Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Success

On Wednesday night July 11 2018 the England football team embarked on their semi final World Cup match against Croatia. This English team and newly made iconic Manager have been much trumpeted in the press; a young team playing in a new way and now even able to win on penalties and probably progressing to the final on Sunday, only one game away and that would be the first time since 1966, so says the never ending and oft repeated stream of statistics from the Press and Pundits on TV, Radio and the Internet, escalating this team to the possible glories of being World Football Champions which would be the first time… see what I mean, those statistics just keep emerging.

BUT are they really that good? I think they are but not without some serious changes. Everything is provided for them, someone else takes responsibility, a large team of coaches of various descriptions, health providers, physiotherapists, doctors, nutritionists etc, PR people, managers and administrators.

There are rules which means the players must wear the FA colours and clothes on and off the field, present themselves in the FA way. Those cliché interviews where they all say that scoring the goal was not important, what was important was the team winning and generally building each other up and even though they can’t really think about it the Cup Final beckons but they are taking it one game at a time.

Perhaps being so well cared for does not manifest leadership skills and people having to take more responsibility for what happens around them would engender more personality even-though there may be a chance of someone stepping out of line and not toeing the corporate line. When they were playing in previous matches they looked like they were being restrained. Maybe that programming is embedded into their psyche and works perfectly to keep them well behaved and limited in their performance, not wanting to make a mistake, risk averse and unable to make unexpected moves or adjust tactics because of that. That is the nature of a habit, it works well every time.

I remember how Wayne Rooney’s “attitude” was slowly coached out of him and those magic moments of play that he was able to produce became less and less and eventually led him to the American Soccer League. Maybe they’ll allow him more slack over there and we’ll once again see that explosive energy he once demonstrated on a weekly basis at Manchester United.

I digress but it is symptomatic in football. I know professionals need lots of support because they are playing at the highest level but we need to have awareness around this shaping, as it will determine how players develop psychologically.

Lets go back to that game. Psychotherapist Carl Jung said:

“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your fate.”

One of the key skills a footballer needs on the field of play during a game is spatial awareness and equally important is self awareness which is necessary to notice that the they and the team are switching from what the Pundits and Commentators call “the front foot” to the “back foot”, meaning that one team is beginning to click and move forward, putting pressure on the other team, restricting their time and space and their ability to respond. Once this happens confidence begins to get affected, dwindles and their quality of play begins to diminish and this encourages the other team and draws them in. Now this would be OK if it was a deliberate strategy to draw the enemy on and then spring an unexpected attack.

Unfortunately this is not what happened and the Croatian team dug in, prevented further damage, became more confident and their skills began to emerge, more and more, led by Luka Modric who marshalled his team with his exquisite skills. He was like the General on the battlefield leading by example and eventually overcoming the English team who ended up looking much like a lot of previous English teams, their skills mysteriously disappeared.

In the first half, a few minutes in, England scored from a wonderful “Beckham like” free kick, struck by Kieran Trippier, the new hero. Now here is where England made their first mistake. They did not immediately step up their game and put constant pressure on the Croatian team when they were reeling physically and mentally to deliver the “Coup De Gras”, i.e. a second goal that would have really put England in the driving seat and made it much more difficult for Croatia to recover from. The Croats experience kicked in and they defended well and dug in knowing they had to keep it at just one goal down.  It may not have looked pretty but towards the end of the first half Croatia began to turn the tables, bit by bit and were unlucky not to score. That takes a lot of self-belief in their own abilities. Now England were being put under pressure and couldn’t play in the relaxed manner they had been playing. The one goal lead had increased their confidence and this quickly turned into over confidence, complacency, sloppiness and lack of awareness. They began to slow down, their conscious minds were getting in the way by thinking, no longer in flow and at unconscious competence in the learning levels and stumble and they couldn’t play the way they had been. These were the crucial warning signs.

Croatia began to step it up in the second half and England retreated, abandoning the midfield and forced into defending with only the occasional foray into the Croatian goalmouth. Their first half strategy of kicking long balls up to Raheem Sterling, that had been very successful in harrying the opposition, largely disappeared.

