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Why England needed Gareth Southgate: How off-field influence helped build culture of success

With the help of four sports psychology experts, looking at the three pillars of Southgate's leadership, Sky Sports delves into the off-field ways of the England manager - everything but the technical and tactical - and why football needs more of his kind

Gareth Southgate England

"Gareth Southgate is England's biggest asset," said Gary Neville before Euro 2020 and at every opportunity since.

Managers are often overly praised when things go right, and the fall guy during struggles. But for Southgate, even when things have been going right over his five years in charge of England, praise has not come easily.

Through brave decision making and a person over player approach, Southgate has turned the biyearly cesspit of underperformance into a new England, one built on confidence over arrogance, teamwork over individuality, and a positive relationship with fear. Southgate will be the first to tell you the result does not always follow, but this summer they have.

With the help of four sports mindset experts with decades of experience in the professional game, looking at the three pillars of Southgate's leadership, Sky Sports delves into the off-field ways of the England manager - everything but the technical and tactical - and why football needs more of his kind.

Southgate during his time as Middlesbrough manager
Image: Southgate spent three years as manager of Middlesbrough, before working with the FA
The defining factor in a successful professional is mentality
Southgate in 2017

But what does that mean in a football environment?

What Southgate did not have when he took over the England job in September 2016 was a successful managerial CV, sacked after three years and a relegation with Middlesbrough, plus a disappointing early exit from the 2015 U21s Euros with England.

What he did have was years of study on leadership, and a deep understanding of the international game, its stresses and above all the England national team's acute association with fear.

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His tactical decisions and team selections have been disputed - if they are not playing, they should be, and apparently we know best - but Southgate has got more calls right than any England manager in the past 55 years.

But the traits less measurable with statistics have proven to be more important. How do we know this for sure? Because Southgate repeatedly talks about these characteristics.


Image: Southgate's clear empathy, authenticity and relationship with fear has created a psychologically safe environment in the England camp
My approach would be to have empathy with people. As a coach, you always have to be there to support the person - improving them as a player becomes secondary to a degree. But if a player feels that you respect them and you want to help them, then they are more likely to listen to you and follow you.
Southgate in 2017

Not to be confused with sympathy - the understanding of another's feelings, but with a certain distance - empathy defined is the actual experiencing of another's feelings, with the emotional component attached. To many, empathy is the cornerstone of modern leadership, as well as all therapeutic models.

Southgate captained every team he played for, but also experienced the lowest of lows in football; he knows the spectrum of emotions a footballer goes through.

In football terms, empathy takes on several forms.

It was there for all to see on the final whistle in Rome after the win over Ukraine; rather than celebrate, he went straight for Jack Grealish, arm over his shoulder, forehead to forehead, to no doubt reassure him of the part he still had a part to play for England. His ruthless yet team-first attitude was seen the very next game against Denmark, subbing Grealish on then off. Will Grealish be angry? Everyone wants to play, as we have heard a hundred times, but there should be a mutual respect after Southgate did what he thought was best for the team.

He wrote personal messages for every staff member during the World Cup in 2018, and his dealing of issues of discrimination - his comments on the abuse Raheem Sterling received, on taking a knee, and his open letter to the public before Euro 2020 - show an awareness not always replicated in many areas of football's governance.

Michael Caulfield, a sports psychologist working at Brentford and across rugby and cricket, with over 30 years of expertise in leadership in sport, worked alongside Southgate during his three years at Middlesbrough.

"Southgate hasn't rewritten or undone the way of management, but he's done the most important thing: he did it his way," he tells Sky Sports.

"That is based on his style of support, of empathy, of kindness and understanding. He's highly competitive and can be quite ruthless, but that doesn't stop you being decent at the same time; he's giving a modern lesson in decency at the moment."

Southgate could not be further from the cold, authoritarian football leader, a model that has had great success in its own right, but is becoming dated.

