The psychology of England’s Euro Final loss

Dr. Jon Finn analyses the performance of the England men’s football team in the European Championship Final, through a performance psychology lens.

He highlights a valuable leadership lesson which will benefit ANY type of team.

He also explains how understanding the power of habits can help us all maintain our confidence and perform better (and be better) in our professional and personal lives.

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Podcast Transcription

Hi, everyone, Dr. Jon Finn here, welcome to another Tougher Minds podcast. Today, I just wanted to spend a little bit of time giving a performance psychology perspective on England’s European Championship final performance against Italy. I think we’ve got such an exciting young group of players in the, in the English football team and massive credit goes out to all the academy systems and all the mums and dads and coaches, you know, going all the way through the age levels have developed a group of young players that are so technically good. And obviously, physically fit as well. And they just did so great to get to the final as England fans, which I am, we’re used to our teams always kind of not fulfilling their potential, I just think the team did so well. So I just wanted to make that point.

I wanted to just share how I saw the game through a performance psychology lens, because I know that’s of interest to many people who listen to this podcast. I worked extensively in professional football, and worked extensively in many professional sports. And just due to the busyness of my life, I don’t often get to sit down and properly watch football matches anymore. And this game I did, I watched it start to finish. So I just thought it was really interesting. We hear this language of the ebb and flows of games and teams getting momentum and momentum in a game, and the momentum switches. So we always see that within games. But let’s just go to the beginning…. if you watch the game, or if you didn’t, this is broadly what happened. England started at an immense pace, and scored a goal, I think within two minutes of the game beginning. And what I saw in that first sort of 15 minutes spell of England was what I would call mindless football. The guys were literally on autopilot. They’re just doing what they had been drilled to do. May look creative, may look, really flare-like. But these are just habits. These guys have drilled these technical proficiencies, over 1000s of hours of practice, they were hitting one touch passes without even looking at the way they’re bringing in and controlling the ball. They’re not thinking about that, they just do it on autopilot. And this is showing the power of habits. 

So the way that England prepared for the game, all the way leading up to the kick-off looked as if it was absolutely perfect, because the player’s activation levels were exactly where they needed to be. In order to give the team the very best chance of performing at its potential and no team, I don’t think would have been able to live with England in those first 15 minutes or so. 

But games ebb and flow. And then what we started to see was Italy just getting back into the game a little bit. And I think psychologically, then just this is just my opinion, what then starts to manifest in some of the things on players brains, is maybe a little bit of doubt, a little bit of stress on Italy getting back in into the game. And we’ve got to protect this this lead that we’ve got. And then maybe, because I’m starting to have some of these thoughts, which are affecting my confidence a little bit, then what starts to happen is something that’s described in motor control terms, which is the science of how we learn skills. It’s a theory called Processing Efficiency Theory that is related to what we commonly understand is choking and not performing as well as we can when the pressure is on. And essentially what happens in that process is that these seamless, automated skills that we’ve spent hundreds of 1000s of hours of sorry, 10s of 1000s of hours practising, they start to become less smooth and a bit more clunky. Because doubts are creeping into our brain. We might start to overthink things. We’re starting to get a little bit tired and the things that was so smooth and fluid in the first 15 minutes. Also, they get the-automated.

If you ever look at a golfer that is struggling under pressure, what you’ll see is that their golf swing looks very clunky, very un-fluid….looks very effortful. Whereas a golfer who is playing really, really well they’ve got this smooth, silky, effortless golf swing…it’s the same idea. Because when the pressure comes on, it unravels some of the ultimate automated nature of movement. In other words, habit. And I think that was happening to that young England team, because it’s the first time they’ve been in that situation of a final European, final, and it’s a different level of pressure. It’s difficult to prepare and practice for that without actually doing it. And so if it was the first time any of them had ever experienced that, I think that was really interesting. And really, England didn’t get back into the game until maybe this 70th minute of the game. So that went on for quite a long time. 

And then what’s a really interesting thing about the best teams I’ve ever seen in the world, I think the New Zealand All Black rugby team, the one that Richard McCall captained, and he won back to back World Cups, I think at one point had a win ratio of, of 95%. That was a team that like any other on the field went through ebbs and flows of performance. But when they were in a spell of play, where they weren’t performing well, they were excellent at working out what they needed to do to get back on top in that game. And they were excellent at solving problems. So the problem is, how do we stop the opposition? Breaking down our defensive structures? Or how do we make our attacking play more successfully break down the opposition’s defence? The big questions that rugby, football hockey teams..what we call failed invasion sport sports, ask themselves in need to get good at and the All Blacks team were excellent at that. And that’s because they had the leaders on the field, who were able to see the bigger picture of what was going on and start to make tactical adjustments on the field. You go there you go there, you need to be doing that a bit more. And I think that maybe that’s the part of the game the England players really need to develop. And because they’re such a young team and because very formal leadership development isn’t a huge part of how we develop young athletes right now, that part of the game for many of the players, isn’t there yet. It’s not there yet, but it will come. And I’ve got no doubt this, this team’s going to go on and win something. 

But I think that the challenge we saw from maybe between the 20th minute of the game through to maybe about the 70th minute, when actually Jordan Henderson came on who is a slightly more developed leader, and he’s won a Premier league title, and he’s won a Champions League title. When he came on it, England seem to get a foothold back into the game…that is they were able to solve the problem of how do we stop there, the Italian team having all the possession, how do we solve the problem of making our attack more potent, so we can actually start to break down the Italian defence. So I thought that was interesting. 

So they were just some of the things I was seeing in terms of the ebbs and flow of the game. Obviously we can’t see what’s going on inside people’s brains. But I’m always thinking through that lens. And I just thought we saw some really fascinating things on the field of play. Obviously, we then went to a penalty shootout and I did a podcast a few weeks ago about what penalty takers could learn from Jonny Wilkinson. And I think the Harry Maguire penalty was the standout penalty of everybody’s…..including the Italian players. Harry McGuire penalty was Jonny Wilkinson asked. He took any potential uncontrollable….. let me find a different way. He controlled everything that he could control to a tee and there’s no way any goalkeeper in the world would have stopped his penalty even if they had ever known where it was going?

So I think the Harry Maguire approach if it can be scaled-out to other people maybe he becomes the penalty taking coach then that’s going to create a team that doesn’t miss many penalties if any because what his penalty was unstoppable It was fantastic. 

I hope they’re insightful and interesting guys. I think that the England team –  from the staff all the way through to the players  – is packed full of Habit Mechanics. I think Gareth Southgate is certainly one of those and I contributed to a piece in the Times newspaper that was published on Monday, talking about Gareth Southgate’s leadership. And, you know, his work is clearly working on himself all the time. And he’s very open and honest about that with the players. So he’s doing what we call sharing vulnerability. And that makes it easy for the players to do as well to say, Well, I want to get better, and I’m going to improve. And I think this group will go forward. 

Unfortunately, I suppose if you’re really into football, there’s not much football for a few weeks. But hopefully the excitement that the England teams gave us – if you’re English of course – has given even England fans over this period of time, then, hopefully that sustains you until you get your next fix of football, if that’s important for you. 

If you’re not interested in football, if you’re not an England fan, hopefully the performance psychology insights I’ve just shared are of interest, and they’re certainly shareable into other areas of our life. If you want to learn to become a Habit Mechanic, you can do the Level One certificate for free on our website, just go to the Tougher Minds website and you can navigate to the Level One course from the  homepage. If you have any questions guys, as ever do get in touch. If there are any themes that you want us to cover in the upcoming podcast just let me know. Thanks for listening. Until next time, stay safe.


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