“When it comes to life’s penalties and pressure points, Lane suggests thinking of the critical inner voice as “the yobbo in the crowd shouting at you. If you present it that way, [the player] will say: ‘Well, they don’t affect me.’ Sometimes [it helps to] see your own thoughts as a third person and, when they come in, choosing to see them as not relevant.”
Andy Lane, the professor of sport and learning at the University of Wolverhampton, quoted in The Guardian, July 2018.
“Nice to see your own fans booing you, you football ‘supporters’.”
Wayne Rooney, following turgid draw vs. Algeria World Cup 2010.
“Sport is war without the shooting,”
George Orwell, ‘The Sporting Spirit’
I’m not really a fan of football. I used to be but, like drinking beer, I had an epiphany about it. Whilst sitting in a pub on Beverley Road in Hull, half time was approaching in an international game – England vs. somebody or other, I can’t recall. I was watching and listening to the crowd shouting at the telly and it dawned on me that in contrast to all these other people who were involved and excited, I didn’t give a shit, really. In fact, I was even reaching the point at which I realised that I would have probably enjoyed it more had they lost – which they might have, I don’t know.
A few years after that, I broke my leg playing cricket. Laid up on the settee for two months, off my tits on oxycontin and oxynorm and having realised that my fears about going to the toilet were entirely unfounded because I didn’t take a dump for about a month, what with the smack and everything, I watched every single game of the 2010 World Cup. It was shit. If anything, it was even worse than I remembered it being previously.
As a young lad, I’d played football in various junior sides, failed to complete the 1982 Panini sticker album for that particular World Cup (theme song – ‘This Time” was on repeat at the swimming baths for weeks on end that summer), played five a side (to my physical detriment) at university and, later, watched lots of matches in pubs over the years. In short, I was pretty typical in that regard, apart from getting sick of it sooner than most other people did.
So this year, I held no hopes that anything would be any better. In fact, I didn’t even bother watching most of it until Spain v. Portugal, which had people raving about how it was the best football match they’d ever seen. Match of The Day repeated the whole game later that night and I decided to give it a go.
I fell asleep within the first twenty minutes, waking only when the cat’s twitching tail roused me by flicking my ears much later, the sun beginning to poke through the early morning cloud slurries. Remembering nothing apart from the usual mild irritation at the guileful faces of Ronaldo and Ramos protesting at reality, I assumed that it was just football people succumbing to hyperbole.
I thought I’d give England a go, though. Like many, I was sick of the alleged ‘golden’ generation and their collective bullish attitude towards persistent and undeniable failure. Having given up on football for years, I didn’t really know many of the players, so I thought – fresh start, give it a go. And it was alright. The beat Panama in the first game, and they always draw against someone like the Caiman Islands in the first game, necessitating beating Brazil in the last group game by a margin of fourteen goals. So far, so unusual.
Then came Colombia and Sweden, neither of whom I thought would lose to England…
And so to the semi final – tonight – against Croatia.
I have a bit of a soft spot for Croatia because Luka Modric – who I remember from when I used to watch football – is the spitting image of Little Shaun, who used to go to Spiders with us. But I hope England win tonight – again in contrast to my previous experience.
Like everybody else pretty much, I’m impressed with the players and Gareth Southgate, not because they’re doing well, but because they don’t seem like a set of entitled dickheads. Maybe they are and it’s just that I don’t know anything about any of them – time will tell. They can’t be arseholes on the level of Gerrard and Rooney at least. Unless they are, of course. If they are, they’re keeping it well hidden.
Being a reader, I’ve enjoyed some of the articles written about the team and their performances. Being a human being, I’ve also enjoyed the success of the national team and, like getting into hip hop as a schoolboy, I find it’s nice to feel part of something, which I generally don’t.