Drewe Broughton, who played 17 years across the EFL, has coached nearly 100 top-level players and companies in the City on coping with fear and emotional health, alongside running bootcamps for the Southgates of tomorrow to help coaches and leaders gain what they are missing.

His students include academy coaches, EFL coaches, ex-international managers, heads of football and current players all trying to understand themselves and the players they lead better.

"There have been a million examples of Southgate showing empathy publicly," Broughton tells Sky Sports. "He talks about what players have to deal with.

Southgate's missed penalty meant England were knocked out of Euro 96 at the hands of Germany
Image: Southgate's missed penalty meant England were knocked out of Euro 96 at the hands of Germany

"Having empathy is game changing in this environment. Some are born with higher levels of empathy than others, with emotional intelligence; Southgate has managed to remain in his feelings, whilst many lose theirs. He's able to access all that empathy, and you can't access it with buried feelings and emotions.

"Southgate didn't tap out on his emotions after Euro 96. He has not escaped those feelings of how tough it is to be a player.

"It's tough to be constantly judged by so many people, and Southgate knows that. He has ultimate empathy for the weight these players have on their shoulders. It helps massively."

Empathy does not win you football games. But it's a tool for increasing relationships and psychological safety in a team environment. And for England, safety has been an issue on the pitch for decades.


Joe Hart, Dele Alli woe reaction, England v Iceland, Euro 2016
Image: The shirt has always weighed heavy on England players' shoulders at major tournaments
You actually think: 'What's the worst that can happen?' Professionally, I've faced that, so why worry? We talk about pressure, but where is it coming from? We've never won in 50 years, so let's give it a go. We might actually enjoy it. Does pressure lead us to success? I would say it's the total opposite. I have to create an environment that relieves a lot of that.
Southgate on the High Performance Podcast

Fear is of course hard to quantify on the pitch, but it does not take a psychological expert to see it clearly in England's previous major tournament failures. The weight of the shirt resulted in under performance, safety first and a complete lack of expression, and Iceland in 2016 is perhaps the greatest example. As Southgate has observed, it seemed the individual mark of a 'good tournament' was to avoid being the fall guy.

But in many instances this summer, England have not been their usual selves. The final few minutes of extra-time against Denmark, confidently knocking the ball around, felt strangely serene. "It took them five minutes to realise keeping the ball was the best way to stop Denmark scoring," said Southgate after the game. This is his impact.

Kevin George, a clinical consultant and ex-professional with West Ham and Charlton who now runs Soccology, which uses football as vehicle to develop mental health awareness, is an expert in emotional literacy and psychological safety. He believes Southgate has curated an environment where players can be themselves, even in a setting where decades of failure threatens to stifle creativity.

"Because Southgate is somebody who absorbs the pressure, the players will feel safer because of it," George tells Sky Sports. "It's what he does, as well as what he says. For example, picking Sterling when he was out of form for Man City, and also sticking with Kane when he wasn't scoring. Those players feel safe that their manager will back them, and backs himself.

Gareth Southgate and Harry Kane celebrate after England's win over Croatia
Image: Southgate's dealing of the likes of Kane (pictured) and Sterling enables players to feel safe, says Kevin George

"If you look at that from a relationship perspective, whether it's your manager, your parents or your partner, how much of a boost is that? It sets a foundation for the player to be themselves. If you don't have that stability, you are not going to be comfortable, you will play with the handbrake on."

Getting 26 international footballers to question the validity of the pressure on their shoulders is not easy - these summer tournaments, so often our first footballing memory, bring up so much emotion in fans, players and coaches alike - but it's clear Southgate's 'what's the worst that can happen?' approach is sticking.

Ex-England cricketer Jeremy Snape, now a sports psychologist who founded leadership development consultancy Sporting Edge, sits on the board of the League Manager's Association (LMA), and says Southgate has created a self-sufficient culture that doesn't require fear to prompt you into action.

