The mentality that has England making history
‘Sarina, you’re the one’ wasn’t far behind if Sweet Caroline provided the music for last summer.
The dressing room was rocked by the Atomic Kitten tribute to manager Sarina Wiegman following England’s historic victory in the European Championship final.
When England and Germany last faced off in a major women’s tournament final, 13 years prior, the post-match atmosphere was very different.
The team, led at the time by manager Hope Powell, lost 6-2, and they were left playing just occasionally.
But, a longer-term evolution was developing amidst the acute disappointment.
This is the tale of the winning mindset that propelled the Lionesses to success in 2022, starting with Powell’s choice to hire the first psychologist ever employed by an England national team.
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“Wanting to win doesn’t help you win.”
The straightforward but illuminating words of Kate Hays. The head of women’s psychology at the Football Association explains the reasoning behind an attitude that is crucial to the Lionesses side, who have swept all before them in the past year.
Since being hired in October 2021, Wiegman and Hays’ coaching staff have cultivated what Hays refers to as a “how to win” ethos inside the England team.
The concept is rooted in a shared objective, a thorough understanding of the players’ characters, including what motivates them and how they react to difficult situations, and clear measurements of success. It is incorporated into everything from pre-match preparations to the style of play.
Everyone wants to win in sports; it’s the American dream, says Hays.
Yet, having a solid plan for success and having true clarity about what to accomplish and how to do business will help you win.
Hays’ strategy is influenced by successful strategies from other sports. She spoke with coaches and performance directors from various Olympic and Paralympic teams over a seven-and-a-half-year tenure with the English Institute of Sport to learn the best strategies for providing psychological support for athletes. A recurrent theme, in Hays’ opinion, arose.
What kept coming up, according to her, was the significance of the cultural context and the creation of cultures that support both high performance and good mental health.
While the term “high performance” is now well-known in elite sport, it wasn’t given quite the same praise when Powell, then 31 years old, was named England manager in 1998.
During England’s 2011 Women’s World Cup match versus New Zealand, Hope Powell served as the head coach.
Powell coached England for 15 years.
When Powell took over, the women’s team still had to walk or take the train to practice and games. Powell set out right once to teach a professionalism that would serve as a forerunner to the “how to win” ethos that would be established 23 years later.
In spite of the fact that the girls were working, Powell says, “it was about being on time, eating the correct things, having the right people in, like psychologists and strength and conditioning, and trying to create a professional environment.”
These items may seem insignificant, but I believed they would have a significant impact on staff and player attitudes.
Powell became the first coach of any English football team, whether it be a women’s or men’s squad, to offer specialized psychological support by hiring a psychologist to assist the senior side.
Powell was unwavering despite the fact that not everyone appreciated her readiness to accept change; she recalls experiencing “a little bit of skepticism and concern” from colleagues coaches.
The change was made as part of a comprehensive reform of the national organization, which also saw the creation of women’s teams for ages 17 and 19. To ensure that players were used to the playing style used by the senior side, each group was given the instruction to play in a 4-3-3 system. A committed psychologist was also available to support each cohort, with Misia Gervis supporting the first team and Marcia Wilson and Amanda Croston aiding the younger players.
Powell claims “Simply put, why not get going right away? Why hold off till they are seasoned players? They aspire to follow this road and get to the senior level of play. There will be difficulties along the path, so let’s provide these kids with the means to overcome them.”
Although senior players like Lucy Bronze participated in the under-17 set-up during Powell’s tenure, members of the current Lionesses squad were exposed to the idea of psychological support at a young age as a result of the effort. In fact, each of the 11 starters in the Euro 2022 championship game versus Germany advanced via Powell’s age-group pipeline.
Although Powell acknowledges she initially turned to psychologists with a shorter-term goal in mind, it may not be a coincidence that athletes like Bronze and Leah Williamson have gone on to speak publicly about mental health. Williamson spoke movingly about her experience with endometriosis.
I accepted it because, in Powell’s words, “anything that can make even a 1% difference has got to be worth a try.”
After England’s 2009 European Championship opening match, the theory was put to the test. They lost 2-1 to Italy, with Kelly Smith, their captain, being dismissed after just 28 minutes.
Gervis, who traveled with the team to Finland for the competition last year, recalled her assistance with their recovery in an interview.
Hope responded, “Over to you,” which basically meant I had to talk to the guys and try to sort through the emotional turbulence when we got off the bus after the game, according to Gervis.
