The perception of success and how it affects expectations

With every major tournament the media build the hype and expectation around the England national side. Fans begin to believe the latest crop of a golden generation will emerge victorious against the global superpowers of football.

But when England inevitably lose, the media are first to vilify the players. The expectation of English football fans has been skewed massively in the past decade with the rise of social media and football video games.

Social media gives the ordinary football fan a platform on which to complain, rant and join the discussion in a way never before possible in previous years. Very rarely do posts celebrate the success or achievement of the English national side.

The rise of games like Football Manager and the FIFA series has made the previously impossible, possible. Armchair fans can lead their side to victory in almost any national or domestic tournament. The intricacies of video games have created a schism between perception and reality.

Video game players subconsciously believe they have an understanding of the inner workings of a football team. They are experts on tactics, formations, individual instructions and training regimes. Their perception is quite different to the reality.

Often, we expect England to fail, but when they do, we criticise the team in every way we can. England’s performance from one tournament to the next has created a historical pattern for how football is grown and nurtured in the country. Only with cultural footballing reforms will the national side ever elevate themselves above their average line of performance across tournament football.

If we ignore the outcome of friendly matches and focus on England’s competitive record, we see a pattern emerge. Competitively, England have an all-time win rate of 57%. Not exactly terrible. This includes performances in qualifying rounds preceding the knockout competitions. When we look at the World Cup we see England have a win rate of 42%. This is comparatively lower than other national sides in the World Cup. Brazil win 67% of the time, Germany 63%, Argentina 55%, and Italy 54%. The pattern over the years is England do not perform in the World Cup as well as other nations.

The England national team has failed to interrogate why this is and make the necessary reforms. The German national side restarted their national footballing programme based on their horrendous display at Euro 2000. They changed their footballing culture, philosophy and belief. 15 years later they were crowned World Champions.

A colder statistic for the England national side is that since 1966 they have won only five World Cup knockout matches. The trend for England is they are unable to defeat sides in knockout situations where decisiveness and guile are required in swathes. A similarly stark statistic is since 1966 England have won only one knockout match in the European Championships. That particular win was a penalty shootout victory over Spain in 1996.

Henry Ford said: “If you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.” England’s lack of resolute and cunning play in knockout tournaments where they have had to deal with teams pushing back at them has stopped them from progressing further than what the press and fans perceive they are capable of.

The failure is systemic. The results and statistics from down the years suggest knockout football is England’s weakness. And perhaps caused by psychological weakness and a lack of mental toughness. In fact, England as a nation have lost their edge and grit over the years. The growth of social media and instant entertainment has reduced the resilience of us as a people. A question to ask the FA is have they ever considered the wider impact of this issue on football?

When a football player or team fails on the biggest stage under external pressure it can be described colloquially as ‘choking’. It is caused by the player or players changing from the implicit part of the brain back to the explicit. Rather than working on instinct and automatic behaviours refined by practice and feedback, the players think and process like a beginner. This is where the term ‘overthinking’ comes into play. High pressure situations not properly dealt with at a psychological level prevent players from functioning at their ordinary levels.

Because of the media standpoint of England being perennial underachievers, or losers, there is always a crack present in public opinion over the capabilities of the national team. As much as managers and coaches try to protect players from this, over time this feeling will seep into the player camp. Any hint of player perception where they believe they will not win will have a bigger impact than anything that actually happens on the field of play.

Positive thinking can have a remarkable impact in sport and wider life. The most successful athletes believe in their own ability. Regardless of their opposition they still maintain the mindset they can overcome any obstacle.

A comparison from a different sport is the mental toughness Andy Murray has developed in tennis. He is clearly better than many of his peers and has little trouble dispatching them. He went through a time playing against better players like Federer, Nadal and Djokovic where he regularly lost. But he learned how to deal with the pressure and what it is like when competitors push back. His mental toughness has helped him overcome these players and secure Wimbledon titles, Olympic gold, and a world number one ranking.

The England national team have a long way to go to meet the expectations of what the public perceive to be obtainable goals. Perhaps the lesson we should be learning is what other British athletes have displayed; a development of mental toughness and a repertoire of strategies to help deal with the high pressure situation of having their backs to the wall.

After all, maybe it isn’t as easy as just setting up your Football Manager team in a 4-4-2 formation and setting a higher tempo strategy.

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