Mind Your Language: Why Favourites Fail and Underdogs Prevail

James Haskell, England International and Lions rugby player, sits down for an interview.  He starts talking about Richie McCaw, the most capped All Black of all time and twice world cup winner; “Apparently, at the start of every day, he writes ‘start again’ in his diary…”  He sits back and considers this, looking perplexed, “I can’t believe he would write ‘start again’ every day.” I can believe it. He says it in his advert for Beats headphones so it must be true.  The point I’m getting at is that it doesn’t really matter.  Successful sportspeople are able to endorse any mythology without getting too bogged down in the details. They spin the power of language to their advantage; they spin yarns to get an edge.

John Baugh, an American psychologist, once conducted an experiment with two groups of students, both having to unscramble a series of sentences with a mixed up order of words.  The first group was given words such as ‘interrupt’, ‘bold’, ‘bother’, and ‘disturb’, whilst the second group were given ‘respect’, ‘polite’, ‘yield’, and ‘considerate’, but without either party noticing any particular bias.  Once the test was completed, they were to hand it back to a receptionist, who, as part of the experiment, they found deeply engaged in conversation, keeping the students waiting.  Baugh had expected only a slight difference in reaction.  Perhaps students from the first group would interrupt the conversation slightly earlier than the second.  In fact, while it took nobody longer than five minutes to interrupt in the first group, 82% of the second group didn’t interrupt at all. Without getting into a deconstruction of semiotics, it’s clear that there is a link between language and action, both in sport and in other walks of life.

McCaw’s mantra is language acting as the ultimate performance-enhancing drug

The kind of slogan used by Richie creates an atmosphere of respect, hard work, and focus on performance.  But it also breeds an incredibly potent narrative of ‘underdog’.  McCaw literally breaks himself down to novice level every day, thriving on this mantra not just in training, but in his equally humble ‘sweeping the sheds’ philosophy after training, where all the players, from gnarled veterans to baby-faced newbies, tidy up after themselves.  A team like that, despite the pressure of being expected to win every test match they play, will mentally take themselves back to a Sunday League state, relishing the new, exciting experience of having a runout with your mates.  “Start again” isn’t just an empty buzzword used to sell extortionately priced headphones.  It is language acting as the ultimate performance-enhancing drug, and there aren’t many top rugby clubs where you won’t find it readily available for easy consumption.  On the weekly playbooks. Around the gym.  Plastered to the shower walls.

I watched a lot of the Olympics in Rio this year, and found the BBC’s support and enthusiasm for team GB infectious (if, according to some, controversially one sided).  The Olympic Games are, in the most affirming sense of the phrase, all fun and games.  True, the biggest names like Bolt and Phelps are expected to deliver gold every time they compete.  But the Olympics is celebrated precisely because the world (and the press) are there to be inspired by sporting greatness, not to inhibit athletes by criticising a dip in form or exemplifying failure.  This in turn translates into athletes fulfilling their potential, because the predominant pressure that they have to handle is the pressure they put on themselves.  And for the most part, the fresh crop of British talent seems to have taken a crash course in self-persuasion to cope with this.

Take Britain’s Dina Asher-Smith. She holds the women’s 100m and 200m British records and whilst training for Rio, she was also doing an undergraduate history degree at King’s College London. Many young athletes would point, as Dina did, to the rigorous demands of preparing for both.  Few, I imagine, would prioritise them quite so starkly: “The Olympics is a once-in-four-years thing… you’re only going to go through being an undergraduate once.” This sense of perspective is crucial in making sure prior sporting achievement doesn’t swell expectations for what is a completely different scenario. “Make sure every assignment counts” is a masterful reframing of the “make every practice count” mantra used by sports clubs around the world. Whilst there is always a certain degree of adhering to a particular party line, if it’s repeated and bought-into on a subconscious level, that’s all that matters.

Whilst most individual Olympic events don’t match up to major international tournaments in terms of media scrutiny and the blood-baying rhetoric found in the press, the model used by Team GB could and should be adopted by the rest of British sport. England football could certainly use the help, with their Euro 2016 debacle just the most recent chapter in a 50-year tragic saga.

It’s too easy to dismiss the whole thing as sheer weight of expectation alone, but the difference in hype and expectation between Team GB and England football is hard to completely ignore. Team GB went out to Rio with the brief that a medal haul ‘a little less’ than London would be a success.  England went out to Iceland with footage of the French team, their presumed quarter finalists, already being blared into their eyes, like a Clockwork Orange, before a ball had even been kicked.  Hodgson’s men unequivocally choked. And whilst the nation could be more understanding and the media could be less nasty, do you really believe the media pressure put on McCaw to deliver a World Cup in his own back yard wasn’t just as gargantuan?

Language is crucial in harnessing pressure… the greatest professionals can tap into their inner amateur when the heat is on

Of course, the story of favourites choking and Davids taking down Goliaths is as old as sport itself.  But what needs to be addressed is how subconsciously a particular narrative or turn of phrase can influence a sportsman on a day-to-day basis, and how important it is to think a little more carefully about the language we use. Dr. Dave Alred MBE, Jonny Wilkinson’s kicking coach, made it clear that language is crucial in reframing perceptions and harnessing pressure. We need to instil some form of core underdog values to help alleviate that pressure and bring back the joy in wearing the shirt. After all, the greatest professionals are the ones who can tap into their inner amateur when the heat is on.

The narrative in the England changing room needs to change from that of the legacy of ’66 and become that of a team exceeding historic expectation. It may sound a bit wishy-washy, and I’m not saying they need to stare at a plucky bulldog for hours to gain a bible of inspirational quotes, but they do need to reverse the FA’s oblivious demands for success at every major tournament.  If they are able to harness the child-like enjoyment that Marcus Rashford seems able to play with every time he steps onto the field then they would at least be on the right track.

I was screaming, along with any die hard England fan, for the men with the Three Lions on their chest to grow up as they crashed out of Euro 2016.  But that’s the opposite of what they need to hear, and certainly the opposite of what they need to write.