Ian Mitchell joined the England backroom staff in 2018
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For one member of England’s senior coaching staff, this will not be their second consecutive semi-final in a major international tournament. It will be their third.
And no-one who was in France with Wales during the 2016 European Championship would have been left in any doubt about the vast, if always understated, impact of the team’s performance psychologist Ian Mitchell.
He was invariably positioned at the back of the room during a series of inspirational press conference performances by Chris Coleman. He was also always there with Coleman in the dugout and on the training pitch.
And he was a similarly calming presence in and around the team’s base on the clifftops of Dinard, casually interacting with a group of young players who, between their quiz nights, table tennis and trips out for pancakes and ice cream, were quite obviously having the time of their lives.
The contrast with the suffocating pressure in which England capitulated against Iceland could hardly have been more stark. And yet some of the likenesses now with the England camp at St George’s Park – darts, basketball, hotpod yoga and Bukayo Saka mid-air on an inflatable unicorn – are equally striking.
The common thread is Mitchell and, while his influence as head of performance psychology extends far beyond relaxing the players and lessening the weight of an England shirt, his appointment in February 2018 is surely up with the very best of Gareth Southgate’s decisions.
The key, according to colleagues at England, Wales and Swansea City, where Garry Monk made him one of football’s first full-time psychologists, is how he naturally embeds himself among the coaches and players.
Most of his work is not grand speeches, presentations or counselling in the old-fashioned caricature of a psychologist, but subtly advising on the detail of the team’s preparation and simply being there, usually over an informal coffee or walk to the training pitch, for a chat. He is there to help proactively implement and nurture the culture Southgate has envisioned.
Mitchell and Southgate chatting during an England training session at St George's Park
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Monk first met Mitchell while studying for his coaching badges with the Welsh Football Trust. Mitchell had spent the previous 17 years working as a senior lecturer in sports psychology at Cardiff Metropolitan University but, as a qualified coach, was also among the tutors in Newport, where Uefa A and Pro Licence courses were delivered.
Aged 34, Monk had moved overnight from player to manager at Swansea and asked Mitchell, whose own modest career included spells at Hereford United and Merthyr Tydfil, to join him.
“The stereotype was that you appointed a sports psychologist if you had a problem, and it was someone who came in once a month to speak for an hour,” says Monk.
“I spoke to Mitch and we thought the best way was to be full time and integrated on a daily basis. He was brilliant – a massive help. The advantage he had was experience in football. He knows the training ground language, he could relate to the different characters and has a great sense of humour. He also has that emotional intelligence of knowing when to be serious and when to have a laugh.”
Mitchell, says Monk, would help in a multitude of ways, from observing his interviews and body language to having him analyse how he interacted with players and simply prioritise an explosion of demands on his time.
They would listen back to how he delivered training sessions and there would be extensive scenario planning, so the players would be mentally prepared to handle likely future situations. The precise details of match preparation would be drilled down and, just as at England and Wales, the players would be encouraged to engage with media and tell their stories.
The England team collectively did 45 interviews following the 4-0 win against Ukraine. “When you have that sort of environment, people who are naturally more shy also end up contributing,” says Monk. “You are not going to open up everything tactically, but I think it helps when fans feel that rapport and get to know the players. They are more likely to stay with them in the tough times.”
Neil Taylor, the former Wales defender, says that Mitchell would shape things around the camp to make life “a little easier” without players even realising. Initiatives would also stretch past the obvious day to day. The Wales players would often go out on cultural trips that helped to embed their sense of national belonging.
Jordan Pickford says Mitchell is 'a proper down-to-earth bloke'
Southgate often poses the question “what does it mean to play for England” at meetings and it was noticeable that the presentation of red legacy caps, which mark how each player (including the manager) are part of an elite band of 1,262 people spread over 150 years, was posted on Mitchell’s Twitter at the start of Euro 2020.
“He’s just a proper, nice, down-to-earth bloke,” says Jordan Pickford, the England goalkeeper. “We have some recovery sessions as a group with Mitch and we get some nice breathing techniques. Mitch is always available if you need him.”
Harry Maguire revealed that he confided in Mitchell after his arrest in Greece last summer, but says that their conversations are usually simply “a general chat about anything”. Mitchell himself emphasises the importance of being aligned with the manager’s vision.
“We always talk about the four pillars of the game, the technical, the tactical, the physical and the mental, and the mental has been largely neglected [previously],” he told the BelievePerform podcast.
“The ball is in play for an average of 60 minutes and, within that, there are a lot of psychological demands. It’s very easy to lose control. It’s about being sensitive in terms of players’ emotions. [And] you really have to understand the culture, identity and leadership. You gain that by being in it.”
Mitchell has also warned against people assuming there is “a magic wand”. It is a constantly evolving and fluctuating process but, after more than three years now working alongside Southgate, it is hard to ever remember the England camp seeming more happy, harmonious and fearless.
“England have some quality players but, if they do win, the biggest reason will be that environment and culture they have created,” says Monk.