially how to perform them is important.
Finally, there are the psychological challenges of tournament football, particularly when the environmental conditions (significant heat and humidity) are so vastly different to the normal UK conditions. It is no coincidence that European teams struggle in South America. As well as coping with the conditions (and the impact hey can have upon cognitive function), it is also important that players can get to grips with the challenges and be as well prepared to cope psychologically. In a large country like Brazil there is also the impact of the logistical challenges such as significant travel.
The pressure on the England team from expectations appears to be less this time round than at previous tournaments, but there are still a few weeks to go so it is still possible for the UK media and public to start’ believing’ again. This in turn will ramp up the pressure. Handling, or in an ideal world not even experiencing, pressure is important, so keeping expectations realistic is important.
So if England can pull together as a team and develop a clear understanding of the teams approach for each position, coping with pressure and winning penalty shootouts would be a start . . . . . . . but the question is would it be enough?