Leadership & Culture, Performance | Jan 26, 2022
The England men's Head Coach discusses his own setbacks, the glare of media scrutiny, and the challenges that have helped him to build his resilience.

Gareth Southgate ponders the question: what does the term ‘resilience’ mean to him?

By John Portch

“I would say the ability to withstand and respond to difficulties, setbacks,” he says, adding: “I’ve never thought of defining it before. I have a picture in my head of what it would look like.”

What is that picture? “It looks like King Canute on the beach with all the waves crashing in and him standing there trying to keep everything out – or probably me playing at Anfield a few times with Crystal Palace – that’s what it looks like!”

Canute the Great, the 11th Century King of Denmark, Norway and England, failed to keep the advancing tide at bay in the apocryphal tale, yet history records that Southgate won 2-1 with Palace on his first trip to play Liverpool at Anfield in November 1991. No doubt his next two visits – 5-0 and 6-1 Palace defeats – are uppermost in his mind at this point.

The England men’s Head Coach, direct from his home in Yorkshire, logged on to record an episode of the Rules of the Game podcast with Leaders’ Founder Jimmy Worrall ahead of his team’s Euro 2020 campaign.

Having defined resilience, Southgate goes on to discuss his own setbacks, the glare of media scrutiny, and the challenges that have helped him to build his resilience.

Rising expectations

Southgate enjoyed a 16-year playing career and has spent more than a decade as a coach and, across both, has accumulated a multitude of successes and failures. Given that the conversation is focused on resilience, what does he see as his biggest failures? “Two spring to mind,” he says. “The first would be the penalty shootout with England [at Euro 96] and the second would be losing my job at Middlesbrough as Manager.” Southgate took the reins at the Riverside Stadium immediately following his retirement from playing for the club in 2006, but, in October 2009, found himself out of work following Boro’s relegation from the Premier League and subsequent struggles in the English Championship.

“We were relegated, but if I look at both of those situations, with the opportunity to be able to reflect over time, both of those things were because I was not prepared,” he adds. “The first one, I failed to execute a technical skill under pressure, but I wasn’t prepared well enough, hadn’t been in that scenario often enough, not that specific one; to be really clear in my mind what I was going into.

“[As for the managerial side], how can you possibly know at 35 in your first job what I know now at 50 with 15 years of experience? So I could look at those as failures but, in actual fact, I know in a more rational analysis of it, that I had to go through that process and, in another five years, I’ll know much more than I do now and I’ll have had more experiences of big matches again.

“So I think these are just things you have to go through. You’re not going to get them all right. If it was I’d lacked effort or I’d lacked application or I’d lacked commitment, then I’d be feeling a bit differently about that, but I do sort of accept now that there’s a journey you have to go on and as long as you don’t repeat the errors and the mistakes, then you’re more comfortable living with them.”

This attitude is reflected in his approach to more current setbacks. “I think I’m more objective in my analysis and reflection and review of things, whereas when I was younger I might have blamed myself unreasonably for things that happened. I would still look at myself first but I would know the things that [enable me to say] ‘OK, we didn’t get that quite right but we weren’t far away’ or the things that we didn’t get right or, actually, the things that we did get right. The plan was right, the preparation was right, but we didn’t get the outcome that perhaps we deserved.

“I’m far more balanced during the analysis of a performance and [can say] ‘OK, we lost the game, but we were on the right path here’ and what that does is stop you ripping it up when you might not be that far from where you need to get. Particularly in the modern world, you need to be very careful on analysing the defeats in the right way and also not being carried away by the wins if the performances weren’t really on the right path.”

The performances, however, have often been promising during his tenure and Southgate stands only second to England’s 1966-World Cup-winning Manager Sir Alf Ramsey in terms of attainment. Beyond the pitch, he has established himself as one of the most respected leaders in England. Whether it be speaking up for his players on social justice issues and racism, or uniting his squad, coaching and support staff around a common cause, he has comported himself with a statesmanlike dignity, intelligence and articulacy. As a leader, he has continually demonstrated his ability to manage up, handle the pressure of different stakeholders, and has sought to understand all those with whom he works.

It is a constant challenge but it is also fair to say that Southgate knew what he was walking into. When Roy Hodgson departed as Head Coach of England following Euro 2016, Southgate, then serving as under-21s Head Coach, turned down the offer to take the senior role on a caretaker basis. He expressed concerns that assuming control, even on a temporary basis, could harm his career.

Several months later, circumstances conspired to cause the Football Association to offer him caretaker control again when the newly appointed Sam Allardyce was dismissed after just one match at the helm. At the second time of asking, Southgate accepted.

During the 2018 World Cup, he told a press conference that he felt “fortunate” that the opportunity came a second time. “I knew when somebody needed to step in with a couple of days’ notice that I was the best person to do that and keep the team on track,” he said. “And then I actually enjoyed it more than I thought I would. But, also, I could see that the players were hungry enough and humble enough to be ready to take on board some of the ideas we were going to try to implement. So I thought it was worth having a go for. That’s probably the biggest thing I’m pleased with.”

Since 2016, expectations of his England team have continued to grow but he tries to take them in his stride. “I have a different outlook now to the one I had five, ten, 15 years ago and maybe even three or four years ago, because I know that I’ve been through massive defeats. I know I’ve recovered from those things as a human being. I don’t like the fact that, of course, those things define you in some other people’s eyes in less than 140 characters!”

