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A game where there is little to laugh about? Sports psychologist says joy is England’s missing ingredient | Psychology

SSuccess in sports porting doesn’t depend on pickle juice, says a leading sports psychologist. The secret isn’t in the inflatable unicorns England’s players famously climbed onto in the pool to recover, or the £3,400 electric bikes they pedaled for post-match recovery. It’s not even in the manager.

“What I’m about to say will horrify you,” said Michael Caulfield, who has been involved in professional sport for more than 25 years. “Football is – or should be – all about enjoyment.”

Joy was what England fans wanted so much in their match against Slovenia this week. After the strains of the team’s first European Championship games against Serbia and Denmark, fans were yearning for quality.

What they got, however, was another performance marked by fear and anxiety. And another draw.

Caulfield, who has worked with Gareth Southgate in the past, says: “We are now obsessed with the next quick fix – and I include the massive manager cult in that. Along with pickle juice.”

“The brutal truth is that players only learn from other players. You could bring in the reincarnation of Sigmund Freud and Barack Obama to motivate the team – and Ed Sheeran to play guitar afterwards – but the only thing that will make a difference is learning from each other and helping each other.”

And what do the players (ideally) learn from each other? The joy that each of them felt as a child, when football was their passion.

“Players need to get back to their 10-year-old selves because what has been forgotten in this age of professionalism is that football is not a perfect game,” Caulfield said. “It’s a simple game. It’s a game of utter chaos. It’s the most random game of all.”

He referred to a match last Wednesday in which Georgia beat Portugal 2-0. That, he said, was a joyful game: when Georgia scored a goal, the team stormed back onto the field, just like football-mad children in the back streets, paying no attention to anything but the ball.

Georgians Luka Lochoshvili and Anzor Mekvabishvili celebrate their victory against Portugal. Photo: Oliver Kaelke/DeFodi Images/Rex/Shutterstock

The main problem is that a player can only improve to a certain extent, said Julian Nagelsmann, the coach of the German national team.

At the level of tournament football, it is no longer about formations and systems, false nines, deep blocks, pressing, sixes and fours, eights and tens and gaps in space – it is about managing the player as a person.

Only 30 percent of Nagelsmann’s work, he said, revolves around football and tactics. The other 70 percent consists of managing the players.

Sports performance consultant Andy Barton agreed. “We want happy football,” he said. “When you’re happy, the synapses in your brain work faster and you can calculate faster.”

“The English style of play suggests that there is a great fear of failure. The way to deal with this is to make failure acceptable.”

That doesn’t mean it’s okay to lose, he quickly added, but it’s about giving players the freedom to try things: to play without fear.

“When players stop thinking about winning or losing and instead focus on the things they can control – the process – they can enter a state of flow,” he said.

This means that players are not afraid of failure because they do not think about the consequences, he explained: They only focus on the action in the moment.

“You want players to be in that state even when they’re right in front of the goal,” he added. “They shouldn’t be thinking about whether the ball will be a goal – they should be so present that their only thought is to take the shot. If they don’t think about what happens after that, then what happens after that will take care of itself.”

So what can England’s frustrated, disappointed fans learn from sports psychology?

Dr Sandy Wolfson is one of the UK’s best known sport and exercise psychologists. She is a member of the British Psychological Society, has a particular interest in football and is a passionate Newcastle supporter.

She believes that sports psychology has a lot to teach everyone. “I’m a hopeless fan myself, so I know we’re so intertwined that it’s very difficult to stay positive when your team isn’t doing well,” she said.

To ensure that both players and fans remain positive after a disappointment in football, they should resort to rituals, she said.

“Players and fans can find catharsis and comfort by getting into the habit of analyzing the game with other fans,” she said. “They should look for aspects of the game that weren’t so bad from a neutral perspective. They should look at past games where the team did well and then focus on the future – looking forward to the next game or, if things went really badly, the next event.”

Barton is already looking forward to the upcoming match. “I suspect the English team will be more liberated in their game on Sunday because it’s all or nothing,” he said. “I have the feeling they will feel more free – and therefore happier and more relaxed. I could be wrong – but I’m hopeful.”

Five top tips for success from sports psychologists

  1. Distract your thoughts from the consequences of your action and focus on the action. Anxiety, fear and stress are projections of the future: focus on the present.

  2. Learn how to change your perceived reality. Premier League footballers are learning to shut out fans when they feel oppressed by them. This could help, for example, people who don’t like public speaking and find their audience more intimidating than they actually are.

  3. Find a ritual that creates positivity to help you recover from disappointment.

  4. Learn from those you admire. Stay close to them and forgive them for their mistakes and failures.

  5. Don’t give top tips, Caulfield said, because tomorrow someone else will have five different tips and “you’ll be completely confused.” “A good grandparent is better than any tip,” he said. “Throw grey hairs, because chances are they’ve been through a lot. They’re neither right nor wrong, but they’ll ask the right questions and help you sort things out.”

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