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As England prepare for their last group game following criticism of their performance in the Euro 2024 tournament so far, Solent’s Lecturer in Sport Psychology, Tom Doncom, explores why one key mantra – used by fans, players and pundits alike – helps ease pre-game anxiety.

25th June 2024
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Approaching the opportunity to make their first World-Cup semi-final appearance since 1990, and in his first major tournament as England manager, Gareth Southgate fell back upon one of the most popular sayings in sport in 2018 in an attempt to reduce pressure on England for their imminent quarter final match against Sweden – “one game at a time". It seemed to work – England went on to win the game 2-0.

Now, as the group stage of the Euros comes to a close – and fans pile on the pressure for England – we continue to hear “One game at a time” (or sentiments like these) muttered in interviews from players, coaches, and journalists alike. So, why does this saying continue to have such prominence?

Whether it be in pre-match press conferences or in post-match analysis, as teams inevitably move through the competition there is always an immediacy in responses to look no further than the game in front of them – but anyone who has ever been involved with a sporting tournament knows this is not the case. You plan out your potential route to glory, you assess all possibilities of matching up against the tournament favourites, and most importantly – whether it is possible to face your arch-rivals in a winner takes all grudge match – tournaments are anything but “one game at a time”.

So, why is this phrase so popular in football? And why do we see the phrase littered into hundreds of interviews and post-match analyses during tournaments like these? Maybe Attribution Theory can help explain.

Attribution Theory helps us explain causes for events and has been proven to effect future motivation, efficacy, and achievement. Whether that be why did I not get the job I wanted or why did I choose an apple and not an orange for lunch, the responses to those questions are known as our attributions.

We can categorise attributions into four categories: who is in control (controllability), where the cause lies (locality), how likely the cause is to change (stability), and who the cause effects (globality). However, recent research has determined that who is in control (controllability) and where the cause of the explanation lies (locality) hold most relevance when it comes to seeing positive outcomes in the future.

Within Attribution Theory operates two types of outcomes. One, a positive explanation for performance known as an adaptive attribution. And two, a negative explanation for performance known as a maladaptive attribution. An adaptive attribution is categorised as something that it is controllable, specific to the individual, and changeable. In relation to sport, examples of adaptive attributions may include my individual effort or technique as these are in my control, unique to myself and changeable. A maladaptive attribution is categorised as something that it is out of my control, effects more than myself, and is unlikely to change. In football, examples of maladaptive attributions may include a refereeing decision, the weather, or the quality of the opposition.

So, what does this all mean in relation to Euro 2024?

If we explore the “one game at a time” analogy often used in interviews, we can interpret this as an adaptive attribution. Firstly, we know that by focusing on the next game, this is something that is in the person’s (or in this case, the team’s) control as the opposition have already been determined. Secondly, this is something specific to the team or individual competing in the tournament. For example, in the case of England, we knew that their first game of Euro 2024 was against Serbia. No other team at the tournament would face Serbia in the first game, it was unique, and therefore specific to the group – adaptive!

Using England as the scenario once more, if Gareth Southgate was to open his pre-tournament press conferences with anything other than the “one game at a time” mantra – or similar – there would be questions as to whether they are taking the game ahead of them for granted, and certainly bigger questions if the result in those games is not positive!

So why do we always hear “one game at a time”? The simple answer is – it is what we’ve been engrained and trained to believe in sport is the correct way to think. From an attribution theory perspective, it would predict future success to think in this way as opposed to, if we win the group, we will face France in the round of 16, Germany in the quarter-final, and Spain in the semi-finals.

Focusing on events that are out of our control (will we win our Euro 2024 group) and effected by many other factors (will Spain actually win their group, round of 16, and quarter-final to play us in the semi-final) would form maladaptive attributions that have been proven in research to decrease likelihood of future success.

Despite the natural competitive urge to explore every possibility to achieve tournament success, there is method behind the repetition of one of the most common phrases in sporting interviews – so will we keep hearing it this year? I guess we just need to keep taking it “one game at a time”.

Further Reading:

Allen, M.S., Coffee, P., & Greenlees, I. (2012). A theoretical framework and research agenda for study team attributions in sport [Article]. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 5(2), 121-144

Moffat, Z.L., McCarthy, P. J., & McCann, B. (2021). Shifting Attributions, Shaping Behavior: A Brief Intervention with Youth Tennis Players. Case Studies in Sport and Exercise Psychology, 5(1), 69-78.

Weiner, B. (1985). An attributional theory of achievement motivation and emotion. Psychological review, 92(4), 548.