Former Professional Cricketer, Chartered psychologist and Author Steven Sylvester feels some sympathy for the England players, manager and staff. He suggests the nations high expectation to win triggered an extreme level of ego in our unbelievably young and wealthy players. Such a toxic mix created too many self-centered players, which in turn, stopped them playing as a team. Sylvester believes, instead of the players and management getting flak from all quarters they should get a leadership structure that helps them develop a way of dealing with their ego’s under such immense pressure so that they can in the future play as one.
Iceland truly shocked the world with their victory over England who gave, as former captain Alan Shearer described, the “worst performance” he has ever seen from the national team. Immediately after the game, Manager Roy Hodgson resigned in abject embarrassment of losing to a nation ranked 34th in the world reflecting the catastrophe that was his teams performance.
Over the past twenty years Sylvester has worked with a number of world champions and elite athletes and found that being selfless was more effective in sustaining high-level performances. His conclusion was that the ‘pursuit of winning for one’s self significantly increases our likelihood that we become selfish as we seek to protect, boost our self-esteem and avoid fear through winning’. This is outlined in his book DETOX YOUR EGO, which focuses on helping people understand their ego (a sense of self importance) and how to understand it through the withoutEGO philosophy – a seven-step detox process.
“I believe a way to solve the problem with English football is to increase our general understanding of the toxic mix of money, fame and power. All three are responsible for triggering Ego, which in turn, inhibits the collective excellence of our national team over many years. In contrast, massive credit must go to the Icelandic players, coming from a country of just 323,000 people, they paid complete attention to what the team needed for success, working as one, communicating as one to deliver a collective performance.”
“On the other hand the culture of greed, power and control within English Football has bred such a level of individualism that our players were unable to unite under the intense pressure, epitomised by their inability to make a string of complete passes in the second half let alone capitalise on any chances. England’s leadership or lack of it has cultivated an environment that does not allow for the players to freely express themselves, whether that be discussing team problems openly or expressing their skill during the game.”
“Watching the match, I’m sure everyone will agree that our players under stress chose self-interest over team-interest as they went about trying to show how they could individually solve our performance challenges. We saw countless shots far off target and no structured attempt on goal. What is more, no one took control and led the team following Iceland’s early goal. The fact this couldn’t be resolved by the end of the game demonstrates a complete lack of unity.”
“We have the quality and passion in the side in order to be successful on an international stage, however we need a deep sense of leadership and cultural change to bring about the togetherness and clarity needed to win on the global stage. The uncomfortable truths about issues such as: team selection, team roles and team clarity need to be thoroughly discussed. In this way the elephant in the room will not be avoided. The FA needs to urgently seek someone who can minimise ego and maximise the team ethos, such as Eddie Jones has done within English Rugby. In my book I discuss how we can become transformational leaders than inspire collective excellence through operating selflessly and bring about a value based approach to performance which is exactly what the nation needs.”
Sylvester discusses his Seven Step process to DETOX YOUR EGO below and how this could be applied to English Football.
Conclusion: How the England team can detox their ego
1. Believe in ‘mastery’
Young players are nurtured and taught to win. Losing is often unacceptable, as the results become everything regardless of level. An expectation of “I am a winner” or “I am a loser” (win-lose mindset) creates stress and anxiety and can lead to poor ways of thinking. Instead, helping players to focus on deeply mastering their contribution to the game leads to a better way of thinking. So, encouraging players to think about how they can master their relationships, teamwork, skills and craft is essential. A player’s enthusiasm and joy at doing this often gives an indication how far they want to go in football.
It was fascinating to observe the win-lose mindset of our England players when the pressure to score became paramount. Our players immediately got stopped by their thinking (ego’s) and were unable to express themselves freely. Instead, they needed to be calm and get immersed in the mastery of their skills to the best of their ability. Sounds simple but under stress this is a very difficult task. We would have been far less disappointed if we had come away with the same result but knowing the players had tried and played to their best capability, but in this tournament this was definitely not the case.
2. Love your errors
If you attend a Sunday morning youth football match you will often see the coach, parents or both getting emotional and shouting instructions to their young team as the need to win increases. Often there is a clear atmosphere of “getting it right” – but we hear the mantra: “you must learn from your errors”. However, I have regularly witnessed, from youth to Premier League where mistakes are not really accepted and criticism takes over. Such criticism from others only leads to an increase in self-criticism. This is very unhealthy and dangerous. For example, look at Joe Hart thumping his forehead with his fist and in the moments that followed paced up and down the edge of his area. His teammates also looked defeated and devastated at conceding a goal by Kolbeinn Sigthorsson which gave Iceland their early lead. The trick is to recover quickly from this ‘ego reaction’. This requires a different mindset. One that is accepting of errors and able to truly refocused on what they needed to do to get back on top rather than let the goal affect them. We must teach our young stars not to resist or ignore errors, but drill down into them, examine them, and in due course, learn to love them.