The quotation I’ve, er, quoted at the top of this page is from one of the ones I particularly enjoyed. It’s about the sports psychologists who work with England at the moment. It’s illustrated by a few of the players in a swimming pool, riding inflatable unicorns. The first thought I had on looking at that photo was – ‘If they were doing badly, the newspapers would crucify Southgate for that: England balls it up against Panama because the manager told them to piss about on blow up magic horses’. Which I think is probably about right. The second thought I had was this, “Could I imagine Steven Gerrard sat on one of them, grinning?” and the answer was, ‘No’.
I’m not saying that, had previous England teams ridden buoyant, pointy headed ponies in swimming baths, they’d probably be doing much better. What I am saying is that I don’t think the likes of Gerrard would have entertained the idea for one minute.
And maybe that’s the ego that the press have decided was the problem with the golden generation, which I think it might be, but possibly not in the way that they mean.
They mean they were big heads. Full of their own self-importance, and I think there is probably something in that. What I mean is, I don’t think the Gerrards of this world would have done it because of fear.
Fear of the press finding out, fear of projecting an image inconsistent with that of hard men, fear of feeling daft, fear of looking daft, but mainly just good old fashioned fear itself.
I think the golden lot were more of a brown generation: shit scared. I’m not knocking them. I’m scared. Most of the time. It’s fear that either stops or makes me do more or less everything, which is mildly pathetic, isn’t it?
There goes the fear? Where? Everywhere, mate. Fucking everywhere.
And, I suspect that this fear that our national football team were mired in is what’s changed. So why aren’t the current crop frightened when the golden generation, who should have played in brown shorts – possibly with a picture of Gary Lineker on his knees, looking embarrassed after he soiled himself and telling Bobby Robson about it – were constantly crapping themselves. Metaphorically. I don’t think Lineker was scared, but nor was he part of the golden generation.
I quite enjoy his quote about international football: “Football is a simple game: twenty-two men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win (on penalties).”
It’s a simple quotation but, like the best quotations, it reveals something deeper than perhaps the speaker intended. The deeper meaning – for me – is deep in the heart of English football, there is a tendency towards a somewhat defeatist attitude. Helplessness, if you like. And that’s partly what stymied England’s progress since 1966.
England’s current crop – Southgate’s babies, I suppose – haven’t overlapped with (m)any of the golden generation, at least not playing for England, and with that doesn’t come the elder’s wisdom – which is fundamentally defeatist – and simultaneously and incongruously arrogant with it.
A lot was made of Rooney’s comment leaving the pitch after a poor showing against noted behemoths of football, Algeria (who didn’t even have Albert Camus available for selection due to his death, several decades previously) – “Nice to see your home fans booing you.” And rightly so. Rooney might as well have had the word “Entitlement” emblazoned on his shirt instead of three lions because he played badly and didn’t like hearing about it.
The golden generation, about whom I appreciate I’m being fairly derogatory, didn’t have the advantages that Southgate’s babies have, which is to say, the golden boys had expectation thrust upon their proud shoulders and – crucially – they failed. Regularly.
They may have been gifted footballers but what they didn’t have was any semblance of resilience. In common football parlance, oncer things started going wrong, heads went down and they couldn’t lift them up again.
I don’t think the golden boys were arrogant, really. I think they were shit scared and – as is often the case – much too frightened to exhibit any fear and replaced it with ‘front’.
I see a lot of front. Every day, really. Working with adolescents in an area that’s as deprived as any in Britain today, that’s what hits you. The two “F” twins – fear and front. Add ‘failure’, and you’ve got the set.
When I first walked into the place I currently work, it hit me immediately – the smell of fear. The whole place was thick with it. Kids are very bad at telling the difference between front and fear on the whole. It’s the same with age. Kids are very bad at guessing someone’s age. I get asked how old I am periodically and I ask them what they reckon. The answers go from mid-twenties to about seventy – and they always have for the past twenty odd years. Kids at places such as the one I work at can’t show fear because the others would rip them to shreds. So they front it out. They fake it ’til they make it, which is a shame because it’s not all that helpful. I suspect England’s teams of the not too distant past are basically the same – shit scared and too terrified to show it.
