Going into the World Cup there is always a sense of hope; hope that England will do well, with TV programmes of the heroics of 1966 and 3 Lions music to raise emotions (Frank Skinner, Wolverhampton honorary graduate!), interest is high. A commonly asked question I am asked is whether psychological training is needed for English players - why do English players seemingly crack under pressure and why can't they win penalty shoot outs?
My response is that psychological skills has many benefits and one of those is helping people cope under pressure (we did a project with the BBC Lab UK on this issue). I add that it is important to recognise that your mental game can be developed via training, and that psychological skills are like many skills, people learn at different rates - sport psychologist can help people learn skills that help them cope with the demands of sport; and as sports vary, so do the skills needed (see a great video we made on this subject). A mistake in people's thinking is to assume that psychological skills are only for elite performers.
And so the question that follows is whether England players have received psychological skills training. The answer is that some have – it’s common for professional football clubs to use a sport psychologist. However, just because someone sat in a lecture, this won’t mean that they learned; learning does require awareness of new knowledge, and it requires practice. People get better at skills by practising, and more than that, the practice needs to be specific. The normal rules of learning apply – just like sitting in a library means the knowledge won’t run in, you need to be active in the process. Related to this, some people develop very good psychological skills and do so without formal training.
When unpacking this with people you often find that they have read about psychological skills, reflected on performance, and used techniques that broadly could be described as skills such as self-talk or imagery to recreate performance in their mind. A key point, I find, is that people need to want to learn the skills, find about the skills themselves, and then try to contextualise so that they can be relevant. My view, obviously biased, is that a sport psychologist is a valuable member of a sport science team and that it’s worth taking one.
The knee-jerk reaction to a player missing a penalty is to call for a psychologist. Psychologists are not magicians and it’s not realistic to expect a brief treatment will provide all solutions. We don’t know the causes of a missed penalty – we can make observations and speculations, but these are done with caution. We could reasonably make the assumption that no player wishes to miss a penalty in the World Cup, and that with the possibility of taking one, it’s likely to activate anxiety in anticipation of a likely scenario, and so reflecting and thinking of ways to cope represents a starting point. Players experience sadness, unhappiness, and misery following defeat and the public should bear that in mind if a poor player misses a penalty. Having a sport psychologist can help, it can help people who wish to improve their inner game and who are prepared to invest time and effort in their development.
And so where does this leave us; first, it’s good to have hope; second, players want to do well and World Cup success, even in anticipation is something generations have dreamed of. Is it possible for England to win – of course it is; all Premier League players are talented and capable. Psychological skills training and having a sport psychologist could help, and if you have important goals to achieve, in pressure situations, then learning to use them is relevant. But like any skill, you will need to practice and develop ways to practice that develop these skills.