If you love football, you will have been on the edge of your seat for the past two weeks.
If you don’t love football, please don’t click somewhere else just yet. Yes, this post is going to be full of footie metaphors, but you need to know something: the 2018 World Cup has so far been about so much more than jingoism and partisanship.
In an extraordinary game between Belgium and Japan, we saw professionalism and sportsmanship of the highest order. The Japanese also famously cleaned up their own locker room despite an agonising last-minute defeat.
England manager Gareth Southgate was pictured consoling Colombian Mateus Uribe (and promptly won the internet) after our own dramatic win on penalties.
It’s been feelgood, relentlessly good-natured (unless you’re Colombian, in which case <HARD STARE>) and full of bravado performances which have stood out all the more on the canvas of green turf because of the environment, calibre and approach.
Since I’m an obsessive about teams, team dynamics and efficiency, sport is a great window into performance, and it got me wondering what it was about this World Cup that was making a difference. Here are a few thoughts.
Both Japan and England have shown that nobody is bigger than the team. Sure, players have standout skills; but England’s young team are starting to look like exactly that: a team. In times past, the England side has enjoyed standout moments from the likes of Beckham, Rooney and Lampard – but those standout moments only happen consistently with the support of the rest of the team. When everyone not only knows their own skills, roles and responsibilities, but also respects the contribution of others and the skills that they have, that’s the hallmark of a high performing team.
It takes effort to succeed, and that’s hard in a world which rewards quick wins. Sport is one of the last places where we reward long-term effort and incremental improvement. For every Usain Bolt who changes the game, 99.9% of athletes take years to perfect their craft. In Gareth Southgate’s words (referring to that penalty shootout), “It’s not about luck. It’s not about chance. It’s about performing a skill under pressure. There are things you can work on, things that can be helpful for the preparation for the players. We have studied it. There is a lot we can do to own the process, and not be controlled by it.” Elsewhere, we reward short cuts and fame over hard work (as one wag pointed out, more people applied for this year’s Love Island than Oxford or Cambridge Universities), but real value lies in long-term commitment.
Plan. Until you can’t plan. Ex England Manager, Sam Allardyce, recently said that England have outshone the competition in set piece football during this World Cup. Set pieces – from corners to penalties – are the things you can practice for; the things you can improve on and get better at. One secret to high performance is to plan, plan and plan again for set pieces and predictable circumstances until they become second nature. Thereafter, the key judgement skill is in realising when circumstances are going to take you off piste: how to rally for the unforeseen, remain positive in the face of adversity and unpredictability, and to be ready to react to change. The liberal use of substitutes in the Colombia game was a great example of throwing the kitchen sink at a problem when circumstances demand it.
There’s also a certain value in committing to a course of action itself. It doesn’t matter if it’s right or wrong: wavering and uncertainty are more dangerous than a wrong decision. Football is littered with short-term management decisions, so coaches and managers might as well commit and take the consequences for better or worse. It’ll be better than waiting in hope that an easy decision will come along.
And finally, we turn to management. Gareth Southgate comes with a huge bonus to his young team: he’s been there. He’s served his country and suffered the indignities of a penalty shootout crisis. Real experience counts for a lot – and we should cherish managers who rise up through the ranks for this reason. He’s also exhibited exceptional situational awareness and resilience – in stark contrast to the more ‘alpha’ managers of the past; some of whom, like Allardyce, seem to have had a few too many horses in the running.
All these bode well for Saturday. I’ll have everything crossed!