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The England Team On The Couch

Cultural and Education Section of the British Embassy - British Council
 This article was generously provided to ClubFootball by the British Council, which operates in China as the Cultural and Education Section of the British Embassy.


Dr. Willi Railo, an eminent sports psychologist, has helped revolutionise English football by introducing techniques of mental preparation to a football culture immersed in traditional values of hard work and patriotism.


David Beckham's match winning penalty against Argentina in the first round of the 2002 World Cup was a highly symbolic moment for English football.


For the player the goal signalled the final stage of his redemption after being sent off after losing his cool and lashing out in the previous World Cup against the same opponents. For the team, the measured and focused finish illustrated how far they had come since crashing out of two of the previous three international tournaments on penalties.


At least some of the credit for this new found self confidence must be given to the well respected sports psychologist Dr Willi Railo who was brought on board to help the England team after Sven-Goran Eriksson took charge as manager and coach. Dr Railo has worked with many sports personalities to improve their game including the Swedish tennis legend Bjorn Borg.


Dr Railo diagnosed a common and obvious fault in the England camp immediately. The national team were under enormous pressure to succeed. At important moments in games they were seen to 'choke', or perform below expectations. During both the Euro 1996 semi-final against Germany and the France 1998 World Cup game against Argentina they panicked under pressure and missed penalties that sent them out of the tournaments.


They also tended to rely on traditional, old fashioned values to motivate themselves. Kevin Keegan, Eriksson's predecessor, emphasised commitment to the cause, to St George and Queen and Country. These virtues only added to the pressure on players. And the anxiety this caused only made players more self conscious about their game. It is believed in sports psychology that anxiety about one's game turns an act that should be second nature into a conscious amateur act. This can have a negative effect on a player's overall game and their ability to take penalties.


But there has always been a tendency to resist a more scientific approach to football success in England. This is a cultural phenomenon born out of English attitudes and beliefs that hard work and commitment are the most valuable and honest ways of playing a game.


Railo summed up the problem, "You are not playing better football because you are thinking of the Queen…to put a player under pressure because they are playing for their country is a bad thing, because it is irrelevant."


So Railo, introduced a new concept to the England team. He attempted to instil a sense of self belief and confidence in their own abilities and tried to make players lose their fear of losing that had so critically hampered their game in previous tournaments. 'Dare to lose a match in order to win it.' In this way the players could attempt to play to their full potential.


He also instilled other ideas into the team. The concept of 'visualisation' was introduced. He encouraged players to train mentally as well as physically. Practising in the brain is to do everything that is required to perform a task bar the physical execution. Prof Dave Collins of Edinburgh's Department of Psychology explains, "at least two-thirds of the brain activity is the same whether I'm actually physically practising or mentally practising." So to mentally practise a move can help a player to reach the peak level and eliminate anxiety during a game.


Nobody who watched David Beckham in the build up to his penalty against Argentina in the 2002 World Cup could have doubted that he was visualising his shot. The deep breaths, the blocking out of the pressures around him and within him and his calm finish are all evidence of this.


If England go on to greater successes than their quarter-final finish in the last World Cup the players and manager will be hailed as heroes by fans and media alike. But perhaps a little credit should also be given to Dr Willi Railo who has diagnosed and helped to treat an affliction that has so hampered the English game in the past.


Tony Grimes, July 2002


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