It was mainly evident during penalty shoot outs – the fear. The shots that ballooned over the bar (Waddle), the powder puff non shot (Southgate), you name it – that’s where it was most obvious, but not only there. The tendency to pick injured players, players who were out of form, players whose roles were already taken by someone else, but the boss felt he couldn’t leave such stellar talents out (Gerrard, Scholes, Lampard), and so it goes on. It’s all motivated by fear.
Which Southgate’s babies – currently – have little to no experience of.
And therein lies the rub – however they do at this World Cup – and they’ve already surpassed any expectations that any sane individual may have had about them – they will leave it either with the unusual feeling of international success or, as has mainly happened in the past, the usual feeling of failure and all that goes with that.
Southgate today said, “This team is nowhere near the level they’re going to be capable of, partly because of their age but also because they’ll have more big-match experiences over the next few years,”
It’s a good point and an encouraging one, but what Southgate perhaps misses is that the experience of lousing up a big game of football tends to not translate into future success in England because that would require resilience – an attribute sadly lacking in English football teams of the recent past.
All of which leads me back to the quotation at the top of this post, which is about the negative internal voice that hangs around in everyone’s head, except Jeremy Hunt’s and Michael Gove’s. In fact, in most of the government’s front bench – past and present.
It’s all very well saying that the booing, the yobbo in the crowd isn’t important and doesn’t affect you, but as Rooney’s quote also suggests – it does. And there’s no point pretending it doesn’t, because it does.
So why say it doesn’t bother you when it does?
Well, who knows, but I think it might be ‘front’ again. The inability to admit (even to yourself) that the negative feeling that a crowd expresses has no effect on you. Perhaps it was just Rooney and maybe he’s not comparable to the current squad, I don’t know but I have my doubts.
And that’s my bitch about the positivity surrounding the England team that – frankly – I’m rather enjoying.
I think, to an extent, that Andy Lane’s correct about the negative internal voice that everyone who’s not a Tory politician has in their heads – God knows mine never fucking shuts up – but not wholly. The negative voice is also what stops you getting run over because you understand that you need to look both ways when you cross the road. The voice that tells you maybe you shouldn’t walk home by yourself when you’re pissed. It’s a negative bastard alright, but that’s partly what keeps us alive, isn’t it?
Like many things, it’s a matter of balance – you can’t shut it out completely all the time because you’ll soon be dead. Optimists’ life expectancy is shorter Han that of pessimists. The reason is because optimists tend to think ‘It’ll be alright,’ which leads, on occasion, to death as a result of it not being alright. Your pessimist, on the other hand, is less likely to assume that things’ll be alright and consider negative outcomes which, in turn, leads to them doing fewer things slower. Which means, if you listen to it all the time, you’ll never do anything through the paralysing effect of fear, real and imagined. It’s a matter of listening to it and then making your own mind up which, with hindsight, is more or less the major theme of more or less every single post I’ve put up on this, er, website? Blog?
I hope England do well and I hope that if they lose at some point then the people and the media don’t go to town on any of the players or staff because I think they’ve been more or less faultless. But if they don’t, I’m not sure how they’ll cope with the little voice at the back of their heads that tells them that they’ve fucked it up once and the chances are they’ll do the same thing again forever. I hope not because they seem alright, as footballers go, but I wonder at the wisdom of people such as Andy Lane, who adopt a pretty black and white perspective in terms of what is a fairly complicated issue in terms of being a human being.
Like soldiers. I sometimes (usually when teaching war poetry) what it must be like, being a soldier. I couldn’t do it. Had National Service existed during my youth, I think I’d have been sat in a shed, painting coal white for three years. The conclusion I’ve reached is that, ideally, soldiers should be total lunatics who have no internal negative voice warning them of danger for obvious reasons; the concept of war being to kill so many of the enemy as to make sure none are left, or those that are surrender. You have to expect casualties in war, because that’s the whole point of it. And the longer you’re involved in a war, the more likely it is that you will become one of them. Hence, it must be more appealing if you’re crackers. The downside, of course, is that such people are the last people you’d want living in society. Again, like Tory MPs, but not as bad.