3. Be open
“However we cannot love our errors if we are closed to hearing criticism and negative feedback from others. The players needed to be open to each other and self manage the challenge provided by Iceland. This required a more intense level of communication between players as well as coaching staff. We should have seen more elaborate communication and leadership between the players in the same way as David Beckham did against Greece in 2001 when we faced exit from the World Cup (2002). Here he led by example through being open to the situation that he and his team faced. He didn’t avoid the thoughts of going out of the World Cup. Instead, he openly accepted that it was his responsibility to ensure it didn’t happen by pulling his sleeves up and reversing our fortunes. Against Iceland not one player led by example. Only when Rashford came on did we see a player work with total freedom and joy. Regardless of how difficult the match situation was, here was a young man totally open to facing the challenge – he led by example. His heart and mind were aligned and he was ready to impact the match coming off the bench. We must continue to encourage this free spirit in the face of adversity through paying attention to player’s levels of openness. Such openness enables players to lead by example.
4. Be consistent
From the very start of the Euro’s we didn’t consistently play well. We constantly chased the game in most of the group matches and our performances were up and down. Such inconsistency in our play, shows us that our players were thinking inconsistently – feeling one thing but doing another. This was an early warning sign of the impending failure to come. We needed players to align how they feel with what they do. For example, Harry Kane’s performances at the Euro’s were totally different to the levels he achieved during the Premier League. Why? Whilst there may be various arguments for this, one thing stands true that his body language between playing in the Premier League and the Euro’s were totally different. In the Premier League you witnessed a player totally connected and engaged. He appeared to be at one with no inner conflict for much of the time. However, in the Euro’s he appeared panicked and eager to close the gap between how he was feeling and what he was doing. He had separation between his heart and mind and as a result found it very difficult to get into any kind of rhythm and flow. We must enable players to explore how they can bring their emotions, mind and performance together so that they can have greater authenticity and integrity when under the intense pressure of a tournament. This was most definitely not the case against Iceland.
5. Have fun
The fun seems to have gone out of the game. Where are the characters that played with a good sense of freedom? Our players looked like that were being forced to go to work. Where did the love of just playing football go? How has wealth, fame and power impacted our players ability to perform? We must get our stars to reignite their childlike enthusiasm for the game so that they are just eager to show how much they love playing. You could see that the Icelandic players played with a spirit of selflessness. It was as if they were programmed to have fun by executing their play in unity. The Icelanders loved showing what they could do and in return their three thousand or so fans responded accordingly with various chants and lots of laughter. You only have to listen to the Icelandic commentator’s boisterous reaction to their goals to realise how much fun they were having as a nation. If you’re having fun, you’re freer – and if you’re freer, you’ll perform. We must engender our players to have more fun with their football and do whatever it takes to stop them looking down and miserable.
6. Be a giver – not just a taker
Heimir Hallgrimsson, joint Iceland team manager, emphasised how giving is a part of their team culture. He highlighted several important factors in building the team relationships by stating that “everyone had a part to play, everybody is friends, everybody is willing to work with each other. That’s a mentality you need for a small country to achieve things. You can’t do it with individuals. We are a family”. This is where being without ego is essential for success. Another example of such togetherness is the way they celebrated at the end of the match. It was amazing to watch the Iceland players doing the Seal Clap together in perfect synchronicity and unity with their fans. Such community spirit suggests money, fame and position aren’t differentiating the Icelanders in relational terms. What could our players learn from this level of togetherness? What can our players do to unconditionally give in the future? We understand intellectually about ‘unconditional’ giving, but our selfishness, our ego, means we often end up ‘taking’ more than giving.
7. Have clarity in Football
Having clarity of purpose is essential for success in anything, especially international football on a global stage. BBC pundit Jermaine Jenas said Hodgson “didn’t know” what he was doing, suggesting: He didn’t know his best team or system. It is impossible for players to serve our nation if there isn’t a clear vision of how we should play. Some other pundits have suggested that the manager’s thinking may have been muddled even before England arrived in France, due to frequent changes of personnel and approach – highlighted by the sudden re-introduction of Sterling. A lack of clarity resulted in England being shown up by the clear direction, hunger and togetherness of the Icelanders. If we look at English rugby we can clearly see the differences in how the players go about their work. How can essentially the same team work so differently under Jones compared to Lancaster? Today, the same players are looking more purposeful than they did at the World Cup because Jones’s leadership creates freedom for everyone in the system. In addition players can clearly see his thinking and decision-making – reducing ambiguity and uncertainty. Here players have greater alignment and personal meaning to perform with each other and for a leader who has transformed their hearts and minds.
It remains to be seen if the FA will follow suit and appoint a similar leader who will reduce the impact of fear and ego whilst cultivating the abundant talent of our players.