Someone once famously said to Bill Shankly: 'To you, football is a matter of life or death!' To which he replied: 'Listen, it's more important than that.’
As we enter the business end of the World Cup, we have already seen a wide range of life-or-death emotions, both on and off the pitch. These have been from players, managers, supporters and anyone with a quid on a team in their work’s sweepstake draw.
Football has even had an apparent impact on natural phenomena. Not only do the Mexicans have their wave, but they have also been credited with causing an earthquake, while jumping up and down when they beat Germany (although several people have disputed this since). The Icelanders have their thunder clap. And, by cleaning up after themselves, the Senegalese and Japanese fans have brought a ray of sunshine to those who, otherwise, would have been picking up the remnants of Kulebyaka pies and sunflower seeds. Life, death, earthquakes, thunder and sunshine – football has a lot to answer for. To say nothing of the pressure of playing in a World Cup.
For those of us whose sporting careers peaked and troughed at secondary school, it is hard to imagine the intense pressure that Gareth Southgate’s young England players might be feeling, with the weight of a nation on their shoulders. However, the way that they scored goals for fun against Panama would indicate that they are feeling relaxed and thoroughly enjoying themselves. So, how has this been achieved?
At Laughology, we work with businesses, organisations and schools, helping individuals and teams to become more resilient, manage their everyday pressures and be happy and successful in their work. We do this through our scientifically-researched FLIP model. This looks at the tangible benefits of changing our Focus and Language and using our Imagination when faced with challenging situations, as well as learning how to Pattern Break. When thinking about how he would best support the England squad, we have a sneaky feeling that Gareth Southgate may have read about FLIP in Stephanie Davies’ book, Laughology – Improve Your Life With The Science Of Laughter. Here’s why:
This time, more than any other time, the players haven’t been distracted by being herded into a recording studio, a few weeks before the tournament, to make a World Cup song. Although we’re sure one or two fancy themselves as budding pop stars, they haven’t been distracted by having to sing En-ger-land into a microphone.
During the game against Tunisia, the air was thick with midges. Despite the application of spray, Harry Kane reported that he’d had the little blighters up his nose and in his mouth. Nevertheless, he kept his midgy-filled eye on the ball and stuck his midgy-filled head on it, to score the winner in added time. Now that’s focus!
Although there was a soft penalty decision for Tunisia, and no penalty given at the other end for tackles on Harry Kane which ranged from rugby-esque to GBH, we seem (at the moment) to be avoiding the traditional claims of ‘woe is us’. Of course, Kane’s last-minute winner against Tunisia and the two penalties against Panama will have contributed to that, but Southgate knows that positive language will breed positive mindsets.
When we talk about the language that we use, we aren’t just talking about spoken language. The written word can be equally powerful, if not more so, as it is not lost into the ether. Being realistic, the manager has not enforced a raft of daft rules, but has warned his players to be careful on social media. He said:
"Personally, I'm not sure there's value to reading comments that come in. It comes back to what creates pressure, or what creates misery in your life. Generally, I think there's a lot of social media that can be negative, so why would you invite that into your life? If you can rationalise it and accept it and put it into its own place then fine. I don't know too many people who can do that, though.”
Southgate has recognised that we react irrationally when we are emotional and has warned his players against posting and reading comments, in response to a defeat. At Laughology, we work with people to recognise and address their irrational thoughts, language and behaviours. Southgate must have been reading Stephanie’s book!
Prior to the first game, the BBC rolled out a montage of how the country would celebrate, should England win the World Cup. This included clips of Theresa May congratulating them in the Houses of Parliament, Raheem Sterling’s face adorning ten pound notes and the famous landmark in Wiltshire being renamed John Stoneshenge. Whether this light-hearted look at what could happen had you cringing, hoping or blaming the BBC for putting the mockers on England (which is, by the way, completely irrational), we know that many famous sports people and successful leaders use visualisation to imagine their future success.
The squad has been holed up in hotels and on training pitches together for several weeks now. You imagine that a group of young chaps, with lots of time on their hands, would turn to technology and social media to keep themselves entertained. Instead, someone has put a lot of effort and imagination into their recreational activities, to ensure that the team spirit and healthy competition continues. Rather than seeing them on their mobile phones, we have been treated to photos of the players racing each other across a pool on inflatable unicorns.
We all have patterns of behaviour. Some of which are helpful, and others? Not so much. It has been truly refreshing to see many unhelpful patterns of behaviour (from previous England campaigns) being broken.
Every previous England squad has been plagued by injury, or the threat of it. Remember the distraction of David Beckham’s fractured metatarsal in 2002? And then Wayne Rooney’s in 2006? In 2018, it seems that that pattern has been deliberately broken. To ensure that the players can focus, Gareth Southgate has clearly taken one for the team and said to himself, “Well, if someone has to be injured, I might as well fall over in the woods and dislocate my shoulder.” Gareth, you are fast becoming Laughology’s hero (although, during our training sessions, this is not something that we generally recommend)!
Another example of learning from previous mistakes, is when Joe Hart refused to entertain the press by speaking about the squad’s darts matches, during the 2016 Euros. This time around, there have been ‘players versus journalists’ tournaments and, in press conferences, the whole squad has been rolled out to willingly answer questions. Hopefully, this will mean that, in turn, the press corps will behave itself if and when the dream is over.
And finally, for fear of stating the obvious, there is one more pattern that needs to be broken, after 52 years of hurt. Wouldn’t it be amazing if the country could celebrate England winning the World Cup, as the BBC imagined at the beginning of the campaign? We can but dream!
To FLIP your team:
- Help people to understand when they have lost their focus and have become feelings-led. This includes playing devil’s advocate (in a supportive way), if you think they are being irrational.
- Model positive language and a ‘can-do’ attitude. If a colleague or pupil says that they can’t do something, remind them that they can’t do it yet, but with effort and practice they will be more likely to achieve their goal.
- Encourage people to use their imagination, when they are faced with a problem. Explain that there are usually lots of potential answers and then give them time and space to generate solutions.
- Ask your team, “If we were to be the most successful and happiest department, what would we be doing differently?”
- Introduce STOP, START and CONTINUE sheets into your team meetings. Then ask people which patterns of behaviour are helpful and should continue, which ones are unhelpful and should stop, and what would they like to start doing differently.
- And finally, book a Laughology FLIP session or buy Stephanie Davies’ book – like Gareth!
Sarah’s accomplished teaching career spanned more than twenty years and her experience as a highly-successful head makes her the perfect advisor and facilitator for Laughology’s education programmes. Her wealth of experience and knowledge of the inner-workings of schools and the education sector are invaluable in helping us to help schools, teachers and young people flourish.