Being English and a football fan, I was very happy to see England’s Lionesses win the European Championship. A lot of the conversation around this has drawn comparisons with the men’s team, who lost in the final last year. Why did the women succeed where the men failed?
There’s no one reason. You can chalk it down to the bounce of the ball, or the women just being better, perhaps, in relation to their opposition. The leadership of accomplished manager Sarina Weigman. Their strength in depth and team spirit. All these things are probably factors.
But if you look at how the England men’s team has often faltered at big moments, I think there’s one interesting contrast that stands out. One that tells us something useful about play – about its importance, and what gets in its way.
Play comes naturally; fear of failure is learned
It’s easy to forget that football is a game. Especially the high-stakes, high-paid men’s game. Footballers who are paid hundreds of thousands a week. Players who know that their every move will be analysed, picked apart, and heavily critiqued in the press.
It’s very common for very young players to play boldly, and get results, but then to become more risk-averse later in their careers. But then they lose that sense of play, of trying things out, of finding new ways to do things.
England’s women reminded me of that, this tournament. Alessia Russo scored an audacious back-heeled goal in the semi-final that was a delight to watch. Georgia Stanway showed real imagination with a screamer of an extra-time winner in the quarter-finals. Ella Toone broke the deadlock in the final by fearlessly seizing an opportunity with a chip over the keeper.
Throughout the tournament, England’s women played in the true sense of the word, channelling their sense of playfulness even in vital games. Trying things out, where the men’s team have often seemed to freeze, out of ideas in the pivotal moment.
Pressure is the enemy of play
There are many differences between any two moments, too much to put things down to single causes. But one factor that stands out to me is the pressure the men’s players are under. The names of England’s women are known, now. But England’s men have long had page after page in the UK’s toxic press written about them.
They’re stopped in the street. They’re jeered at from the stands. If they mess up the crucial game, the crucial kick, they know they’ll be vilified. The pressure is immense. Nobody wants to be the one on whom failure hangs, like those who missed penalties and suffered terrible abuse.
How can anyone feel playful under such circumstances? It feels only natural, only human, to seize up. To forget risk-taking, a sense of what’s possible, boldness and vision. To instead be timid, to give the initiative to the opposition. When England went 1-0 up early against Italy in 2021’s Euro final, they stopped playing, petrified to lose what was in their grasp.
Another thing that shows how this works is the way that finals are very rarely the best games. The pressure is ramped up to breaking point. England’s women played out of their skins in the final, but there have been far better games to watch in the tournament. And this is notoriously true of most tournaments.
To succeed, you have to allow for failure
It’s no coincidence that some of the most dazzling moves come in sports where failure is expected. BMXers and skateboarders know they’ll fall off; it’s guaranteed. And so they get up and try again, and the results are an astonishing fusion of play and top-calibre athleticism.
Women’s football is only now gaining the recognition it deserves; the women’s team has been able to develop in relative obscurity. They’ve been able to play fearlessly, with the joy of the game and the fearlessness of experiment.
None of this is to say the women’s team had it easier; all their opponents were in the same boat. They got where they were on merit, and deserve every ounce of praise. But I think they benefited from having less pressure. They could play, in the real sense of the word, and show us what they could do.
Let your people play, too
The workplace could learn some of these lessons. When stakes are high and pressure is intense, then risk, play, experiment – these things get left to one side. The expectation is to deliver, and the surest way to do that is to do whatever was delivered last quarter.
But the surest way to fail is to deliver the same thing year after year, never playing around to find out what else you can do, or what else each new situation might demand. Ask Kodak, Blockbuster or Nokia.
And nowhere is this more true than in learning. If we never fail, we never learn. People who take any time and effort to learn at work, by any means, must be open to failing, to the play that risks failing, or they will never learn anything new at all.