ESPN soccernet - February 2010
After a decade of waning confidence, as the Kevin Keegan, Sven Goran Eriksson and Steve McClaren reigns failed to live up to early promise, England are once more considered serious contenders as they prepare for this summer's World Cup.
Previous failings have fuelled pessimism, but Italian coach Fabio Capello wasted no time in attacking the root cause of the team's deteriorating performances. Even before he took the job, Capello recognised that England lacked confidence and mental strength.
After watching McClaren's men lose 3-2 to Croatia in November 2007 and fail to reach the European Championships for the first time in 24 years, he told Italian TV: "They look afraid to express themselves."
Replacing McClaren the following month, Capello has spent the last two years working to eliminate the issue by focusing on four key areas of mental toughness.
Capello has forged a sense of belonging within his squads, creating an environment in which players feel that they have an identity. He has insisted on simple rules, such as wearing official squad blazers and banning mobile phones from meal times, and ordered that his players eat together without any unnecessary distractions. There was even the alleged incident of his throwing a tray at the wall to express his displeasure when Emile Heskey ignored this rule in Ukraine.
This simple approach has been in direct contrast to the cliques and divisions forged by domestic rivalries that have characterised other England managers' reigns, with players often looking like they would rather be elsewhere. It means that all members of the squad know that there will be time and opportunity to integrate within the England environment, and they also know what is expected of them, be it from established figures such as David Beckham or young hopefuls such as James Milner.
Bob Sutton and Jeffrey Pfeffer are two management scientists who suggest that 'The Otis Redding Problem' is a mistake many coaches make. The problem is named after the line in the song (Sittin' On) The Dock Of The Bay:
"I can't do what ten people tell me to do
So I guess I'll remain the same."
The problem is that, when we listen to too many people's views and ideas, we can't satisfy them all and often end up doing nothing. Capello leaves no-one in any doubt that he is the one man they need to listen to and please.
Feeling in control
One of Capello's first acts after taking over as head coach was to minimise the significance of playing at Wembley stadium. Previously, players had spoken about the pressure and the weight of expectation that accompanied playing at the national stadium and how it inhibited their performance. This gave a great indication that they were focused on an area outside their control.
Tony Blair always wore the same pair of shoes in the House of Commons during Prime Minister's Question Time. During his presidential campaign, President Barack Obama played basketball on the morning of every election on his path to the White House.
Football players are notorious sticklers for superstition as well. The desire for control is so powerful, and the feeling of being in control so rewarding, that they often act as though they are controlling the uncontrollable.
Capello adopts an approach Winston Churchill recommended. He makes two lists: a list of all the things you can do something about and a list of the things you can't do anything about. Churchill suggested that one should "do something about the things you can do something about - and then go to sleep".
Capello speaks only of the areas that come within the control of the players - their passing and ability to keep the ball, their concentration levels - and refuses to discuss the areas that are not within their remit. This focuses each player on the basis of their role within any given match, and is in contrast to previous managers, who may allow their squad to divert their attentions to more uncontrollable factors such as penalty shoot-outs.
Most of us desire the positive emotions brought about by feeling valued. In a recent UK survey, 99 out of 100 people reported that they wanted to be around positive people. Capello is one such person. These people also reported being more productive when they are around positive people who value them.
Jose Mourinho once spoke at a seminar for youth sports coaches and used the analogy of the 'emotional tank' to get coaches to think about the right ratio of praise, support and critical feedback: "The emotional tank is like the petrol tank of a car. If your car's tank is empty, you can't drive very far. If your emotional tank is empty, you are not going to perform at your best."
After the emotional tank analogy was introduced, I tried an exercise with the coaches I worked with and asked them to imagine that the person next to them has just missed an important chance in a game. The coaches are challenged to say something to the person to drain his emotional tank. Since clever put-downs are a staple of many sports, the exercise is embraced with noticeable enthusiasm. The room fills with laughter as coaches get into the exercise, sometimes with great creativity.
Then the coaches are asked to imagine that someone else has made the same mistake, but they're now in charge of filling that person's emotional tank. This generates a more muted response. The room often gets very quiet, and you finally hear a feeble "Nice try!".
Capello's use of the emotional tank will become more prevalent nearer the tournament as he seeks to build up his players' levels of confidence.
Two men are hiking in a forest when they disturb a bear. It is the time of year when bears are easily upset and, true to form, the bear comes after them. The men run for their lives. They have a good start on the animal but four legs are better than two and the bear gets closer and closer. Suddenly one of the men stops, takes off his backpack and sits down on a log.
"What the hell are you doing?" his friend asks, not wanting to stop. He can see the bear's teeth bared.
"I'm changing my shoes," he replies calmly, removing his heavy hiking boots and slipping on a pair of fancy running shoes.
"You're crazy!" his friend shrieks, running to a spot behind a large tree. "You'll never outrun a bear, even in those."
"I don't have to outrun the bear," the man says, standing up and jogging alongside his friend. "I only have to outrun you."
It's an old joke, but it illustrates the way Capello motivates his players. The nation has put huge pressure on the team in the past, but England's players cannot expect to be perfect in South Africa.
Rather than giving his squad illusive or impossible benchmarks, Capello shows the players that they only need to better their opponents, and gives them tangible means of doing so.