The German National Football team’s quest for winning a major trophy was at an impasse from the start of 1997 (Euro 1996 Champions) to the period where they won their 4th FIFA World Cup in 2014, laying hands on the majestic trophy after 24 years. But, the route towards success took some time especially with a strong national team consisting of players coming from Bundesliga clubs of immense pedigree such as Bayern Munich, Schalke, and Borussia Dortmund.
The Germans, who controlled the cruise ship, were too proud to admit flaws in their system. Instead, they repeated the habit of questioning coaches and players. It was only until Jurgen Klinsmann returned back, where he started earmarking the defects found in the team’s method of preparations for major competitions. While analyzing the change to be made inside their training base, his mind was adamant about one thing – to install a team of Sports Psychologists.
Ralf Rangnick wasn’t just a Godfather of Gegenpressing but a well-known innovator inside the German circle, who valued science, technology, and medicine. His mind was filled with details necessary to improve each individual on the pitch. Hans-Dieter Hermann worked as a Sports Psychologist for Rangnick’s club, Ulm 1846 in the Bundesliga. He was one of the first people to occupy a job in the Bundesliga under the Sports Psychology department.
When German football was at an all-time low, Klinsmann recruited Hermann into the national team as a mental coach in 2005 to help German players cope with unique situations. Even their legendary goalkeeper Oliver Kahn sought help from Hermann when things weren’t going well as he was on the verge of losing his position to former Arsenal keeper, Jens Lehmann.
Germany won the World Cup in 2014. Hans-Dieter Hermann was the Chief Sports Psychologist under a Joachim Low team, which encountered injuries and setbacks from Club football but achieved the team’s main objective of winning a trophy by creating a strong mentality and unity within the squad.
Sascha Lense, the latest addition as a Sports Psychologist at Manchester United met Rangnick during his time at RB Leipzig in 2015. He played an instrumental role to push the mental limits of every player in the squad to achieve league promotions in successive seasons. The German is the first of his kind at the club after 20 years since Sir Alex Ferguson’s deputy, Steve McClaren bought in Bill Beswick as Sports Psychology head in 1999.
Now, I’m here to deal with a major question. Why do we need one now? That too for 6 months. After referring to quite a lot of books, I wasn’t able to derive a definitive answer. So, I decided to invite a specialist to answer these questions.
Jimmy Williams is a Performance Consultant and Founder of Red Devil Talk, a Performance Psychology podcast. He has interviewed the likes of Gary Neville, Roy Cavanagh, Frans Hoek, Shaun Murphy, and much more. He was very kind to contribute with some of his insights from his field of interests i.e. Talent Development & Applied Sport Psychology. Let’s get started quickly with the first question then !!!
How will Sascha Lense help the current Manchester United side raise their ceiling? What could be his short term goals?
Jimmy: “I was at Old Trafford last week to watch United and Arsenal and at times, I felt some of the players looked tentative and avoided playing risky passes. There were a number of times in the first half that players considered playing long-diagonal, play-switching passes but instead, they played the simple ball, a few yards to their left or right.
“Maybe I am wrong, but I often feel like some of the current players are crippled by fear of making a mistake when playing at home. It might be suggested that this is an example of avoidant behavior (just an opinion, of course!), which is often related to being negatively perceived by others (in this case, the crowd, being jeered, etc). Given the tough run recently, poor results, and poor form, is this really a surprise?
“Thus, in the short term, Lense’s role might simply be to address areas such as confidence, communication, decision-making or possibly improve attention. When I watch United recently, often, some of the errors are pretty basic and do smack of a lack of attention and making the correct decision in the crucial moments.”
How, specifically, do you think Sascha Lense can help Manchester United players’ performance going forward?
Jimmy: “In terms of medium to long-term goals, I am certain the objective will be to strengthen the player’s personalities, providing players with mental skills frameworks to navigate adversity on the pitch. As mentioned, to me, at times, the team has looked short on confidence and it is important to be proactive, rather than reactive, to ensure performance doesn’t dip too much in the challenging moments.
“There will be distractions. There will be drops in confidence. Nerves on the pitch are inevitable. Low mood can happen and emotions can overwhelm you. In ninety minutes, players have so many decisions to make and thus, an intentional mental framework is needed.
“It is important that players know what they are trying to achieve when they step on the field. In turn, this can support players’ self-regulation which is essentially one’s ability to understand and manage their behavior, and their reactions to feelings and things happening around them on the field. It includes being able to regulate reactions to strong emotions like frustration and nerves which as mentioned, are inevitable.
“So, long term, I am certain that Lense’s role will be to help optimize performance in this way. In terms of examples of mental frameworks, I will direct you to individuals such as Dan Abrahams who has a number of helpful and practical suggestions in his free podcast (The Sport Psych Show) and webinars on Youtube, which can help coaches, players, and even parents looking to introduce the notion of mental skills training to their children.”
Which player from your experience as a performance analyst could Sascha Lense improve or work more hours with in order to achieve a successful development of that individual?
Jimmy: “Potentially, any player can benefit from working with a sports psychologist but It is worth noting that mental skills training isn’t for everyone. For me, it is a performance enhancement approach.
“Typically, clinical psychology has operated from a deficits-approach perspective which essentially focuses on perceived weaknesses or shortcomings. For me, I look to work from a strengths-based perspective with individuals to ensure sustained development of the whole person which, subsequently, can support player performance (hopefully).
“What is this person already good at? How can we enhance the strengths that this person already possesses to further support their performance? The idea behind this is that individuals already have the resources within them, with the role of the sports psychologists to help the individual 1. Identify them and 2. Develop them. It is important to state that this is, of course, my philosophy.”
Do you think Sascha Lense is staying here for more than the interim period.From your understanding, how long will it take to expect results from mental coaching to be visible on the pitch?
Jimmy: “I hope so. To me, it seems like a good move. If you look at contemporary studies, a lot of the findings point to the importance of psychological skills development in distinguishing between consistent, top-level performers and inconsistent performers.
“Most German clubs have at least one sports psychologist employed now and I am pleased Manchester United have got Lense on board. Given that the plan is to move Rangnick upstairs into a consultant role at the end of the season, I expect Lense will stay beyond the interim period you have mentioned.
“In terms of when we can expect results, it’s a difficult question to answer. The misconception regarding Sports Psychology is that it is a quick fix; it isn’t. You wouldn’t go to the gym a few times, lift a few weights and expect bigger biceps, would you? It takes time, sustained effort, and intentional engagement to see the benefits of mental skills training.
“ But, we have spoken about the idea of 1 %’s and marginal gains. Anything that can potentially further increase performance can only be positive from Manchester United’s perspective, right?”