With arguably the World’s most prestigious event on our doorstep, it will be the team who hold their nerve and rise to the occasion which will lift the World Cup. This article discusses the psychology and science behind control on the big stage, why individual players and teams rise to the occasion.
Over the years we have seen athletes and individuals perform successfully and unsuccessfully on the big stage in a variety of sports. Most recently, England’s Ashes tour of Australia was less than successful and, on the contrary Bayern Munich are dominating German Football. So what is it that makes them perform so consistently?
Before discussing control and rising to the occasion, I wish to mention a few underlying factors which will have an impact on this. For example, the philosophy and identity of the team or player will influence how they approach games. The preparation prior to competitive performances is essential, the phrase “leave no stone unturned” is more commonly used (rightly so) as it is critical teams/players prepare for every eventuality that could occur in competition. The more preparation one does, the more likely they are to be prepared for what will hit them in competition. So when you see individual players and teams performing at the World Cup it is not by luck! It is because they have built on their country’s identity, playing in the fashion they are coached, their preparation (both team and individual, on areas such as roles, support and understanding their jobs and responsibilities) while having good knowledge of the opposition. Even though opposition knowledge is extremely useful it is important players do not let this distract them from focusing on their own strengths and roles, and most importantly to focus on what they can control!
In relation to the World Cup there are other factors which come into consideration such as climate. My thoughts on this are that if the team have sufficiently prepared then the heat and humidity should not pose an issue. With all the facilities and high tech equipment countries have at their disposal today, if they are prepared and forward thinking, training in heat and humidity should be mandatory, alongside doing what a number of teams do including England, which is to train in hot climates such as Portugal and Miami.
So…if the teams prepare properly, they will have full control of the situation and this is what makes the difference in the greatest teams. Moving further on with this, preparing off pitch and implementing it on pitch can be tricky, due to other psychological factors, such as pressure. In some cases the jitters, yips (whatever you wish to call it) can affect the greatest players on the World Stage. It is the players who most embrace the Challenge who are likely to succeed.
The Challenge State is when the team or player embraces fighting spirit, playing to win, focusing on what can be gained with a physical emphasis on increased heart rate and disperse of hormones which can which cause vessels to open up (Blascovich & Mendes, 2000). The challenge states athletes enter, are associated with improved cognitive functioning and decision making (Jones, 2009). One of the most important assets associated with the Challenge state is “Being in Control”, (Jones, 2009). With underdog teams in the World Cup you will probably notice that some may have the attitude of going out there to make it extremely difficult for the opposition, which in turn releases pressure from the performance and is linked with the Challenge state. The best example of this would be in the FA cup when Premier League giants take on lower league minnows and lose! The giants would be thinking “we can’t lose to a lower league team” whereas the minnows would be saying “we have nothing to lose so let’s give it our all”.
Playing to strengths, taking control and rising to the challenge are key factors which will dictate the success rate of the England team in the World Cup and the bonus this year is that finally there is a sport psychologist on board the plane to Rio (well technically a psychiatrist however it is a step forward for English football).
So with the heat turned up, will England rise to the occasion?
Blascovich, J., & Mendes, W.B. (2000) Challenge and threat appraisals: The role of affective cues. In J.P. Forgas (Ed), Feeling and thinking: The role of affect in social cognition (pp. 59-82). Paris: Cambridge University Press
Marc V. Jones, Carla Meijen, Paul J. McCarthy, & David Sheffield. A theory of challenge and threat states in athletes. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 2(2), 161-180.
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About Ben Marks
BASES Probationary Sport and Exercise Scientist (Psychology), MSc, Passionate about Human Performance and currently working within Professional sport