"Gareth is not driving the team through the force of his personality, he's actually driving it from the inside out," says Snape, whose podcast interview with Southgate delves deep into the 50-year-old's mindset. "One way is by building that sense of psychological safety.

"He's focused on mindset and culture as much as technique and tactics. I think under Gareth's mentorship - not management - he's actually allowed and encouraged them to think creatively under a psychologically safe environment, where actions are not shamed. They are actually going to speak out and learn together, and that makes it feel like you can create your own destiny as a team; it's an incredibly liberating and engaging place to be.

"You need a strong, low ego manager to allow those conditions to be fostered, especially in the cold wind of criticism. Maybe it's the scars from Gareth's career that make him realise: 'Well, it can't get any worse than that, so I'm just going to trust my instincts, and see what happens…'"

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Southgate says he was calm before the game against Denmark because he knew his players were ready to step up

The concept makes sense, but how does it play out on the pitch?

"If you compare now to how the players were playing against Iceland, it's polar extremes" adds Snape. "They were thinking about the personal criticism they would face. Now they are part of a team, playing selflessly and creatively, and thinking about they can inspire the country.

"One end of the spectrum is high ego; command and control, the iconic leader who knows everything, and you fall into place and follow instructions. What you get there is compliance.

"But as soon as the game changes in front of them, they don't know what to do. Then they look over at the manager, who is often showing histrionics to show they are the controller. When you create a team of independent problem-solvers on the pitch, they have a sixth sense, because they've learned together. They understand the strategy because they have most likely been a part of curating it."

Caulfield adds: "Gareth has not so much conquered fear, but accepts it, given he's been to an extraordinary place in public life; the central figure in ending that tournament in 1996. He's dealt with it.

"He always told me that crossing the white line is the hardest thing you can do as a player. They have discussed fear openly. Once you have accepted that and surrendered to it, you can play freely. You actually cannot control the outcome. You commit to the process, and enjoy the process. If you think: 'We've got to win' constantly, it's exhausting.

"He's taken the emotion and fear out of it, and put the pride back into it."


Southgate's authenticity is evident during interviews
Image: "If it goes wrong, you're dead" - Southgate's authenticity is evident during interviews
You pick certain personnel in place of others and if it goes wrong you're dead
Southgate after the win over Germany

It's clear football needs more Southgates, but putting empathy or psychological safety modules on a coaching badge isn't enough. You cannot simply learn them.

Southgate has been successful because he has been Gareth Southgate, unapologetically.

His words after the win over Germany - "You pick certain personnel in place of others and if it goes wrong you're dead" - were striking.

Broughton believes this quote was so honest that not only did it disarm many of his critics, but it released pressure from his players.

"His comment after the Germany game - that's powerful, to own that. What can people say then? He's already said the worst thing! He's disarmed everybody else!

Gareth Southgate for panel

"Gareth is authentic, and has the courage to say: 'This is me, this is what I believe.' It frees players up.

"The minute you are dishonest, you steal the players' instinct. Gareth will have been completely honest with his players about why he's using them or not using them. When you have the courage to be authentic, people stop second-guessing themselves. It's a game-changer.

"The narrative I hear from a lot of coaches in my Bootcamp is: 'You can't be honest with players, you'll lose them!' … That's wrong! They will know you are lying!

"You cannot fake it until you make it as a football coach. I sense when he talks that he is a man who is at peace."

George adds: "He's been brave enough to make his own decisions. He comes across as very safe and risk-avoiding, partly because of how he was as a player and is as a coach.

"But his approach is the complete opposite to safe. He might not be going out to attack, but if you make a decision that is against the grain, that is risky. Naturally, the players will respect that.

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Eddie Jones has been impressed with Southgate's man-management skills and his confidence in his own decision making

"He's also aware of his limits, which is key. Some managers will manage on fear, and what they believe they 'should be doing.'

"Southgate is creating his own culture based on his limits. He knows what he's got, and he's getting the most out of it. He's not trying to be somebody he's not, and because of that, we are seeing the best of Southgate."