“I can still clearly recall the discussion, which was about how we were able to learn from the game without placing blame on one another while simultaneously validating the feelings and defining ourselves.
“We discussed various topics and kept coming back to certain values, such as “reclaim your power,” “activity helps the fear go away,” and “know that you count.” These were statements made by all of the participants, and they served to bind us together.
“And after we had recovered, we managed to leave the group with our fingertips.”
Players were invited to contribute to two lists, one labeled “Empowering Beliefs” and the other “Limiting Beliefs,” in one of Gervis’s first workshops with the team to capture their perceptions about each of their opponents. The activity aided in understanding how the players viewed the opponents they would face in the championship game.
According to Gervis, “I wanted to get a sense of what they believed about themselves, other people, and other teams, as well as how they, in a sense, were enabling other teams.”
“Believe me when I say that Germany had a long list of restricting ideas. Nevertheless, if you don’t recognise it, you don’t have a place to start when attempting to change how people see themselves.
“We asked questions about it for every country competing in the Euros because if we didn’t, you would unintentionally bring that baggage onto the field rather than just saying, “Well, that’s what we think.” What should we do because that won’t help us? How can we alter that?”
Future England managers would follow the precedent that Gervis’ presence in the camp established.
Both Mark Sampson, who guided the Lionesses to third place in the 2015 World Cup, and Phil Neville, who guided the side to a third straight major tournament semifinal in 2019, used psychologists to help players deal with the stress of high-level competition.
It can occasionally build up suddenly and unexpectedly.
When England and Cameroon played in the round of 16, they were the overwhelming favorites because England was placed 43 places higher than their opponents.
The Lionessess won the match 3-0 in the end. But the evening was much more complicated than the final score would imply.
Toni Duggan competing at the 2019 World Cup against Cameroon
The 2019 World Cup’s last-16 match between England and Cameroon was contentious.
Two close calls by the video assistance referee that went against Cameroon infuriated them: the first reinstated an Ellen White goal and the second disallowed an Ajara Nchout comeback. Cameroon appeared to be refusing to continue.
When they did, England might have been shaken by their physicality, which was motivated by a sense of injustice and the backing of the local populace.
Then-midfielder Jill Scott stated, “Through the years, we’ve had some terrific psychologists.
“When playing games like Cameroon, you genuinely realize that without those meetings, things would have turned out very differently.
“Some will argue that seasoned players should always be able to manage situations, but in 140 games for England, I’ve never been a part of one like it.
“Those sessions, I’d say, helped us maintain our composure on a scorching day.”
In the months leading up to Euro 2022, Scott’s words appeared prophetic. The day before England’s semi-final matchup with Sweden, forward Fran Kirby said, “As soon as we realized the Euros would be in England, it was a case of thinking out how we could manage the pressure.”
The way Kirby and his teammates responded to the expectations shows the effects of the “how to win” mentality, which Hays first discussed with Wiegman in early 2021.
The team’s “common purpose” was crucial in ensuring that players who came off the bench felt appreciated; Chloe Kelly, a replacement, scored England’s historic goal against Germany.
According to Hays, when you are crystal clear about how you will play and what your role is, it makes things simpler and prevents you from getting caught up in winning or losing. Instead, you focus on what you need to do.
Hays, who has also worked with the Great Britain diving team, says women’s football still has a ways to go before psychological assistance is on par with other sports, despite the Lionesses’ success in using sports psychology to help players on and off the field.
“The potential to employ sports psychology even more skillfully is enormous. There aren’t many sports psychologists who regularly work in women’s sports “she claims.
The importance of the mind was strongly emphasized at the English Institute of Sport when Hays was there. When she was there, the organization’s psychological team expanded from 15 to 30 specialists.
She claims that it is “unheard of” for an Olympic athlete to not be frequently consulting with a sports psychologist to cultivate their competitive mindset.
It remains to be seen if other teams decide to follow Powell’s lead from almost 20 years ago, but according to her, the need for psychological support is there and just waiting to be met.
According to the former Brighton manager, “there is an understanding that it is needed, not only in terms of performance but also in terms of welfare.”
“We had a great psychologist and player welfare program in place at Brighton when I was there, so we weren’t just talking to the players about things that happened on the field; we were also helping them with their personal lives.
“Players are more inclined than ever to discuss their well-being, thus it is more and more necessary,”