The German FA Cup thrives on passion for sports, the knockout principle and surprises – like when amateur teams kick pros out of the competition, for example. ContiSoccerWorld spoke to Jeannine Ohlert, psychologist at the German Sport University Cologne, to understand why even superstars can turn into dwarfs in the Cup and what role the mind plays in that.
Question: Mrs. Ohlert, at least once in a German FA Cup match, the reporter will mention the common phrase "the Cup has its own rules". What do you think when you hear that?
Ohlert: Of course it may sound trite to some, at first. And yet, the Cup actually does have its own rules whenever extreme conditions arise. Unlike in the premier league, the team is immediately out upon defeat. The enourmous pressure to succeed, which lies heavily on the players’ shoulders, is really something special – with corresponding effects.The "David versus Goliath“ situation appears again and again during Cup competition and a small club really does succeed in knocking out a favourite team from time to time. Are amateurs better at dealing with the pressure.
Jeannine Ohlert, team psychologist at the German Sport University Cologne
Question: The "David versus Goliath“ situation appears again and again during Cup competition and a small club really does succeed in knocking out a favourite team from time to time. Are amateurs better at dealing with the pressure?
Ohlert: Cup matches are highlights. In fact, it even is an exception for most clubs to play matches during the week. And each player is highly aware of one thing: If I beat Bayern Munich today, I’ll be a national hero. The players can create a sensation relatively simply with little effort. And what may increase the pressure on big teams, triggers a boost in determination in the case of village clubs.
Question: Isn't a bottom league player incredibly nervous when he lines up in a match against Bayern Munich?
Ohlert: That is absolutely correct and also normally the case. That's why the common phrase "own rules" is rather exaggerated. We know, of course, that most matches actually turn out just as expected. And yet there are some exceptions.
Question: What do these depend on? How can small clubs succeed in winning?
Ohlert: That has to do with group dynamics. The belief in opportunity and one's own strength is a fundamental condition. And besides that, each team can be trained professionally to deal with the special situation in front of 50 000 viewers, for example, and the tremendous attention in the press. But, unfortunately, that doesn’t happen so often.
Question: So the psychological aspect is extremely important during the Cup. What would you recommend to low-class teams before a Cup match?
Ohlert: I would recommend that each trainer gets a sports psychologist on board weeks before an important match. A sports psychologist can prepare the team in a systematic way, work on team spirit and arouse the consciousness of personal strengths. Apart from technical skills, sheer willpower clearly demonstrates where the leagues differ. A strong will to run and help each other can often compensate weaknesses in technical skills. If the players fully understand this, then the team is very advanced .
Question: What is the work of a sports psychologist like on a day-to-day basis?
Ohlert: That strongly depends on the team and the trainer's objectives. Basically, sports psychology is hardly effective in a common chalk-and-talk teaching situation. A lot happens in team building exercises to develop self-confidence. It is important for the team to set clear goals. It’s not about saying: "We want to beat Bayern Munich". Instead, it’s about achieving common understanding: We will run for each other, we will support one another.
Question: Well, many premier league teams work with sports psychologists on a regular basis...
Ohlert: You’ll be surprised, but that’s not the way it is. Hardly any premier league team employs a sports psychologist on a regular basis. The lack of professionalism, which still exists in this area, is just amazing. The premier league deals with huge sums of money, but rarely invests in fees for a sports psychologist. Spain’s FC Sevilla employs eleven sports psychologists, who take care of all players from youth teams onwards. After all, FC Sevilla did succeed in winning the 2007 UEFA Cup with a rather low budget.
Question: Is that why German Football League teams are also placing their hopes on sports psychologists?
Ohlert: That’s right, for both men and women. They particularly work on teambuilding before tournaments. The players don’t spend much time with each other off the field. Joachim Löw’s philosophy of bringing the national team together and also engaging them in psychological work prior to a tournament is great, in to my opinion.
Question: Let us get back to Cup once again: What kind of preparation does a star-studded team need to tackle a smaller club, that will bleed nails till the very last second?
Ohlert: The human being is lazy by nature. He relaxes automatically in groups; we call this "social loafing". That makes sense as human behaviour, however no one can relax in a Cup match. As a trainer I can set individual goals, for example, to prevent this from happening in a team used to success: For instance, I can explain my precise expectations on tackling results to a defender - and maybe even threaten with consequences if he fails.
Question: Whenever a favorite unexpectedly concedes a goal in a Cup match, it sometimes seems as though the players get stuck in a state of shock. What is going on in their minds?
Ohlert: That’s a very interesting question for which there is yet no research. However, we assume some sort of "emotional contagion" is going on. This means that the leader’s gloom spreads over the whole team. If a professional team is more skilled in football than their opponent, then they should actually not take a beating. In this case they must develop a proper attitude. The ability to deal with pressure actually makes the big difference between a premier league player and a fourth league player ("Oberliga"): The pro is able convert a free kick even in front of a whistling crowd of 50 000, whereas the amateur loses his nerves.
Question: Is a matter of getting used to it or can the pro simply withstand the pressure?
Ohlert: That depends on personality. In the ideal case, the player already knows how to deal with it. And that is exactly what sports psychology has to offer: It’s about teaching people how to deal with these situations. However, virtually none of that is taught in a player’s regular training programme. That’s why only those who have a natural talent to handle pressure make it to the top. That’s why we strongly believe that talented players should get started with sports psychology.
Question: Penalty shooting is another example of an extreme Cup situation. How can a penalty taker benefit from psychology before taking a penalty kick?
Ohlert: In this case there are two different types:One type manages to switch his mind off - or uses it at least in a way so that his thoughts don’t disturb him in the crucial moment. And the other one knows how to use his mind beneficially. And that is, by all means, a matter of training. Anyone who remembers the movie "Summer's Fairytale" ("Sommermärchen") about the 2006 World Championship, knows the way the national players simulated the penalty shootout situation. Along with the players, a sports psychologist can develop strategies to cope with a racing pulse or shaking knees.