carnegieXchange: School of Sport

Should England expect?

In the build-up to the men’s European football championships, many media reports labelled England as one of the competition favourites. Such speculation and prediction regarding athletic performance is a central focus of media reporters’ attention in proximity to major sporting events. For the athletes and coaches about whom these reports are written, these expectations can be challenging to manage, regardless of whether they are positive or negative.

Image of Wembley stadium

For professional athletes, such as the England football team, who have the hopes of the nation on their shoulders, expectation management can be a stressful experience. So far, England’s players and coaching staff appear to have dealt with this pressure well. They have successfully navigated their way through the group stage without conceding a single goal, and can now look forward to locking horns with Germany in the Round of 16. So, what can we expect of England when they face Germany on Tuesday? Well, everyone seems to know the score. They’ve seen it all before…

1990. World Cup Semi-final. England 1 – 1 West Germany (West Germany won on penalties).

1996. European Championships Semi-final. England 1 – 1 Germany (Germany won on penalties).

2010. World Cup Round of 16. England 1 – 4 Germany.

Not since they last won the World Cup in 1966 – some 55 years ago – have England’s men beaten Germany in the knockout stages of a major football tournament. If left unchecked in the minds of sport performers, history lessons such as these can prove problematic (even prophetic) for those who carry the hopes and expectations of a proud footballing nation…and even if we throw our confidence firmly behind our footballing heroes, such weighty beliefs can be too heavy a burden for even world-class performers to bear.

Over the last decade, we (Dr Helen Heaviside, Dr Andrew Manley, Professor Susan Backhouse, and Dr Faye Didymus) have been conducting research which has looked at the consequences of expectations in high-performance sport.

This research has explored the experiences of athletes who have been the focus of expectations published within media reports ahead of major events. Findings of this research has demonstrated that high-performance athletes experience expectations from a wide range of sources including but not limited to the media, coaches, the public, family, friends, and the sport’s national governing body.

These expectations can have both positive and negative consequences for the athletes. Positively, the expectation can increase their motivation to train and give them a timely boost in helpful emotional states such as confidence and excitement. However, expectations can be unrelenting and difficult for the athletes to manage, particularly if they are frequently conveyed in close proximity to a major event, and where athletes have not had much experience of dealing with expectations on the world stage.

In such instances, the expectation can become more detrimental than beneficial, resulting in consequences such as a fear of failure, perceptions of pressure, nerves, reduced confidence, and magnifying the athletes’ own expectations of themselves. As an ultimate consequence, performance can falter. Our research has revealed that performance expectations can have both short-term and long-lasting consequences for the athlete. For many high-performance athletes, there is pressure to live up to the label of “hero” or “superhuman” that is so often reinforced within sources such as media reports. Therefore, although our expectations of athletes may be intended to reflect the admiration and support we wish to show them, these expectations can actually be detrimental to our much loved heroes.

So, what can England’s performers do to manage the expectations ahead of this week’s crunch encounter with one of their fiercest rivals? The athletes who have participated in our research have advocated a number of strategies they found useful. Most notably, the athletes said that they focused on controlling the controllables, meaning that they would identify and focus on things which were under their direct influence (e.g., nutritional intake, sleep hygiene, and other elements of the athlete’s pre-performance routine). It is interesting to hear England midfielder, Phil Foden, speaking about the team’s efforts to harness as much control and influence as possible over performance outcomes, even when it comes to the potential of a penalty shootout. Avoidance is another strategy reportedly used by high-performance athletes in managing expectations.

Examples of this would be athletes taking steps to avoid seeing, hearing, and reading any performance-related expectations, sometimes through methods such as ignoring social media. Indeed, this is a strategy that was previously advocated by the England manager, Gareth Southgate, as England prepared for the 2018 World Cup in Russia (it certainly didn’t appear to do them any harm during that tournament)! Similar to strategies endorsed by athletes within our research, Southgate has also previously encouraged his players to actively distract themselves to prevent thinking too much about the pressure associated with expectations (e.g., by reading a book, playing pool, socialising with others). The athletes should also put the event and expectation into perspective – after all, poignant events from earlier in the tournament serve to remind us that the outcome of a football match is not a life or death situation, despite what Bill Shankly might have said!

And, what can we all do to help support the England men’s football team and their head coach manage the performance expectations? Whether we are coaches, practitioners, and/or football fans, we should be aware of our expectations and their potential to influence our behaviours towards these athletes (e.g., touchline gestures; the pre-game team talk in the dressing room; comments posted on social media). It is promising to see that this is something constantly being considered by Gareth Southgate regarding his expectations and experiences of his England squad. Also, if we truly consider ourselves to be part of the athlete’s support team and have their best interests in mind, we should take responsibility for creating an environment in which athletes can feel comfortable to share their experiences openly and without fear of judgment. This is certainly relevant to our research regarding expectations and their consequences, yet goes far beyond this. In closing, if we really want to show our adoration for these inspirational people, we could do so much more than expressing what we expect them to achieve.

Dr Andrew Manley

Head of Subject / Carnegie School Of Sport

Andrew is a Principal Lecturer in Sport & Exercise Psychology. He also works as a Practitioner Sport and Exercise Psychologist supporting athletes and coaches from a range of sports and backgrounds.