So, we’ve all succumbed to Gareth Southgate mania – all of us, it seems, except for the England manager himself who remains as calm as you like.
That’s despite taking the Three Lions to the semi-finals of two consecutive international tournaments; becoming the subject of a thousand middle-age crushes; and Atomic Kitten serenading him at Boxpark Croydon.
He’s in charge of a team who aren’t just breezing through the Euros but looking like they’re having fun while they’re at it – based on jubilant pictures from the weekend in Rome and training ahead of Wednesday at Wembley.
If watching England play football can be this stress-free, perhaps our lives could be too. Surely there must be lessons for us all in Southgate’s now celebrated team regime.
Here are our main takeaways, and they don’t all involve inflatable unicorns.
It’s okay to care
On the eve of this year’s Euro 2020 (yes, we’re confused by the date thing, too), Southgate penned, ‘Dear England’, a heartfelt letter to the fans and nation. In it, he acknowledged how hard the pandemic has been for everyone, then went on to champion a rather old-fashioned feeling: pride.
“This idea that some players don’t know what it means to play for England – or don’t care – has become something of a false narrative,” he wrote. “This is a special group. Humble, proud and liberated in being their true selves.”
Associating pride with humility rather than arrogance (or, worse still, bigotry), sends a powerful message – and surely this kind of pride is less likely to come before a fall.
Turn failure on its head
England’s (admittedly no score) draw with Scotland in the group stages this year wasn’t the first of Southgate’s reign. After a 2-2 loggerhead with the Scots in 2017, people were already asking questions about his suitability to lead the Three Lions. And what did Southgate have to say about that?
“The challenge for us is how we become the best team in the world,” he offered after the match. “The questions around us principally come down to character, the essential ability to withstand events that go against you.”
It’s the same idea that lies behind Elizabeth Day’s popular podcast, How To Fail, in which she interviews successful people about times they failed, because “learning how to fail actually means learning how to succeed better”. Southgate’s yet to guest, but you’d tune in, right?
Be a team player
This might seem an obvious one on the football pitch – and a cliché of a thousand job applications – but approaching life with a ‘team’ mentality, whether personally or professionally, can be reassuring and liberating.
If work – or life – is stressing you out, remember: it’s not all on you. Consider how to share the load with other people around you, whether that’s friends, family, a partner, or colleagues. Being a team player doesn’t come naturally to everyone, but the more you practise, the easier it will feel. And like the England lads, remember you can belong to more than one team at a time.
Talk about the tough stuff
Before the World Cup in 2018, England brought in sports psychologist Pippa Grange – herself a former national basketball player – to foster closer connections among a group of men who only meet a few times a year.
A lot of her work focused on communication. This included “getting the players to sit down together in small groups to share their life experiences and anxieties, and to reveal intimate truths about their character and what drives them,” the Guardian reported at the time.
It’s an approach that goes beyond awkward ice-breaker games, and it feels like there’s something to it. Of course, it’s important to maintain boundaries at work, but it might be worth thinking how sharing just a little of your fears and ambitions could help you be more yourself in all aspects of life.
Write your own story
“We’ve spoken to the players about writing their own stories,” said Southgate after England beat Colombia in that Round of 16 penalty shootout in 2018. “Tonight, they showed they don’t have to conform to what’s gone before.”
This key Southgate lesson – not to be “hindered by history or expectations”, but to believe in what’s possible – was learned the hard way, after his own penalty miss in Euro 96. But his lived experience is what prevents the mantra from veering into toxic positivity. For Southgate, it really has worked.
And it’s more than a metaphor. Actually writing how you want your story to turn out – by journalling, for instance – could be a way to work out your game-plan.
Celebrate other people’s wins
This bunch of England players are great at giving credit where credit’s due. Listen to their post-match interviews and they’re always shouting out their team-mates. It’s not false modesty – it fosters a positive atmosphere. In a team with such an abundance of talent, but only so many match minutes, it makes everyone feel a part of things, never mind their actual time on the pitch.
Cheerleading others is also a good way of dealing with your own setbacks. Didn’t score the goal / get the promotion / have the baby / buy the house? Celebrate the person who did and know that, next time, it could be you.
Embrace group hugs
Hugging’s been off the pandemic menu for so long, you can hardly blame the absolute pile-on when England captain Harry Kane scored his second goal in as many games in last week’s historic win against Germany.
A hug releases both oxytocin and endorphins, reducing stress and boosting happiness – and no hug is better than an embrace from the gaffer, who spends most games looking tense and pensive, only to envelop player after player in that signature waistcoat of his once a result is in the bag.
As social distancing eases off the pitch, make like Southgate and dole out the hugs – consent and Covid tests allowing, of course. And if you’re caught short, know that giving yourself a hug also has proven benefits.
Use social media, mindfully
Phones aren’t banned in the England camp. You only have to scroll through the flurry of tweets and Instagram posts the players post after a match, as soon as they get on the bus home (footballers, they’re like us, really).
Sure, they celebrate their own success, but they also elevate others. We’ve seen Marcus Rashford lead a tireless Twitter campaign for free school meals. And after the Germany game, Jordan Henderson, who earlier this year handed over his social accounts to a campaign against online abuse, chose to retweet one LGBTQ fan’s more positive experience at Wembley.
“I would never put rules on how or when they use their accounts while on England duty,” Southgate says of the team. “I trust them and know they are mature enough to make their own decisions, to do what’s right for their mental health and to keep being a force for good as we strive for a better society.”
With that mention of mental health comes a reminder that looking after your mind is as important as looking after your body, even – some might say, especially – if you’re not an elite athlete. If that means logging off, log off.
It’s not all about you
“I have never believed that we should just stick to football,” Southgate wrote of the England team. “It’s their duty to continue to interact with the public on matters such as equality, inclusivity and racial injustice, while using the power of their voices to help put debates on the table, raise awareness and educate.”
Volunteering or campaigning can feel like an extra duty on top of a day job. But you’ll be surprised at how much energy it feeds into other parts of your life and how much impact you can have. Harness your privilege – and your platform.
Silence the haters
England’s joint top scorer of the tournament so far? It’s only Raheem Sterling, a player who’d already achieved so much, but has also suffered intolerable levels of racist abuse and coverage from small pockets of fans and the media.
Sterling has silenced the bullies and bigots by doing what he does best – kicking a ball – leaving his manager to ask the right questions: “Why would you tag someone in on a conversation that is abusive? Why would you choose to insult somebody for something as ridiculous as the colour of their skin? Why?”
Southgate says he has bad news for the haters. “You’re on the losing side. It’s clear to me that we are heading for a much more tolerant and understanding society, and I know our lads will be a big part of that.”
Believe in unicorns. Inflatables aren’t just for holidays. Just look at Bukayo Saka below, back from injury and living his absolute best life in training before Wednesday’s semi-final against Denmark. And the unicorns are “back” too – the same ones that made a splash during the World Cup. Recycle, reuse, reduce... Southgate really doesn’t miss a trick, does he?