Sport psychology, language learning and the World Cup

Christine Muir

Christine Muir explores how lessons from the FIFATM World Cup and key principles from Sports Psychology can be applied to language learning.

All around the world we’re suffering from World Cup fever, with 2018’s tournament holding us on the edge of our seats -from surprise exits from previous champions Germany to the dark-horse Croations fighting their way to the final.

Undeniably, another of the surprise was England’s 4-3 win over Colombia on penalties. The UK’s Guardian newspaper succinctly summed up why this was surprising based on England’s track record:

“England: three defeats from three World Cup shootouts; six defeats in seven shootouts in major tournaments. And with a 14% win percentage, the worst of any national team with more than five shootouts to their name.”

With so much baggage and the weight of history telling England they stood little chance at success if they were forced into a penalty situation, what was it that was different this time?

Performing under pressure

When Gareth Southgate was appointed England manager in November 2016 he brought with him his own penalty heartbreak, having missed the final penalty in the semi-final of Euro 1996 against Germany. Instead of ignoring his own and the England team’s collective history, Southgate worked extensively with his players to prepare them. In stressing the need to “own the process”, he shared the following in an interview after the team’s 1-0 loss to Belgium in Kaliningrad:

“It’s not about luck. It’s not about chance. It’s about performing a skill under pressure. There are things you can work on, things that can be helpful for the preparation for the players. We have studied it. There is a lot we can do to own the process, and not be controlled by it.”

It’s here that we get to the crux of the matter. The world of elite sports is one of ever decreasing margins, and an ever increasing need for athletes to handle immensely pressured moments in which their careers can be made – or broken. In order to prepare themselves, athletes and their coaches regularly turn to exploit the power of visualisation and mental imagery.

There is already a solid foundation of research in the field of sports psychology supporting the effectiveness of these visualisation techniques – whether this is athletes visualising themselves crossing the finish line first, stepping up to the middle spot on a podium to receive the gold medal, or managing anxiety in high pressure situations (such as taking penalties). The reason that visualisation of these events is so effective is because the brain is unable to distinguish between an actual event, and a vividly imagined scenario of the same thing. So, Southgate is absolutely right: taking penalties really isn’t about either luck or chance, and there are concrete ways players can ‘own the process.’

Visualisation and language learning

In exactly the same way that visualisation works for professional athletes, it also works for language learners – but instead of imagining themselves on the podium having won a race, they might imagine themselves in a restaurant ordering food and joking with the waiter (without forgetting key vocabulary or tripping over pronunciation!), or confidently giving a formal presentation to colleagues at work: this is your Ideal L2 Self (Dörnyei, 2009), an imagined representation of what you would ideally like to achieve in the second language (L2). It’s even been claimed that the vision of who language learners would like to become “seems to be one of the most reliable predictors of their long-term intended effort” (Dörnyei and Kubanyiova, 2014, p.4).

Having an Ideal L2 Self isn’t enough to guarantee that high levels of motivation will follow – there are lots of conditions that need to be in place. For example, that the Ideal L2 Self is plausible, that it’s vivid and elaborate, and that there is a ‘road map’ in place so learners can see how they’re able to achieve it. Another important condition is that learners are regularly pushed to think about it, and new research is even looking at how we can use technology to help with this: instead of using visualisation techniques to imagine yourself giving that perfect presentation in the L2, imagine an alternative where you could upload a selfie, and with the magic of technology actually ‘see’ yourself doing it!

Where next?

Although this technology is still a little way off, this summer it’s definitely possible to start imagining your Ideal L2 Self to boost your motivation to study. It’s also possible to have more than one Ideal L2 self (for different languages) – is it just me, or does anyone else think they will soon have a new Ideal L2 Self to learn Arabic, in time to travel to Qatar to celebrate the next World Cup in 2022…?

If you have been following this year’s World Cup closely, why not take part in the Cambridge Word Cup? For every three words entered, we will be donating £1 to charity.

References and further reading:

  • Adolphs, S., Clark, L., Dörnyei. Z., Glover, T., Henry, A., Muir, C., Sánchez-Lozano, E., & Valstar, M. (in press). Digital innovations in L2 motivation: Harnessing the power of the Ideal L2 Self. System.
  • Dörnyei, Z. (2009). The L2 motivational self system. In Z. Dörnyei & E. Ushioda (Eds.), Motivation, language identity and the L2 self (pp. 9-42). Bristol: Multilingual Matters.
  • Dörnyei. Z., & Kubanyiova, M. (2014). Motivating students, motivating teachers: Building vision in the language classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

For more sporting inspiration, make sure to check out our interview with Petr Cech on the importance of communicating effectively with your team.

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