Friday, 26 June 2015
I read with interest Mark Lawrenson’s assessment of why England’s Under 21 football team failed to make it through to the Semi-Finals of the European Championship but find it hard to accept his theory that because young players are paid so much they aren’t as hungry for success as other teams. I do agree that being paid a lot of money can have a negative impact on a player but it isn’t because they lack interest. The money creates obligations, expectations and demands on a player, all of which may be understandable but none of which are particularly beneficial to good performances. But does having a healthy bank balance really mean the players lack motivation?
I’ve been fortunate enough to work with many of the best young footballers in the country, including a number of England internationals, over the years and one thing is very clear; each and every one of them would be playing football no matter how much (or how little) they were paid. The main issue that young England players face, I feel, is the intense scrutiny they are put under, particularly from the fans and the media (including Mr Lawrenson). When most of us were the same age as some of these players, we were able to make our mistakes in private with little fear of ending up on the front pages of newspapers. When Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish drank too much on a holiday with his mates, he was only repeating what countless other 19 year-olds have done but in his case his photograph is shared online by millions of people and he is publicly chastised for it. When I did that kind of thing at the same age, the only real comeback was the hangover that resulted (which was bad enough).
From my experience, the main impediment these players have is the huge expectations that are placed on their shoulders. The mistakes they make on the field are scrutinised to such a degree by the coaching staff, the media and the fans, that they start thinking in terms of avoiding making any mistakes rather putting their attention on putting on a positive performance. The more you try and avoid something the more you end up focusing on it so, instead of thinking about playing easy, carefree football, they end up worrying about missing a tackle, making a bad pass, missing a shot or letting in a goal. As a result of this, they become unconfident, indecisive, hesitant and weighed down by the pressure. This lack of confidence plays a significant role in a player’s energy levels, movement and his ability to think clearly. Players suffer paralysis by analysis and so don’t play their natural, free flowing game. This is why they may seem lethargic. It is more a case of them being stifled rather than being unmotivated. If anything, the players I have worked with are too hungry for success to a point where the fear of failure is too great. To be a winner you can’t be afraid that you are going to lose.
Mistakes are a vital part of a learning process but if you fear making them you are going to have problems. The England one day cricket team has become rejuvenated because players were given permission to go and express themselves. Captain Eoin Morgan received comparatively little criticism for getting out first ball trying to hit a six in the final match against New Zealand because their strategy was to be positive. Mistakes were acceptable so the team played with immense freedom and energy.
England football could learn a lot from this. They need to focus on playing positive, high intensity and flowing football without fear of making mistakes and with a view of accepting the consequences whatever they may be. The media could play a role here by showing some understanding rather than making sweeping judgments on the players. I’m not holding my breath though. Unfortunately, many ex-players seem to forget the pressures they were under during their playing days.