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World Cup 2018: How can England keep their cool in the World Cup semi-final against Croatia?

Ahead of the England vs Croatia semi-final World Cup game on Wednesday (July 11), Dr Philip Clarke, Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Derby Online Learning, discusses what the England players need to do to ensure they stay calm on the pitch and perform well under the pressure.

By Dr Philip Clarke - 10 July 2018

England have made it into their first semi-final World Cup for 28 years, so this Wednesday’s game will be immense for the players, their coaching team and fans.

The simple trick to how they can succeed in Wednesday’s game? They need to carry on doing what they have been doing the entire World Cup.

What has worked well for the team so far?

What has been fantastic this time around for this England team is that the coaching staff, and particularly Gareth Southgate, have created a really positive and effective environment. Each player seems to have a very important role within the team with the majority of the team playing at the World Cup so far. Also, this is the first time in a number of years where there seems to be very little drama being made about the team, no major injury incidents, player errors or even ill-discipline on the pitch, which has meant that England have just quietly made their way to the semi-final. For this the coaching staff and Gareth should be commended.

From a psychological perspective, the benefits of this are evidenced in two examples. The first being how England managed the penalty shoot-out in the England vs Columbia game. This is something that has ended many a tournament for teams of English past. However, it was really interesting hearing after the shoot-out how the players focused on being process-orientated and not on what has happened in the past. This is further evidenced as, after Jordan Henderson missed, the team still remained calm and Jordon Pickford made a fantastic save.

This type of focus meant that even as the pressure rose, and fans were thinking ‘here we go again with England on penalties,’ the players just focused on what job they had to do, and they went out there and did it.

Secondly, what has also impressed me from a psychological perspective is the level of cohesion and togetherness among the team. There is a real sense of comradery between the players and the coaching staff. The players really have worked together throughout all of the matches in the World Cup, and have focused on a ‘togetherness attitude’, rather than a reliance on individuals to make the games a success, and this has paid dividends. Even when star man Harry Kane found it difficult to create opportunities in the quarter final, there were other players in the team to contribute to the scoring, and the pressure isn’t all on Kane. Considering Kane is leading the chase for the golden boot with six goals, players from all over the pitch are contributing, with the likes of Stones, Maguire and Lingard all getting on the score sheet.

What do the players need to do now?

1. Focus

The players now need to focus on the game in hand. They will, undoubtedly, feel an enormous amount of pressure to do well in the semi-final. As well as playing well, it’s how they handle the situation psychologically that will make a difference. Just as they have been doing, now more than ever, they need to remain process-orientated and just play the type of football they have been doing all along.

2. Relax and enjoy it

A World Cup semi-final is something that not many players can say they have played in before, therefore it’s understandable that this will come with added pressure and nerves. The trick is to try and find calmness in the chaos and ease into your game.  By taking the time to focus, it means the players are less likely to force and rush the games, leading to forced errors on the pitch.

Mistakes will be made – that is totally normal – but they need to think of the game as any other performance and go out and enjoy it and really embrace the opportunity to perform and show the rest of the world just how good they are.

The England players also need to take pride and confidence from their performances in the World Cup so far. They seamlessly beat Sweden at the weekend and, while the Columbia game was more difficult, they were the better team, and were unlucky to concede in the 90th minute. Therefore, the fact they got through it means there is a great deal of confidence to take from it. England has already beaten expectations of the public, and they have done remarkable, so they must remember that and play with a sense of fearlessness. What have they to lose?

3. Don’t panic about penalties

Penalties have previously been a difficult situation for England players. However, given how well they got through the last 16, if the game does go to penalties, England know from recent experience that not only can they manage the expectations of it, but they can perform well in it too. This is especially the case for Jordon Pickford, who has made some truly world class saves at this tournament. If the semi-final game against Croatia does end in penalties, England need to look at it as an opportunity for success, not as a chance to fail. They have shown already this tournament they can get through this.

4. Think individually – and as a team

There is no doubt that the players will be nervous about Wednesday’s game.This is a World Cup semi-final match and is a big deal. However, when the players find themselves thinking about the scale of the match, they need to just bring it back to the task at hand. Focus on what they can control and what they can influence. They can’t control the outcome of the match, but they can influence it by focusing on what physically they can bring to the game. Focus on the tactics and what they can do themselves during the game to be successful; mentally walking through in their minds what their positions are on the pitch and what they can do to help make the match a success. The sense of togetherness means that every player is willing to go the extra mile to support their team mates. This is evident in the distances covered by the players so far in this tournament. Focus on that, giving everything to the team, and then what will be will be.

5. Pressure management

It’s not just in football when people experience pressure. Individuals face pressure in their everyday lives, for example a job interview for their dream job. One simple tip to help manage the pressure is to just take a deep breath to calm the mind and re-focus; this prevents the mind from running away from you. Focusing on past negative experiences or worrying about the future is not helpful either; the trick is to focus on the present moment, breathing is a way of helping with that.

What can fans do to help?

As well as the players feeling the pinch this week, so will their fans who will be in the stadium on Wednesday night. The team has already achieved well over the expectation going into the tournament, which for most people was to get out of the group stage. The players feed off the energy and buzz of the fans, so no matter what stick behind them. We have already seen at this World Cup some very last minute goals, England have seen that against Tunisia in a positive way, and against Columbia in a negative. Therefore, no matter what the scoreboard says, stick behind them and stay positive.

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About the author

Dr Philip Clarke
Senior Lecturer in Psychology

Dr Clarke's area of expertise is in performance under pressure and the psychological predictors and mechanisms that are associated, specifically for 'choking' and 'the yips' within sport.

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