The England team began to look very tired and why? These are professionals and are elite athletes, super fit so why are they looking so tired?

I used to coach Brendan Rodgers when he was Assistant Manager at Chelsea to Jose Mourinho. Brendan said he was working with elite athletes, very fit and with exceptional ball skills but the difference that made the difference was in their heads and he pointed with his finger to his temple as he said this.

Under pressure England were unable to keep the ball so much and make telling passes and so they began to try harder, desperation set in and with this comes tension all of which uses up a lot more physical and mental energy, working hard instead of smart. Let the ball do the work.

My point here is:

High performance is state dependent

What does this mean I hear you cry?

Our state is how we feel and to perform well and particularly at the highest level we need to feel relaxed, confident and focused and we need to have ways to get into these high performance states even during the game. When players have these sorts of feelings they are in what is known as “flow states” or “in the zone” and play becomes easier, the ball seems to slow down and every player is more connected, aware of his teammates and can determine where a player is going to run to and be able to make magical passes into those spaces. How they feel will determine their ability to play like this.

After about 10 minutes into the second half I was suddenly reminded of the great boxing match in Zaire known as “The Rumble in the Jungle”. Mohammed Ali versus the World Champion George Foreman. Foreman was a much younger man and was reputed to have the strongest punch in boxing.

There was some concern that Ali might get seriously injured as he had not fought for a few years having had his license removed for refusing to fight in the Vietnam War. However Ali was a smart man and his team was smart so he was not going to go into that fight without a strategy and that was what became known as “Rope a Dope”. It wasn’t his only strategy but is the one he is known for and without it he knew he didn’t have the strength to defeat Foreman.

Ali basically retreated in the later rounds to the ropes. He used the ropes to lean back into so absorbing a lot of the power in Foreman’s huge punches and covered his body and head with his arms deflecting a lot of the blows. This encouraged Foreman to close in and attack Ali with huge energy sapping punches. Ali even taunted him to make him come in more knowing that eventually he would punch himself out and would leave openings. This is exactly what happened and Ali knocked him out in the 8th round. This was an unexpected result and is regarded as one of, if not the best boxing match ever.

Famous boxing trainer and Ali’s mentor, Gus D’Amato told Ali that Foreman was a bully and that it was imperative he threw his first punch with “bad intentions” to make Foreman’s strength his weakness. “Fear is like fire, it can burn your house down, or it can cook your food,” D’Amato told Ali.

The England football team didn’t have the awareness or leadership to realise they were under pressure and slipping back and that was the time to dig in, go back to basics and stop the opposing team.

There is an interesting story about how Canada Geese complete migration flights over thousands of miles without tiring. They fly in V formations and the one in front, the leader, is having to work harder than the other Geese because it is getting all the air resistance or drag so before it tires it allows itself to slip back into the formation where it is protected from wind resistance and also receives lift from the bird in front. This change of leader happens continually through the flight, each goose taking on the role of leader.

Perhaps this could be a useful strategy for the England team. Watching them I couldn’t tell that Harry Kane was the captain. Maybe they need permission to take on that mantle during the game and maybe all that conformity programming and support was stopping anyone from stepping up at vital moments in the game.

Instead they played with desperation, chasing the game and quickly becoming exhausted and they were outgunned and out played. The Croats had used their experience to keep up the pressure until the inevitable happened.

There was a lot of talk before the game from the pundits and the manager himself about the Croatian team being more experienced and older and how this could be an advantage to the English as they might tire first. How wrong they were. That was the area to construct a strategy like Mohammed Ali did so that they could tire out the Croats. They sort of did that in the first half with the long balls to Stirling but as I said earlier that under pressure that strategy disappeared in the second half.

In my business as a coach these are some of the things I would teach people to do in order to access and maintain a high performance state. A set of tools that can be easily utilised before and during the game and that will be as Brendan Rogers said:

“the difference that makes the difference”.

© Paddy Bergin 2018