England really could ‘choke’ at the World Cup because of the pressure placed on them by expectant fans, according to new research.
A succession of failed managers have moaned Premier League stars who regularly play well for their clubs become inhibited when they pull on the Three Lions shirt.
Now scientists have shown if a sports team plays a vital game such as the early knock out stages, the stress means they are more likely to make mistakes – and lose.
The finding sheds light on England’s long history of disasters in international tournaments.
Even the ‘golden generation’ of Steven Gerrard, Paul Scholes, Wayne Rooney, Frank Lampard, Michael Owen, David Beckham, Ashley Cole, John Terry and Sol Campbell always came up short.
It has been suggested they became weighed down by national expectation and worried about damning headlines that can also upset family and friends.
Roy Hodgson was so concerned about players ‘choking’ at the 2010 World Cup in Brazil he even brought in renowned psychiatrist Dr Steve Peters.
They ended up being hammered 4-1 by Germany in the first knock out match.
But no one had ever explored the effect of high pressure situations on performance in a real world team situation.
So Dr Yair Galily and colleagues examined statistics from NBA (National Basketball Association) play off games in the US to see how athletes with a lot at stake coped in actual matches.
They predicted teams would perform better when their backs are against the wall – meaning they would be more likely to win critical play offs where losing meant elimination from a league.
Dr Galily said: “We analysed 1,930 playoff games to test this prediction.
“We calculated the probability that a team would win, if losing meant that they faced elimination from the play offs.”
They expected the results would support psychological theory. But, to their surprise, the researchers found the reverse was true.
Dr Galily, of the Interdisciplinary Centre, Hertzlya, Israel, said: “Theories predict that individuals exert the most effort, and therefore produce their best performances, when the possible returns for their success – or the consequences of their failure – are highest.”
The researchers included the relative strength of the teams in their calculations to make sure their results took this into account.
Strikingly, they found the threat of elimination actually made teams more likely to lose, suggesting they choked in ‘sink or swim’ games.
The effect was significant.
For example, if a home team had a 65 per cent general win probability during the play offs, this fell to 55 per cent in games that were critical for them, but not the visitors.
But if the game was critical for the away team, and not the hosts, the former’s win probability soared to almost 74 per cent.
Other studies have found evidence high pressure situations can lead to reduced performance and less success.
This happens when someone becomes overly focused on how to complete a task, rather than just doing it.
But many of these were carried out under controlled conditions, such as asking footballers to take penalties while observed by researchers.
Dr Galily’s is unique in that it looked at professional basketball teams playing for survival in massively important NBA play offs.
The study published in Frontiers in Psychology comes as England attempt to end 52 years of hurt at the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
Two years ago they were humiliated at Euro 2016, going out 2-1 to little Iceland, which turned out to be Hodgson’s last match in charge.
For embarrassment, it rivalled the 1-0 defeat by the US at the 1950 World Cup in Brazil.
England possibly have the worst record for choking in international football – especially when it comes to penalty shoot outs.
In the 1990 World Cup semi-final Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle were the unfortunate two who missed against Germany.
Eight years later it was David Batty and Paul Ince’s turns in a last 16 showdown with Argentina.
The 2006 quarter-final shootout against Portugal also remains forgettable – thanks to Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher.
At Euro 2004 David Beckham and Darius Vassell were joined together in ignominy – in another quarter final against Portugal.
Eight years later it was the Ashleys, Young and Cole, who came up short in another quarter final against Italy.
Dr Galily said the finding has wide reaching implications – and may be applicable to a variety of high pressure situations, such as those found in the workplace.
He added: “The results from our analysis are relevant to the workforce and many other domains.
“We suggest leaders and managers should refrain from deliberately building high pressure environments to try to enhance performance in their subordinates.
“They should adopt the ‘just do it and enjoy’ path.”