have England lost their nerve? A psychologist explains

have England lost their nerve? A psychologist explains

Despite finishing top of their group, England’s football team has received much criticism for a string of lacklustre performances so far at the Euros. But why are England not living up to expectations? And what, if anything, can the team do to raise their performance level? Psychology can provide a useful perspective to better understand what is going on here: it’s called loss aversion.

Loss aversion is the tendency for people to strongly prefer avoiding losses over acquiring equivalent gains. In other words, people tend to place a higher value on preserving what they already have, even if it means forgoing potential rewards.

As a concept, loss aversion was born out of the work of psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky
and has been primarily used to understand economic behaviour. Their findings reveal that losing $100 feels 2.5 times more distressing than the pleasure of gaining $100 to those who are loss averse.

In sport, loss aversion can refer to situations where the pain of losing is more intense than the satisfaction of winning. When this happens, a loss aversive mindset predominates. A coach, for example, may focus on preventing goals rather than scoring them.

Gareth Southgate himself has received criticism for his ingrained conservative style of football, reflected by his tactical decisions and cautious game management. As a player, Southgate missed his spot kick during a penalty shootout in the semi-final of Euro 1996. Is it possible his own history has contributed to a loss-aversive mindset to avoid the pain of losing?

We know that the negative emotions associated with loss, such as regret, disappointment and anxiety, are often stronger and longer lasting than the positive emotions associated with gains.

Southgate’s loss-aversive tendency mitigates the risk and emotional pain of not qualifying to the latter stages of the Euros. This strategy has served Southgate well in previous tournaments, where England have regularly qualified through the group stages.

After all, the fear of losing resources, such as food, shelter or friends, has played a crucial role in ensuring the survival of our species. This instinctive response to protect what one already has was passed down through the generations. In football terms, this means defending a 1-0 lead, as England attempted in their matches against Serbia and Denmark.

The England boss has often praised his players for grit and resilience. This should come as no surprise because athletes who are motivated to avoid losses are determined to push through challenges and setbacks. However, the desire to avoid the pain of losing can cause athletes to choke under pressure. Choking happens when athletes fail to perform at their usual level due to anxiety brought about by high-stake competition coupled with a fear of failure.

The pressure for England to succeed and the fear of failing to meet expectations at an international tournament is a significant psychological burden. Despite their individual talents, when the risk of losing looms larger than winning, the weight of the England shirt can be a burden on players’ shoulders. The Lionesses, England’s women’s team, know how this feels, but triumphed by winning Euro 2022, raising expectation for the men’s team

Harry Kane has recently reminded ex-player pundits who have been critical of England’s performances to “remember what it was like to wear the England shirt”. Teammate Declan Rice has also made similar comments. In an era of hyper-punditry facilitated by multiple social media platforms, the fear of losing and the risk of choking for this England team has never been greater.

Harry Kane has hit back at recent criticism of England.
Mark Pain / Alamy

Negative critiques can feel personal and public, adding to the pressure that England’s players face. Senior players displaying leadership that publicly defends their team to counter pundit criticism might just be what England needs right now.

Sir Alex Ferguson often used media criticism to galvanise Manchester United, creating a “us v them” mentality that drove the team to numerous victories. Can Southgate and his captain do the same to help England’s players collectively cope with the expectations of playing tournament football?

England are entering the knockout stages of a major tournament and can no longer afford playing not to lose. They must be brave and play to win. Relinquishing loss aversion tendencies is not easy when the stakes are high. But can the lions find the siege mentality to break free of the psychological shackles of high expectations? Let’s hope so. Sunday’s game against Slovakia will tell.

The post “have England lost their nerve? A psychologist explains” by Andy Levy, Reader in Psychology, Edge Hill University was published on 06/28/2024 by theconversation.com