Comments Off on The woman who pulled off that World Cup penalty shootout miracle

Were the unimaginable to happen and England reach the World Cup final, an avalanche of thank-you gifts, accolades and boundless glory surely awaits Dr Pippa Grange.

The smart money is already on a gong from the Queen.

Because somehow, the 47-year-old psychologist from Yorkshire who believes in the ‘unity of body and mind’ and the ‘transformative power of yoga’ has finally helped them do what they’re paid for.

Embedded with the English team at their training camp in Russia, she has fixed their ‘mental frailty and brittleness’ to banish years of national penalty shoot-out shame.

She has got them standing tall and proud.

She even seems to have given manager Gareth Southgate an extra spring in his step. If it all seems a bit unlikely, it’s not surprising.

After all, given Dr Grange’s official FA job title (head of people and team development) and her fondness for ‘wellness questionnaires’, we could be forgiven for assuming this was some kind of spoof.

Happily, for once this isn’t a wind-up.

Because she really has encouraged a group of highly-paid, swaggering, bling-tastic footballers to shed their macho inhibitions and sit together and talk in small groups to share their life stories, their fears, their worries and insecurities.

She’s encouraged them to put down their smartphones, wean them off their addiction to online games like Fortnite and play card games and a brilliantly silly-sounding party game called Werewolf, which involves role-play.

She’s festooned the team gym with posters featuring slogans such as ‘Success isn’t given, it’s earned’.

She is said to loathe alcohol and social media.

And after the Tunisia win, stars Kieran Trippier, Jesse Lingard and Jordan Pickford were even seen frolicking on inflatable unicorns in their hotel pool.

But most of all she has helped rebuild their confidence and given them the strength of mind to take that long walk to the penalty spot without suffering an attack of the collywobbles.

Dr Grange’s forte is positivity and positive thinking. She thrives on helping people cope with high pressure situations – and what could be more stressful than a penalty shoot-out in front of a global audience of 3.2 billion?

The psychologist grew up in the pubs and restaurants her parents ran around Harrogate, in the north of what her mother still calls the Independent Republic of Yorkshire. Her father was a publican and her mum a chef.

A former UK national basketball player, she studied sports science at Loughborough University and has a doctorate in applied psychology.

In 1996, she moved to Australia for a year, fell in love with the country and stayed on for another 20.

To her mother’s chagrin she considers herself Australian and has taken citizenship.

She keeps her private life, well, private. But she loves Weimaraner dogs and in what little spare time she has, enjoys writing poetry and short stories.

Fitness mad, she once trekked up Mount Kenya and Mount Kilimanjaro back-to-back (though even she admitted that was ‘a bit nuts’).

Working 80-hour weeks, Dr Grange spent years working in Australia as a ‘culture performance coach’, guiding Aussie footballers in danger of slipping into drink or drug habits and helping to confront issues of homophobia and racism in sport.

She also authored an excoriating report following the failure of the 2012 Australian Olympic swimming team – revealing how athletes were ‘getting drunk, misusing prescription drugs, breaching curfews, deceit and bullying’.

The psychologist is not the first to be used by the FA, but she is the first to have been so actively embraced.

For the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, the FA bought in Dr Steve Peters, a renowned psychologist who had worked with Liverpool.

But England manager Roy Hodgson told the players they could talk to Peters ‘if they wanted to’. So, naturally, nobody did. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that our national team never made it past the group stage.

Four years on, Southgate is right behind Dr Grange, after researching how tennis players and golfers work with mind coaches.

It surely helps that he has his own penalty demons to banish, his miss against Germany in the 1996 European Championship semi-final at Wembley a painful memory.

He wanted things to be different this time, his players to be a team and not a bunch of prima donnas who put club rivalries and egos before England’s success.

According to insiders, Dr Grange’s impact was immediate when started work for the FA in January. ‘She has a way of getting everyone to open up’, said one. ‘She helped make it a less laddish atmosphere.’

She sat down with all the players individually to discuss their ‘hopes and fears’ as well as their (often colourful) lifestyles.

Defender Danny Rose said he felt rejuvenated after talking publicly about his depression last month and credited the new open culture for allowing him to do so.

Encouraged by Southgate, the entire squad agreed with alacrity to her new regime, embraced it, even.

Soon the psychologist was helping players with their spot kicks, teaching them how to visualise scoring and providing each with a penalty ‘framework’ to deal with pressure.

Psychometric tests (assessments for calmness, confidence under pressure, flexibility and resilience) were conducted at St George’s Park, the FA training ground in Staffordshire, before they left for Russia.

It was never intended that Dr Grange should go to Russia – hers was always meant to be a preparation role – but such was her impact that the prospect of leaving her behind was unthinkable. Based in the team hotel, she’s always available to help players if they want to ‘talk’.

When the World Cup is over her brief will extend to work with all our national teams.

But for now, thank you Dr Grange for coming to our rescue in the nick of time, like the Mary Poppins of football.

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