For many England football fans around the country, the disappointment, pain and sadness following England’s exit from the World Cup still feels very raw and probably will do for some time. But, as we start to reflect on England’s run to the semi-final there is much to be proud of and lots we can learn from Gareth Southgate’s team.
Despite the euphoria England fans have enjoyed, it was not long ago many felt disenchanted with the England team. It was less than a year ago that fans were cheering a paper plane being thrown into Joe Hart’s goal instead of supporting the team. Months later, fans were going wild after the team became the first England men’s team in 28 years to reach a World Cup semi-final. Even Prince William was enjoying the ride!: “This has been an incredible #WorldCuprun and we’ve enjoyed every minute. You deserve this moment – Football’s Coming Home! W.”
So, what’s the secret to their success? How did they inspire a nation?
A lot of credit has gone to Gareth Southgate’s tactical switch to a 3-5-2 formation or selecting Jordan Pickford in goal to take advantage of his great passing skills or their set-pieces, they set a record of 9 set piece goals – the most since Portugal in 1966 (not the record we wanted to achieve since 66 I know). But, a less talked about factor behind their success was the team’s ability to create and capitalise on psychological momentum and be resilient during tough moments. From this, there are many lessons we can learn and take away to improve our own team’s performance.
Let’s take a look at two standout moments from England’s World Cup run:
1. England’s last-minute winner vs Tunisia
Momentum is a word we hear time and time again from commentators, pundits, coaches and players. For example, before England’s match with Belgium England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford explained “It’s momentum and we want to keep that momentum going,”(1). But, what is momentum?
Psychological momentum refers to the sensation performers and teams experience when they feel like things are going unstoppably in their way (2). Teams with momentum feel like they are runaway train, that they are unbeatable, and it is only a matter of time before their next success.
Momentum sounds like the ‘magic potion’ of team performance? So how can you concoct momentum in your team? In football, scoring a goal has been found to be a key trigger for psychological momentum (3). And Harry Kane’s last-minute winner against Tunisia in England’s opening game is the perfect example. But, to create a sense of momentum, teams must recognise that they determined their success and not luck or other factors out of their control.
To make sure momentum was carried over to their next match, Gareth Southgate reminded the team that they scored the winning goal because they stuck to their game plan and remained calm and patient. Their performance was the reason they scored. These messages were key for creating the feeling the team was fully in motion (they went on to win the next game 6-1!).
And we can definitely apply this to teams in business.
Things to think about:
Do you and your team celebrate wins or successes during a project? To create a sense of momentum, be sure to do so but also remember to discuss how every member personally contributed to that performance.
2. Conceding an equalizer against Colombia in the last minute
As well as building momentum throughout the tournament England were able to handle and thrive on pressure and bounce back from adversity (something not normally said about the men’s team). Even England’s own managers didn’t believe their team could handle pressure. In 2006, Sven-Goran Eriksson said: “When it comes to the pressure we are not good”.
England’s resilience was put to the test in their last 16 knockout match. In the last minute of the game, Colombia equalised to take the game to extra time. Memories of past England failures and the Three Lions song began to play in everybody’s head when the goal went in: “Everyone seems to know the score, they've seen it all before. They just know, they're so sure. That England's gonna throw it away, gonna blow it away”.
Conceding a last-minute goal so close to a famous victory can be a huge blow for a team. Take Atletico Madrid for example, they were seconds away from winning their first ever Champions League Trophy against fierce rivals Real Madrid when Sergio Ramos equalised. Real Madrid went on to win 4-1 at the end of extra time!
But, after conceding England didn’t falter, they held firm and set another record for the tournament by becoming the first ever England team to win a World Cup penalty shootout.
So, how did they do it? The research tells us that preparation is key…
The most resilient teams develop shared mental models. Shared mental models refer to the common knowledge teams have about what everyone in the team does and how members work together best. A shared mental model helps to build the team’s confidence that they can adapt and overcome adversity because they know what to do and can accurately predict what their teammates will do when stressful situations arise.
Immediately after Colombia equalised Gareth Southgate and Captain Harry Kane both gestured to the rest of the team to remain calm. But, why were the team able to keep calm and maintain their performance despite such a huge setback? After the game Southgate explained that the team spoke about what they would do and how they would respond when different scenarios occurred for example, if they conceded a goal in the last minute of a game. Even though conceding right at the end of the game was a hammer blow, the team didn’t panic because they were prepared for such an event.
Things to think about:
The best way to prepare for difficult situations is to rehearse them. Come up with a range of challenging scenarios your team could face, or has faced in the past, and get team members to discuss how they would respond to the pressured scenario, what decisions they’d make and what impact this may have on one another.
England may have left the competition empty handed this time, but football may be coming home sooner than we’d thought before. By being able to capitalise on momentum and bounce back from adversity they have developed a team edge that will definitely stand them in good stead for future tournaments.
 Iso-Ahola, S. E., & Dotson, C. O. (2014). Psychological momentum: Why success breeds success. Review of General Psychology, 18(1), 19.
 Jones, M. I., & Harwood, C. (2008). Psychological momentum within competitive soccer: Players' perspectives. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 20, 57-72.