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The 12th man and a ‘leaderful’ team, the psychology of England’s Euro 2020 success

07 July 2021

Ahead of England’s Euro 2020 semi-final against Denmark tomorrow, psychologists have explored some of the psychological factors behind the England team’s success so far.

The support of a home crowd, a sense of unity and brilliant team culture and opportunity to lift the mood of a nation are all cited as driving factors behind the team’s success.

Professor Alex Haslam, a member of the British Psychological Society’s Division of Sport and Exercise Science, says:

“We know that teams get significant benefit from playing at home, and that there are multiple reasons for this — most of which centre on issues of social identity (the sense of ‘us’ that people derive from group membership).”

“Teams generally feel more comfortable on home turf in ways that allow them to relax into their performance and feel less self-conscious and stressed. They benefit from the social support of their own fans in ways that have been shown to improve performance and there is also evidence that they tend to get the rub of the green when it comes to refereeing decisions. At the same time, all of these things are moderated by how good the team is, and how well it is playing.

“Perhaps this year, though, more than any other in recent memory, England are well placed to make home advantage really count by leveraging these different group dynamics.  They are playing well as a team, their fans are behind them, and they are benefitting from excellent leadership.”    

Exploring in more detail the culture in the England camp, Professor Haslam says it is clear that there is a social identity to the team which the country has embraced.

“The key point here is that whether or not a team does well, and how it’s players feel about themselves and each other, centres on the extent to which they embrace a shared sense of ‘us-ness’. It also requires leadership. One of the key functions of a leader is to help to create, advance, represent and embed a sense of shared identity in their team.

"This is something at which Gareth Southgate has palpably excelled — supported by many other members of his team. Southgate has underscored how important it is not just for the team to develop a positive shared identity, but for this identity to be one that the whole country can embrace — not least because it speaks to the diversity of both the team and the country.

"This commitment to ‘us’ has meant that Southgate hasn’t had to share the burdens of leadership alone; instead they have been widely shared throughout the team.  As a result, the team shares a characteristic of all effective teams by not relying on the wisdom and talents of a single leader to take the group forward but rather by being ‘leaderful’.”

After the difficulties of the last 16 months, there is a feeling that the whole collective-psyche of the country is being boosted by the England team’s success. Professor Haslam explains there is evidence between sporting success and the wellbeing of a country.

“We have seen research undertaken in New Zealand during the 2015 World Cup which showed clear links between sporting success and the wellbeing of a country. It seemed that this is because winning provided everyone with a shared sense of collective achievement that was a basis for a country-wide feeling of togetherness and social connection. This same phenomenon is apparent as England progress in Euro 2020."




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