The quotation at the top of the page by sports psychologist Andy Lane doesn’t fill me with hope for the future, ironically given its nature, because if it was a pop song, I think it’d be ‘Young Guns (Go For It) by Wham! I think that because, as a message, it’s a bit trite. Alright for teeny boppers, but for an academic? I think it’s poor.
On the other hand, what else is he supposed to say? “I’ve been thinking lads, it’s probably best if we all stay at home and sit on our arses because, in the end, the media are going to take us all to the cleaners anyway“? There’s only one thing he can say in such a situation, same as you might say to a soldier you’re sending to their probable death: you might as well go for it.
Which is all very well, but I expect something somewhat more considered than that from a professional. Maybe there’s a plan b. I would have hoped so, but if it’s as well thought out as plan a, I’m not altogether convinced that it’s going to work.
Then, of course, there’s the other article I quite enjoyed: on Jordan Pickford ostensibly, but about all goalkeepers in reality. This one referred to an analysis of statistics on penalties by Michael Bar-Eli at some ludicrously named seat of learning that I can’t be bothered to type out.
It’s about where penalty takers shoot and where keepers dive, if at all. The results were:
Shoot left: 32.1%
Shoot right: 28.7%
Down the middle: 39.2%
Dive left: 49.3%
Dive right: 44.4%
Stay put: 6.3%
What Ali of the preposterously monikered university suggests – and entirely reasonably, given the figures, is that keepers would be far better off staying put than diving at all. He doesn’t mention that Jordan Pickford’s excellent penalty save would have appeared somewhat less spectacular had he stayed put and not had to stick an arm out behind himself to save it.
Ali goes further – which is an improvement over Andy Lane at least – by suggesting that the reason why keepers don’t stay put is because, in effect, it’s doing nothing. And people don’t like that. What people do like is to do something. Or, to put it tritely, they like to go for it. Even though it’d be better if they didn’t.
He gives examples of football clubs firing managers when they’d be better off sticking with them, share traders who prefer to make unprofitable trades than do nothing, people making the effort to look busy in front of bosses when they are actually doing nothing. He also cites Doctors carrying out caesarian sections when a natural birth would be better, but I don’t know about that one.
The reason he gives for this tendency to go for it, even when you’d be better off sitting tight is ‘action bias’ and we do it to avoid regret. You know, if a keeper dives one way or the other, at least he’s done something. Despite the evidence all pointing to the reality that, a lot of the time, we’d be better off waiting and seeing what’s coming. Perhaps it’s the fans – who tend to criticise a keeper who watches a penalty sail into the top corner because of laziness. Perhaps it’s the later ability to say, “Well, at least I tried,” and having evidence of physical movement to support this claim.
Still, that’s psychology for you – one lot tell you to go for it, the other half tell you to not go for it – because it’s for the sake of it anyway.
Again, what we’re looking at are complicated issues that psychology – or the media, to be fair – like to reduce to short, snappy soundbites that people can understand.
Ali’s view seems better to me because of the statistical evidence that goes with it. I’m not sure what sort of analysis you could realistically carry out about the concept of ‘going for it’. Or going swimming on inflatable unicorns. Maybe that’s the point. A-ho-ho.
Maybe it doesn’t matter. I’m placing a lot of importance on the role of psychology in football and I don’t really know why. I don’t have a lot of respect for it on the whole, as a discipline, but that comes from disappointment and perhaps it says more about my own lack of resilience than it does about psychology as an academic discipline.
Southgate’s a person who has come out of the other end of abject failure – and pizza adverts – and if anyone’s the man to teach these kids about resilience, it’s him. Mind you, should England capitulate tonight which, the negative part of my brain tells me, is always a possibility it’ll be interesting to see 1) how the media responds, and 2) How he copes with further disappointment.
I expect you can guess what he negative part of my brain thinks will happen but, on this occasion, I’m ignoring it.
Post match edit: ah well, maybe try swimming with blow up George Michaels and Andrew Ridgeleys next time?