‘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

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport Football - Oliver Brown Chief SportS Writer

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

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