Did the choice of England players to learn Brazilian Portuguese figure in the damp result last week, or is language irrelevant from the perspective of sport?
One might say a side’s performance in a football match rests entirely on players’ skills and their ability to work as a team. However, the field of sport psychology suggests that a less direct preparation – like learning a foreign language – might benefit the mental fitness of individual players, helping them play at their very best while on the pitch.
No One Expects The Portuguese Inquisition
“Quatro cervejas, por favor.” – Four beers, please.
Sport Psychology And Language
While this video was clearly made in good humor, there is a lot to be said for the psychological benefits of the right mental state and how learning the local language could produce a good one.
On sportpsych.org, Jack J. Lesyk, Ph.D describes the intricate nature of the healthy mental state that is conducive to great sporting achievement. One of the most basic elements of a sport-mindset is a positive mental attitude. This sort of attitude involves more than just thinking positively; that’s the first step to creating a mindset that respects others and accepts their propensity to make mistakes.
Imagine being in a foreign country and not being able to speak the language of the locals, business people and officials all around you. Do you think this situation more likely gives rise to a positive mental attitude, or to frustration? Meanwhile, learning even a few phrases of the local tongue would allow footballers to thrive in the foreign environment. The circumstances would offer players a source of energy instead of stress and confusion.
Lesyk identifies how great sport players have to develop their people skills so they can work with the community on which they depend. These people skills are put to the test when players enter foreign countries and they’re trying to connect with people through a language barrier. England enters this kind of situation when officials, fans, and most everybody the players encounter will be first-language Portuguese speakers.
As for any traveler, learning the local tongue would have helped the England team maintain people skills and fit in with the people around them. Taking the time to learn the language of the locals would have increased the rapport of the English side with their Brazilian environment, avoiding feelings of isolation or frustration, which could compromise the ideal sporting mental state.
For all this talk of psychology and personal attitude, England’s result was pretty flat, scoring 0-0 against Costa Rica.
Interestingly, as The Telegraph reported, Cahill’s performance was quite unpredictable, such as when, in the first ten minutes, he suffered a miscommunication with Foster that resulted in a throw-in. This came alongside other slips, like missing a simple pass in the second ten minutes.
It’s easy to see Lallana performed far better during the game, especially working with the other players to own the ball at 52 minutes in. It’s difficult, however, to determine whether Lallana’s more favorable performance was affected in any way by his choice to learn Portuguese.
It’s fair to venture that the ease of communicating and forming relationships with locals could improve his personal psychology and thus his game. But if that’s true, why wasn’t Cahill’s communication improved, and why was the whole team’s performance so disappointing?
Football is too complicated to make definite calls about what caused what. However, learning Brazilian Portuguese cannot have worsened England’s score, and there is reason to think that acclimatizing to the local environment might have benefitted it, even if the effect was slight. A team cannot train all the time, so it may make sense to get group lessons for the whole side during their down-time, next year.
Sport psychology is a subjective discipline; it’s hard to make definite claims, which is why you don’t often see topics like language and psychology emphasized in sports media coverage. Nonetheless, psychology is known to be fundamentally important to great athletes. Even if it did not make a worthwhile difference on Tuesday, players cannot go wrong in the future by preparing themselves psychologically by getting even a basic understanding of a pertinent new language–one day, it may make the difference.