There are perhaps even greater expectations on his players. “[England Head Coach] is one of the most high profile roles in the country and there’s high expectation with the team that we’ve got and developing, but I’m realistic about where the team are on its journey and the progress that we’ve made and what’s achievable. We’ve got to drive that and we know what our ambitions are, but I’m not unrealistic and I don’t think I whistle an unrealistic tune. I’m not trying to alleviate pressure but I’ve got to allow our players an opportunity to perform with the expectation that’s correct.

“If the expectation is above what’s possible then that’s where I think pressure builds for a team. I think if the expectation is realistic, well we’ve got to handle that, but we’re not stepping into an area that we don’t think we can go to; and I think it’s that gap that creates inhibiting pressure for a team. I was going to say the sun will shine tomorrow but it might not in Yorkshire! There will be another challenge, there will be the next thing to go for.

“For many years, I’ve never been too high after the wins, I don’t get quite as low after the defeats. The wins are less enjoyable, which is a bit of a shame, because you never switch off, you’re already thinking: ‘what about the players that didn’t play? How are we going to look after them for the next couple of days? What’s the training? What’s the opponent?’ You move on so quickly to the next challenge that the final whistle is a moment of excitement, relief, what it might be, then you’re onto the next thing immediately; and sometimes, before the game has finished, you’re making changes because you’re thinking about the next game as well.

“We always talk about pressure and I sit in a lot of media conferences where that line of questioning can come, or other questions, and there’s a danger that you go along with the narrative and then in your own mind you allow that narrative to run; and actually what we have to do, if we don’t actually agree with it, is just pause it, reframe it.”

Southgate has adopted a best practice approach to rationalising the criticism that comes his and his team’s way. “We always try to simplify reasons for why games haven’t gone well or performances haven’t gone well; and yet it’s never linear. Why does a tournament go well or not? There’s so many things that build up. In my head, the more of those pieces we get right across departments, as a group of staff, we give ourselves a better chance of success. If we get too many of those decisions wrong across the board then it’s much more difficult.

“We can get loads of things right, but ours is such a low-scoring game that you can still get beaten, but if we’re consistently making the right calls, doing the right things, heading in the right direction, eventually the results will come; and we have to focus on the performance all the time.”

The challenges of life

Southgate needed to tap into his resilience long before he signed a professional contract as a player. He was released by Southampton as a 14-year-old schoolboy and later built his career at Crystal Palace, where he bonded with teammates, many of whom had found themselves in a similar boat. He says: “I was surrounded by either players that came through our youth system or players that had joined us from non-league football. They’d all been rejected at some point or players that were playing in the lower divisions. Everybody there had this point to prove, this fight. There were so many players I played with in that period who had that hunger, that drive. They were part of the setbacks they’d been through and it probably set the tone for me immediately.”

Southgate believes there are common traits found in the most resilient players. “I think often humility, because they’ve reflected on their own previous performances and looked at themselves and learned how to improve; a humility to learn, a desire to get better.

“These are the moments where, if we hadn’t had the conversation we’ve had, and unpicked what resilience is I’d be saying resilience is the trait. I suppose we’ve discussed what builds that and, in the end, that’s what you’re looking for. You’re looking for players who, in the toughest moments, either can produce something to win the game, they’ve not been put off by losing the ball several times or missing chances in front of goal. They’ve been brave enough to come and receive the ball again in those positions, make the run into those positions to put themselves in there again, knowing that if they miss, again, there could be a lot of criticism. They’ve accepted the situation they’re in and then they’ve performed their techniques under that pressure that exists. There is a technical part of that, but it’s a technical part that’s being executed under that intense scrutiny.”

He feels there are challenges with instilling resilience at international level. “There are more achievable practices at a club where you could put players into a physically more demanding session and, when they’re fatigued, challenge them on the pitch and on their thinking. With international football, we don’t very often have that time, we normally have two or three days’ preparation for a game, so if we put people in physically stressful positions, we’re more likely to break them and lose them than we are to get positive outcomes. I think we’ve got to find examples where [the players] do it well and reinforce it. Maybe we’ve seen games with their clubs where we’ve liked the response, we noticed their body language, we noticed their communication on the pitch when they were in those tough moments. Or occasionally where it’s not gone so well and we’re needing to highlight something because we’re seeing a consistent behaviour.”

Ultimately, time is vital when building resilient teams. “Time and the character of the players,” adds Southgate. “In the end, you can talk to a team about ‘yeah, when we’re in these situations we’re going to defend for our lives and this is how it’s going to be’. Well, you’ve got to have the players who are firstly able to do that because they’ve been through it, but, secondly, as a team, you need evidence that you’ve come through it before or you’ve had games where you haven’t quite got there. ‘What did we learn from it? This is what we learned, this is how we need to be next time’. The next time we’ve got over the line. ‘OK, now you know we can do it; and you go into the next game; a different test’.

“It’s slightly aligned to that military concept of ‘I’m going to be there for you’; and without having some kind of relationship before you go on the pitch, it’s much harder to really do that with a sense of belief.”

Having reflected on resilience for the best part of 40 minutes, is there anything he would add to his first answer? “I’m not always great at articulating definitions but I think the conversation we’ve had has touched on so many areas that are important in building that inner resolve that we all need to get through life. The challenges of life, really.”

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