The psychology behind England’s history-making mentality

The psychology behind England’s history-making mentality

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Sports Insight bannerLeah WilliamsonLeah Williamson succeeded Steph Houghton as England captain

If Sweet Caroline was last summer’s soundtrack, “Sarina, You’re the One” wasn’t far behind.

Rewind 13 years – to the last time England met Germany in the final of a major women’s tournament – and the reaction after the game was decidedly different.

A 6-2 loss left then-manager Hope Powell and her side, who were still playing, in stony silence.

But amidst the immediate disappointment, a longer-term development was taking shape.

This is the story of the mentality behind the Lionesses’ turnaround, from Powell’s decision to appoint the first psychologist to be used by an England national team, to the ‘how to win’ culture that helped transform the team in 2022 to inspire glory.

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“You don’t win by wanting to win.”

Kate Hays’ words are simple but instructive. The head of the Football Association’s Department of Women’s Psychology explains the logic behind an ethos that is vital for a Lioness side that swept everyone in front of them last year.

Since her appointment in October 2021, Hays, along with Wiegman and her coaching staff, have introduced what she describes as a ‘how to win’ culture to England camp.

Embedded in everything from match preparation to playstyle, the philosophy is rooted in a shared goal, a deep understanding of players’ characters – including their motivations and how they respond to stressful situations – and defined measures of success.

“Everyone wants to win in sport, that’s the dream,” says Hays.

“But you win when you have a really good strategy for success and you have real clarity about what you need to do and how you’re going about your business.”

Hays’ approach is based on best practices from other sports. During a seven and a half year tenure at the English Institute of Sport, she spoke to coaches and performance leaders from various Olympic and Paralympic teams to find out how to most effectively support athletes psychologically. According to Hays, a recurring theme emerged.

“What we kept coming back to was the importance of the cultural environment and creating environments that not only encourage high performance but positive mental health,” she says.

While ‘high performance’ is now a widely recognized term in elite sport, it was not praised nearly to the same extent when a 31-year-old Powell was appointed England manager in 1998.

Hope Powell coaches England for the 2011 Women's World Cup match against New ZealandPowell spent 15 years as England manager

Powell took over at a time when the women’s team was still busless to practice and games, and immediately set about instilling a professionalism that would serve as a precursor to the “how to win” culture established 23 years later.

“It was about being on time, eating the right food, getting the right know-how like psychologists and strength and conditioning, and trying to create a professional environment even though the girls were working,” explains Powell.

“These are small things but I thought they would really change the mindset of the players and the staff.”

By hiring a psychologist to support the senior team, Powell became the first manager of an English football team – male or female – to provide specialized psychological support.

While her willingness to embrace change wasn’t for everyone — she recalls encountering “a little skepticism and uncertainty” from other coaches — Powell has been unwavering.

The move was part of a radical overhaul of the national roster that saw the creation of women’s under-17 and under-19 teams. Each group was instructed to play a 4-3-3 formation to ensure players were used to the senior team’s style of play. Each cohort was also supported by a dedicated psychologist, with Marcia Wilson and Amanda Croston helping younger players and Misia Gervis supporting the first team.

Powell says, “I just thought, why not start early? Why wait until they’re senior players? They want to go down that path and become senior players. There’s going to be some challenges along the way, so let’s give these kids something. ” some tools so they can help themselves.”

The initiative meant that members of the current Lionesses squad were introduced to the concept of psychological support from an early age, with senior figures such as Lucy Bronze being part of the U17 roster during Powell’s tenure. In fact, each of the 11 starters in the Euro 2022 final against Germany went through the age group path laid out by Powell.

It’s perhaps no coincidence that players like Bronze and Leah Williamson have spoken openly about mental health – the latter speaking movingly about her battle with endometriosis – although Powell admits she initially turned to psychologists with a more near-term goal.

“I took it because if anything can make even a 1% difference, it has to be worth trying,” says Powell.

The theory was put to the test after England’s opening game of Euro 2009. They lost 2-1 to Italy, captain Kelly Smith being sent off after just 28 minutes.

In an interview last year, Gervis, who accompanied the team to the tournament in Finland, recalled her role in the recovery.

“As we got off the bus from the game, Hope said ‘to you,’ which basically meant I spoke to the players and tried to navigate the emotional turmoil,” explains Gervis.

