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24 September 2014
Science & Nature: TV & Radio Follow-upScience & Nature
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The England Patient
BBC Two 9.00pm Thursday 23 May 2002

Sven-Goran Eriksson has arguably transformed the England football team

The England football manager, Sven-Göran Eriksson, believes that modern soccer matches are not won on the pitch, but inside people's minds. This film examines not just how Eriksson got inside his players' brains, but how he is now starting nothing short of a revolution in English football thinking.

Eriksson's plan, devised with sports psychologist Dr Willi Railo, has two critical elements. These are to banish the crippling effects of the fear of failure from the minds of the England players, and to encourage them to train mentally as well as physically to reach the highest levels of performance - dubbed playing in 'the zone'.

Dr Willi Railo is a longstanding colleague of Sven-Goran ErikssonNeurologists and psychologists from some of Britain's most prestigious universities believe anxiety and the fear of failure can make top professionals turn in performances like amateurs, and that Eriksson and Railo have a way to help the England team endure the pressure.

Coping with pressure

Their view is that England's football past has been dogged by fear of failure. Piling on pressure and relying on patriotism to get people to perform doesn't work when - at heart - it's just 11 footballers taking on 11. If players accept they could lose (and that it's alright when they do) then they'll be less nervous and less prone to what's called 'choking'. When sportspeople choke, familiar instincts are overwhelmed by pressure.

Neurology shows the brain can practise moves just through visualising themMonitoring shows that people use different parts of the brain to perform actions which they are learning and those which are second nature. If the brain reverts to its learning mode, motor skills are constrained and that 89th minute penalty kick goes right over the bar.

Visualisation is fundamental to making sure people play to their best at all times. As far the brain is concerned, there's little difference between practising a movement and just thinking through it. By thinking in advance just how intense the pressure could be, Eriksson's players can avoid choking when critical moments arise.

David Beckham is one of Eriksson's chosen cultural architectsArchitects of their own success

Eriksson has a further psychological ace to play. For all his talk and motivation, he knows he's not there on the pitch. To carry his thinking onto the field, he relies on so-called cultural architects, players whose thinking is so close to his own that they do his bidding without even realising. The captain, David Beckham, is clearly one architect; the team keeps secret just whom the others might be.

Sports psychology cannot predict whether England will win the World Cup. However, it does show that - for once - England are going into a major competition with an unprecedented degree of psychological preparedness, a critical advantage that the side has never boasted before. Thirty years of hurt may soon be over.

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BBC Science - Science of football

BBC Sport Online - World Cup 2002

University College London - Department of Imaging Neuroscience

University of Edinburgh - Physical Education, Sport & Leisure Studies

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