World Cup: Winning mind games is bringing success for England’s young Lions

Gareth Southgate
Gareth Southgate

The term ‘owning the process’ is one that has frequently been uttered by England manager Gareth Southgate during this World Cup.

It reflects a new, positive aura that he wants his players to transmit when representing the nation.

No longer is this a Three Lions team burdened by decades of under-achievement and scared to make an impact on the biggest stage – less Cowardly Lion, more Mufasa.

This positivity is reflected by the manager’s willingness to open up to new ideas and cherry-pick methods and coaching tips from other sports such as gridiron and basketball.

Dr Pete Olusoga, a sports psychologist at Sheffield Hallam University, believes the psychological overhaul instigated by Southgate proved crucial to the last-16 victory over Colombia on penalties. England had lost all three previous shootouts at the World Cup, seven of 14 of the takers having missed their spot-kicks.

Against Colombia four out of five players were successful with their efforts and Dr Olusoga believes the long-awaited win stems from Southgate’s new mantra. “Something that has been a popular theme with England is owning the process and they talk about that a lot,” he said.

“They got that monkey off their back and I think that will give them a huge confidence now.

“Owning the process is basically about what is important at that particular moment in time. “It gets you to focus on the present rather than worrying about what has gone before or what the future might hold.

“People can get distracted about stuff like that and what has gone before, but those players and staff will have talked about concentrating on the present moment. Thankfully, on the night, they executed that plan.

“I know they have studied the Colombian players and apparently only one diverted away from where they expected.

“High-level football is about marginal gains and a lot of confidence will have been gained from that win.” After years of shootout failure – England had previously won just one of seven at major tournaments – the FA undertook a study on penalties, led by Southgate and the governing body’s technical director Dan Ashworth. Among the suggestions to come out of the study was that England players were too quick to take their penalties and should instead allow themselves more time to gain composure before stepping up. The fruits of that labour were realised during the win over Colombia with all five takers appearing relaxed. Indeed many of the players spoke about the process of studying penalties in depth, Harry Maguire stating: “We’ve worked tirelessly on them. The gaffer has been reiterating it’s not all about luck; it’s a skill under pressure and the boys did it well.

“The staff have studied penalties for weeks and it paid off.” England face Sweden in the quarter-finals tomorrow having played just two games at this stage in the past 20 years. In 2002 England collapsed to Brazil where a goalkeeping error from David Seaman saw Ronaldinho’s effort sail into the net. Four years later there was to be yet more penalty heartache, this time at the feet of Portugal. Their meeting with the Swedes sees them take on a side they have beaten just twice in the last 10 outings – representing another psychological hurdle that Southgate and his players must attempt to clear. Dr Adam Gledhill, a sports scientist at Leeds Beckett, believes the approach from Southgate so far has been one in stark contrast to that of previous regimes. He said: “One of the things that has been impressive from Gareth Southgate this tournament has been the way he has delivered the right messages to the media and the players.

“How many times have we heard him say that he trusts his young team and has encouraged them to go out and express themselves?

“If we contrast that with some of the things that former players have spoken about recently (eg Rio Ferdinand being told not to carry the ball out from the back because it was too risky), this suggests we’re looking at an England side with a different performance culture now.

“He has talked a lot about being excited by the potential of the team.

“He has talked about how he wants the players to enjoy the challenge that comes along with being in the World Cup, as they have earned the right to embrace that through qualifying.

“All of these messages suggest a manager that is able to create a certain degree of psychological safety that shows he believes the players are able to go out and achieve in the World Cup.”