Southgate's authenticity is also evident in his curiosity, not only in his players and staff, but in outside help and learnings.

Southgate accompanied Caulfield to observe the inner-workings of county cricket with Sussex during his time at Middlesbrough - "He was absolutely fascinated and alarmed by how long players had to mull over their mistakes in the pavilion or on the pitch fielding, before they had to bat or bowl" - and has also spent time with Mercedes F1 boss Toto Wolff and England rugby coach Eddie Jones.

Within the team environment, performance coach Owen Eastwood has played a big accompanying role in rebooting the England team's culture, while sports psychologist Pippa Grange was in place for the 2018 World Cup, where England ended their penalty shootout hoodoo.

In a recent podcast with US mindset professor Brene Brown, Grange explained how Southgate's approach - and crucially, the absence of a blame culture - was a big part to her taking the job.

"A red flag for me would have been hearing the word 'bad apple' - or 'they're not conforming enough' - I have a problem with the creation of more 'rules' in the team culture for players to fall in line. That doesn't work.

"The big deal-clincher is that I thought [Southgate] was a humble and brave man. I felt like he could go on that journey."

The England team psychologist Dr Pippa Grange walks onto the pitch after the final whistle during the England v Croatia FIFA World Cup 2018 semi-final at the Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow on July 11th 2018 in Russia (Photo by Tom Jenkins)
Image: Former England team psychologist Dr Pippa Grange at the World Cup in 2018

Football may well need more Southgates, but is that possible in a game so full of short-termism? The England manager's job is by no means a safe environment, but the natural two-year gap between tournaments, and large gaps between games, can allow for deeper thinking.

"High-pressure environments make people short-term and self-focused," says ex-England cricketer Snape. "You need both time to allow that to come to fruition, and a bit of luck. Hopefully some Premier League owners will embrace this longer-term perspective given Southgate's success.

"Sometimes the force of personality is needed, say in a relegation battle, to come in and literally change things. But long term, there is no doubt that Gareth's approach of decentralising leadership, creating great thinkers, having great debate and building trust in the team is a brilliant long-term strategy for any high-performance leader."

Caulfield adds that Southgate's ways are not only good for the future of the game, but are what players actually crave.

Southgate addresses the England team at St George's Park
Image: Southgate addresses the England team at St George's Park

"In the past we have wanted to see managers with passion, being angry, shouting and screaming. But one thing I can report from players I speak to all of the time: the players don't want that. They really don't.

"If you read all literature on leaders, going back centuries - which Gareth has! - you don't have a general in charge of an army, on a battlefield, going ballistic. They were calm and strategic.

"We fell into this ridiculous trap of thinking managers had to jump up and down the touchline to show passion. I can inform you, and Gareth spotted this as a player, that most players look across and think: 'I wish you'd just shut up, mate, I'm trying to play here.'

"He could have copied managers, but that would have been absolutely fatal. Being a kind man doesn't stop you from being successful as a leader."

It's been a while since an English manager had a major influence on our thinking of what football should be. Results help, but regardless of Sunday's outcome, Southgate is changing perceptions.

The Euro 2020 Final preview: Will England or Italy lift the trophy? | Selection dilemmas, tactical analysis, key players, and the view from Italy

England are preparing for their first ever Euros final - but can they beat Italy to lift the trophy? Jasper Taylor is joined by Kaveh Solhekol, Peter Smith and Oliver Yew to discuss what Gareth Southgate's side will have to do to make sure they come out on top in Sunday's showdown.

Sky Italia reporter Valentina Fass is also on the show to give us an insight into the Italian camp, the team's renaissance under Robert Mancini, and what Italian supporters think of this England side.

Plus we hear from Gary Neville on the incredible atmosphere at Wembley and how that affects players, and Jamie Redknapp on why stopping Jorginho could be the key to England's hopes.

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