Playing a big football match is terrifying. In the changing room before kick-off, some players make multiple toilet visits. Even the best in the business, Lionel Messi, would regularly vomit from pre-game anxiety, recalls his former Barcelona teammate Ibrahim Afellay. Reserves are often secretly relieved not to be playing.

The England players who meet Denmark in Wednesday’s European Championship semi-final at Wembley will feel scared. Fear has long beset England’s overhyped team. Playing for your country “should be fantastic, the best moments of your life,” wrote England’s longtime right-back Gary Neville. Instead, “too many players spend too much time fearing the consequences of failure.” Anxiety arguably cost England their last three semi-finals: at the 1990 World Cup and Euro 96 they lost their nerves in the penalty shoot-outs. At the World Cup in 2018, after an early goal against Croatia brought the final within sight, England’s defenders no longer wanted keeper Jordan Pickford to throw them the ball. They ran away from him, hiding on the field as scared players do, reducing him to speculative long punts.

Denmark’s strong team ranks 10th in the world, six places behind England. Yet England’s toughest opponent may be anxiety. How to overcome it?

There’s a misconception that England’s manager needs to deliver a Churchillian team talk that sends his players into a patriotic frenzy. In fact, the role of motivation in football is overrated, believes Arsenal’s former manager Arsène Wenger. The best players “have this intrinsic motivation,” he says. “Players want to achieve something, they want to be a star, and you are more there to help them.”

England’s manager Gareth Southgate typically tries to soothe rather than rouse his team. All his reign he has lowered expectations, casting England as challengers: “Our past isn’t particularly great, so they shouldn’t feel pressure.” He also often uses a verb rarely spoken by previous England managers: “enjoy”.

His players actually do seem to enjoy. After their somewhat fluky run to the World Cup semis three years ago, they are the first generation in decades with a positive experience of playing for England. At the World Cup in Russia, which they started as the tournament’s least experienced squad, they gained maturity, and got to know each other. The centre-backs and Pickford, like forwards Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane, have built up automatisms.

Helpfully, too, the atmosphere at Euro 2020 has been soothing, at least by England’s overexcited standards. Wembley’s familiarity helps: England have reached the semis at all their three tournaments at home, but only twice abroad in their history. Because of Covid-19, stadiums are sparsely populated, and there aren’t the throngs of reporters who normally besiege the team.

More than any previous England side, the players have support from trained psychologists. Ian Mitchell, the Football Association’s head of performance psychology, coaches the squad in breathing techniques. Glenn Hoddle, manager at the World Cup 1998, preferred a faith healer.

And Southgate’s tactical system is a road map that guides players through games. Its essence is a crablike advance through low-risk passing, intended more to snuff out space for opponents than to create chances. Aim number one is a clean sheet. England have achieved it in 10 of their last 11 matches. Southgate’s bet is that given the quality of his forwards, and England’s excellence at set pieces, few chances will be needed to score. So far, the system has minimised drama and surprises.

Southgate also talks his players through different scenarios. A high-probability one is taking an early lead. England generally do in big knockout games: 1-0 up within five minutes against Germany in 1996, against Portugal in 2004, against Iceland in 2016 and against Croatia in Moscow. Against Argentina in 1998, they varied the format by going 2-1 up after 16 minutes. But after scoring they get anxious, jettison their system, stop passing, retreat to their own penalty area, and spend the rest of the game fighting a rearguard action as if trying to recreate the escape from Dunkirk. Usually, they lose.

In Saturday’s quarter final against Ukraine, England scored after four minutes. But then, bar a couple of lapses, they curbed the Dunkirk reflex and continued their crablike passing far from their own goal. This is progress, even if Ukraine were a dreadful side whose defensive marking looked like social distancing.

Denmark are perfectly capable of inflicting the biggest anticlimax in England’s football history. If the game goes to penalties, at least Southgate’s team, unlike some past England sides, will have practised them. Anyone who dismisses penalties as a lottery for which you cannot train should be asked why golfers practise putts. It’s precisely at moments of greatest stress that athletes need to rely on muscle memory. Ben Lyttleton, author of Twelve Yards, a book on penalties, recommends other psychological tricks: after the referee blows his whistle, the kicker should pause before taking his shot, and the team should vociferously celebrate each scored penalty.

Winning Euro 2020 will require a mental maturity that no other modern England team have shown.