‘I’m proud that I gave England a sense they could be who they are’
Psychologist Pippa Grange describes the approach that helped Southgate’s team reach the 2018 World Cup semi-finals
It was with amused detachment that Pippa Grange observed her portrayal as the alchemist of England’s World Cup campaign in 2018, transforming an aloof team into one happy to arrange darts nights with journalists and to race down hotel swimming pools on inflatable unicorns.
Assorted certainties were ascribed to Gareth Southgate’s psychologist in the shadows, who was said to abhor social media use by the players and to resist all invitations to write a self-help manual. The difficulty was that, in public, the Football Association denied Grange the chance to correct any misconceptions.
“In Australia, where I had worked for 20 years in elite sport, I had been quite vocal,” Grange reflects. “But when I came to England, they were absolutely clear that there was no room for comment from anybody.”
This week, the omerta can finally be broken, as Grange distils much of her life’s work into her first book,
Fear Less. Given its focus on the philosophy of “winning deep”, where athletes derive the most lasting satisfaction from championing causes greater than themselves, the timing of its publication feels propitious. In the past two months, two of the players she helped to mentor in Russia have emerged as spokesmen for a generation, with Marcus Rashford forcing the Government to reverse a decision not to provide free school meal vouchers this summer and Raheem Sterling appearing on Newsnight to debate the forces unleashed by the killing of George Floyd.
“Rashford’s achievements on the pitch will bring him joy, but there’s something rich and enduring about achievements orientated towards other people,” she argues. “It felt to me that his work was compelling to him, that it was something from which he couldn’t turn away.
“When you hear him on the topic of school meals, he’s deeply invested in it personally. He’s willing to stick his neck out. That is a foundation for the resilience that lets you, as an athlete, get through your career and still feel fulfilled.
“In the athletic life, we tend to think only of the spoils and the rewards, but it’s a dogged life in some ways, full of ambiguity and insecurity. What I’ve noticed about performers of all kinds is that when they have a sense of purpose, a sense of something outside themselves that drives them, they then have more protection, more to hang on to.”
Grange’s book is far from a memoir, but there is little doubt that complex personal experience has framed her professional preoccupations. At 50, she has found a level of serenity at home in the Peak District, where she is studying for a second PhD in the company of her husband and two dogs, but she has also known turmoil and profound grief. In her book, she describes losing a brother to suicide, and growing up in a single-parent family in Harrogate that had its struggles with drinking, drug addiction and domestic violence.
“Sometimes, I feel I learnt more about human nature in those tough years as an adolescent than I did in the course of two doctorates,” she says. “Watching what happens in a family where the problems are live and real teaches you an awful lot. It encouraged me to see people as more than the products of their alcoholism or bad behaviour.
“Things aren’t as straightforward as we’d like them to be. Life’s messy, but we learn a lot from the mess. You can’t always find logic, but you can make meaning. You can think, ‘Well, that was awful, but what did I learn about my ability to hustle out of a situation?’”
Southgate was quick to discern the benefits Grange could bring for England. He craved a clean break from the asceticism of Fabio Capello, who had driven his players almost catatonic with boredom at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, and sought equally to avoid the paranoia that had plagued Roy Hodgson’s efforts in Brazil, where journalists catching unsanctioned glimpses of training were shunned as if they had just stolen the nuclear codes.
Grange was no icy academic, having built a reputation in Australia for turning around failed sporting cultures, and the manager saw both from the warmth of her manner and the depth of the training that she could humanise England’s image.
“What I’m proudest about is having given the team a sense that you could actually be who you were,” she says. “I wanted to bring more love to it, to be a little less concerned with performative aspects and concentrate more on the human side.”
She is widely credited for inspiring England to subvert national stereotype by beating Colombia in a penalty shoot-out, but insists that her remit was far wider. “I contributed to that technically, but it was such a small part. In Russia, everything was much more open. You were allowed to stuff up and know that you wouldn’t be punished within an inch of your life. There’s a natural feeling of unity that comes from that, a sense of wanting to be part of something bigger. I was looking to restore the fun.”
The pity is that the fun could not last for ever. One year after England’s defeat by Croatia in the semifinals, Grange announced she was leaving the FA to devote her attention to the “broadening definition of success and winning in sport, especially for women and girls”.
A lingering question is why. When she had been instrumental in such a sea change in England’s fortunes, why wind up all her efforts within 20 months? Her confidentiality agreement with the FA is strict, but she indicates that she came to feel frustrated at the limits to her influence.
“I ran a department called People and Teams, but unfortunately, that’s all gone now,” she says. “You would see the players for quite a limited time when there was an international. Half the staff were consultants. The ability to ‘go deep’ on the things in which I was really interested was relatively minimal. That’s the nature of the organisation. Once I had had this amazing World Cup experience, it was clear to me that their real interest was in the technical details, rather than the culture work that I’m best at and that I love.”
What gives her solace is the
‘When you hear Marcus on the topic of school meals, he’s deeply invested in it personally’
Restoring fun: England players race inflatable unicorns during a recovery session in a Repino pool at the 2018 World Cup
Culture shift: Pippa Grange after England’s World Cup semi-final defeat by Croatia