Under pressure: anxiety and a nation’s hope at the World Cup

By Candice Lingam-Willgoss

The expectation placed on Roy Hodgson’s 23-man England squad is immense – each player is representing a country that proudly boasts football as its national sport, and (rightly or wrongly) considers itself the birthplace of the world game. In a recent press conference when asked if he had a winning squad, Hodgson said:

Yes, of course I do. Why take a squad otherwise? But they’re empty words … If they don’t show their talent, all the optimism in the world counts for nothing.

His use of the term optimism is interesting as there has been some discussion on how this could be England’s year to win. However, as football psychologist Geir Jordet has warned, there is a risk that a highly favourable public appraisal of a team could be linked to displays of “escapist self regulation strategy”. What does this mean? From a psychological perspective, self regulation could be to calm yourself down or act in your long-term best interest – but when this is exhibited in an escapist manner, ie avoiding reality, this leads to a breakdown of the usual response and in turn can harm performance. Is this the factor that could stop England players “showing their talent”?

I asked former England U21 player and current Portsmouth Manager Andy Awford what he thought. He said he felt there had been a shift within the country and many have come to accept that England can’t be expected to win every tournament (which is helpful as they haven’t since 1966). “Expectations aren’t as high,” he said.

But football fans do represent a unique subculture of sports supporters. Rarely do you see such passion and emotional connection between fans and the sport they follow. This comes at a price, as players and teams are only seen as being as good as their last performance. There is no better illustration of this than the 1998 David Beckham incident, when England’s star player was vilified nationwide after being sent off for kicking an opponent in a display of extremely poor discipline. It took four years for Beckham to redeem himself, when he scored a match-winning penalty in the 2002 World Cup – again against Argentina. “It took everything that had happened, everything that had been said or written since my red card away,” he wrote in his autobiography, My Side.

This suggestion that public appraisal can influence performance links closely to anxiety and is something Jordet has also investigated. He has looked at the connection between public status and performance in high pressure sport tasks such as penalty shootouts. He found players who had higher public status tended to perform worse and engage more in escapist self-regulatory behaviour. For example, high-status players might perpare faster than usual, due to wanting to get the shot “over with” than players who have yet to win any major awards and are lesser known.

This concept of high public status is particularly relevant to the England squad which contains many players who are akin to Hollywood stars in terms of status and earnings. Could this go some way to explain why a player like Wayne Rooney is yet to score at a World Cup?

Anxiety and stress are terms commonly bandied about within the sporting world, with the competitive environment designed to elevate the arousal levels of not just the players but the fans as well. The need for athletes to control their emotions has led to much work being done on the sources of that anxiety within sport. How important an event is and uncertainty are among the most prevalent – no wonder things get so hard at the World Cup. The England team is a young squad, short on tournament experience – how will the players cope with this pressure?

This is something Awford remembers: “I’ve played for England and there’s a different mentality, its a different set up,“ he said. “The England shirt can be a heavy one to wear.”

But how does anxiety actually influence the performance of professional athletes? Surely they should just be able to interpret their emotions in the optimal way? Sadly the nature of the human mind is not so logical, and while players will endeavor to maintain the best mind set, the importance of the event and the expectations of a nation will result in heightened anxiety levels which can manifest in a number of different ways.

“Anxiety can lead to bad decisions,” Awford told me. It also leads to co-ordination difficulties, and problems with attention to detail, all of which can prove debilitating to performance.

While physical training can largely be controlled, and without doubt the best 11 man team will be on the pitch for England’s opening game, managers cannot determine their players’ reactions to the unique levels of pressure generated by representing your nation at the World Cup.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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