As the sound of the Black Eyed Peas’ I Gotta Feeling reverberates around the changing room, two words are on the words of the England players’ lips: ‘Sarvatra Vijay’. An Indian Army motto meaning victory everywhere, it’s also the mantra that is about to carry this group of women into the biggest game of their lives.
The scene could easily be taken from the pre-match team talk Sarina Wiegman will deliver ahead of England’s Euro 2022 final against Germany, but its roots lie in another major tournament the Lionesses took by storm. In 2009, travelling to the European Championship in Finland as relative outsiders, Hope Powell’s squad fought their way to the final in Helsinki. Germany, fresh from winning the 2007 World Cup, lay in wait.
In an interview with The Football Psychology Show, Dr Misia Gervis – England’s psychologist in 2009, who introduced the Rajput Regiment phraseology to Powell’s team – identifies a number of key psychological measures that helped England prepare for their showdown 13 years ago and could point to the preparations Wiegman’s squad will be making in the build-up to Sunday.
The need for adversity
In 2009, England lost the first match of the group stage against Italy, with captain Kelly Smith sent off after only 28 minutes. To many observers, the result signalled a nightmare start to the team’s campaign, but Gervis felt otherwise.
“We’d been winning everything [before the tournament] and it’s almost like we needed to have a loss to prepare to recover from the loss,” she says. “I remember, as we came off the bus from the game, Hope said, ‘over to you’, which basically meant me talking to the players and trying to navigate through the emotional turmoil.
“I remember that meeting really vividly and it was about how we validated the emotions, but also how we wanted to define ourselves, what happened next, how we were able to learn from the game without blaming each other.
“We spoke about things and we had some values that we returned to… things like ‘reclaim your power’, ‘action makes the fear go away’, ‘know that you count’… these were things the players had written collectively and they kind of pulled us together. And then obviously we recovered and, by our fingertips, got out of the group.”
A long-term vision
Although the Victory Everywhere tagline was born from a workshop Gervis held with the squad immediately prior to the final against Germany, she emphasises the necessity of embedding long-term psychological support to deliver improvements in on-pitch performances and the squad’s wellbeing.
“Way back, the England shirt was worn with heaviness by the players,” says Gervis. “We did so much work [to change that] in terms of who we are, what we stand for, connecting people, having conversations in very different ways and making that group environment really powerful.
“We had additional challenges along the way. One of the biggest was Faye White, who got a face injury in the game before [the final] and had to be flown home to have an operation and then come back again.
“She did come back and play, remarkably… but going into the final, we were unsettled. So, the workshop that I did with the players before the Germany game was about bravery because I knew these women’s lives.
“I knew that every single one of those women had been braver in a much bigger, scarier way than playing a game of football… so, in a sense, I was trying to get them to harness that because no one had been there and the men hadn’t been there either.”
Using experience wisely
The squad Powell took to Finland contained a number of players – such as Kelly Smith and Faye White – who travelled with experience of at least two major tournaments under their belts. While Gervis believes this kind of track record is beneficial to teams in high-pressure situations, she also underlines the need for know-how to be tapped into strategically.
“We certainly worked on strategies, even down to the really small things,” she says. “Sometimes, it’s really hard for a goalkeeper to pick the ball out of their net, so someone else did it if we’d conceded a goal. Also, when you score… there’s lots of emotion, but actually that’s not helpful, so how do you calm it down?
“There were roles in terms of who would be doing the calming… Casey Stoney was great at that and Faye [White] was really good at doing it as well. So, it’s like, ‘yes, we’ve scored a goal,’… but let’s reset and then come again… those moments of connection are really powerful.”
In one of Gervis’s first workshops with the squad, players were asked to contribute to two lists – one entitled Empowering Beliefs and the other headed Limiting Beliefs – written under the names of other European teams. The exercise proved a learning curve in understanding the players’ perception of their eventual opponents in the 2009 final.
“I wanted to get a sense of what they believed about themselves and what they believed about other people, other teams and how they, in a sense, were empowering other teams,” explains Gervis.
“The limiting beliefs list for Germany was long, believe you me, but if you don’t acknowledge that then you don’t have a starting point to try and get people to view themselves differently.
“We did it for Finland, Norway, Sweden – all the countries in the Euros – because if we didn’t ask questions about that, then you invisibly take that baggage onto the pitch, rather than kind of going, ‘oh, that’s what we think, that’s not going to help us, so what do we do? How do we change that?’”
‘Creating’ a dressing room
In the final against Germany, England were trailing 2-1 at the interval, but still very much in the game after a close first half. The dressing room atmosphere Gervis had helped instil – epitomised by the squad’s choice of music and the Victory Everywhere mantra – was put to the sternest possible test.
“Part of my role was to kind of ‘create’ the dressing room,” recalls Gervis. “So, for the final, I basically had pictures all the way around [the room] and there were always key songs the players had chosen…. energising songs that meant they were no under no illusion as to how big the challenge was.
“At half-time, it was close, we’d scored and it was possible… that first half was a half for us to be really proud of. So, the dressing room at half time was buzzing with optimism… and that was also about a kind of familiarity of routine. There’s a rhythm to everything… the warm up, how each individual player gets their kit on, when Hope comes in and speaks… it feels like you know what you are doing and it kind of anchors everyone.”