“I remember that meeting very vividly and it was about how we validated the emotions, but also how we wanted to define ourselves, what happened next, how we could learn from the game without blaming each other give.

“We talked about things and we had some values ​​that we went back to – things like ‘Take back your power’, ‘Action makes fear go away’, ‘Know that you matter’. These were things that the players had written together, and they were kindly drawn together by us.

“And then we recovered and got out of the group with our fingertips.”

In one of Gervis’ first workshops with the roster, players were asked to contribute to two lists – one titled “Empowering Beliefs” and the other entitled “Limiting Beliefs” – to summarize their thoughts on each of their tournament opponents. The exercise helped to understand players’ perceptions of their eventual opponents in the finals.

“I wanted to get a sense of what they believe about themselves and what they believe about other people, other teams, and how in some ways they empower other teams,” says Gervis.

“The list of limiting beliefs for Germany was long, believe me. But if you don’t acknowledge that, you have no place to start trying to get people to see themselves differently.

“We did that for all countries at the European Championship because if we don’t ask questions about it, you take the luggage invisibly onto the pitch instead of saying, ‘Oh, that’s what we think. This isn’t about helping us, so what do we do? How can we change that?'”

Gervis’ presence in the camp set a precedent that future England managers would follow.

Mark Sampson, who led the Lionesses to third place at the 2015 World Championships, and Phil Neville, who led the team to the semifinals of a major tournament for the third consecutive year in 2019, both employed psychologists to support players dealing with the Pressure bypass elite competition.

Sometimes it can accumulate in sudden and unexpected ways.

England, 43 places ahead of opponents Cameroon, were heavy favorites when they met in the round of 16 at the 2019 World Cup in France.

The game ended in a 3-0 win for the Lioness. But the evening was far less easy than the score suggests.

Toni Duggan will play against Cameroon at the 2019 World CupEngland faced Cameroon at the 2019 World Cup in the last 16

Cameroon were furious over two outlandish decisions by the video assistant referees that went against them – the first restoring a goal by Ellen White, the second ruling out a reaction from Ajara Nchout. It seemed like Cameroon might refuse to continue playing.

When they did, their physicality, fueled by a sense of injustice and the support of the local crowd, could have unsettled England.

“We’ve had some fantastic psychologists over the years,” said midfielder Jill Scottexternal link at the time.

“In moments like this in games like Cameroon you realize that without these encounters we might have had a completely different scenario.

“Some people will say experienced players should always be able to handle things but I’ve never been involved in a game like that in 140 games for England.

“I would say these meetings helped us keep cool on a hot day.”

Scott’s words seemed prescient ahead of Euro 2022. Striker Fran Kirby admitted on the eve of the England semi-final against Sweden: “As soon as we knew the Euros were going to be played in England, we had to figure out how we could handle the pressure.”

Traces of the “how to win” culture that Hays first spoke to Wiegman about in early 2021 can be seen in the way Kirby and company responded to the expectations.

The team’s ‘common purpose’ was key to ensuring players who came on felt valued, with England’s historic goal against Germany coming from substitute Chloe Kelly.

“When you’re really clear about how you’re going to play and what your role is, that simplifies things. Instead of being occupied with winning and losing, you are occupied with what you have to do,” says Hays.

Despite the Lionesses’ success in using sports psychology to support players on and off the pitch, Hays – who has also worked with the UK diving team – believes women’s football still has some way to go before psychological support is on par with other sports.

“There is an enormous opportunity to use sports psychology even more effectively. There aren’t that many sports psychologists who work consistently in women’s football,” she says.

During Hays’ tenure at the English Institute of Sport, the emphasis was heavily on the spirit. While she was there, the organization doubled its psychology team from 15 to 30 specialists.

She says it’s “outrageous that an Olympic athlete doesn’t work regularly with a sports psychologist to develop their competitive mentality.”

Whether other teams choose to follow Powell’s lead some 20 years ago remains to be seen, but she says the demand for psychological support is there, waiting to be answered.

“There’s a recognition that it’s necessary, not just in terms of performance but also in terms of well-being,” says the former Brighton boss.

“During my time at Brighton we had a really good psychologist and player care so not only did we talk to the players about things on the pitch, we gave them life support.

“Gamers are more likely than ever to talk about their well-being, so it’s becoming increasingly important.”

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