Roberto Mancini is jumped by his assistants. His smile can be seen through their fluttering gray suits. Italy has beaten Belgium 2-1 and reached the semi-finals of the European Championship.
Mancini seemed calm throughout the game, but that was a pretense. After an hour of football it was visible. Pulling with the mouth. Mancini keeps doing it. The corners of his mouth tighten and relax, he sucks on his lip. He constantly wipes a lock of hair behind his ears, then often pinches his nose.
He walks across the field to his team. His players gather around him. He steps forward into the center of the circle and raises one finger. He talks fast, loud, a winner’s speech. Finally he can relax.
They are often lonely. Around them, tens of thousands of fans shout, cheer, whistle. Millions more see them on television. The cameras are constantly catching their movements. In the box with a chalk line around it, the national coaches can’t do much. They must radiate peace, despite the extreme pressure.
This European Championship shows how they express their tension. All different, sometimes strange. In the quarter-finals there were Mancini with his mouth pulling and Roberto Martinez of Belgium who, like his Danish colleague Kasper Hjulmand, constantly grinds chewing gum. Frank de Boer spent ninety minutes with a bottle of water for the Dutch national team: take a sip, throw the bottle away, take it again, sip, throw it away, take it. Joachim Löw of Germany is notorious for smelling his hands during the match.
Also read: this extensive look back at the European Championship of the Dutch national team: how Frank de Boer mentally prepared his players for success that never came
Those who actually radiate tranquility are rare. There is little to see about Andriy Shevchenko, national coach of Ukraine. He lost to England in the quarterfinals on Saturday night. Only after the 2-0 he let himself go: a throwaway gesture to the field.
Really unmoved was Mr. Cool’: Vladimir Petkoviććc, the national coach of Switzerland, who was eliminated by Spain on Friday after penalties in the quarterfinals. Just before extra time, he walked across the field as if he were taking a spring walk. Criticism, he said in this tournament, does him little: „I put a little Vaseline on my head so that it can run off. I feel nothing.”
He has to feel it during competitions, also physically, says sports psychologist Afke van de Wouw. She wrote the book Learn to Perform, which is about dealing with pressure in top sport, among other things. “Players and coaches release the stress hormone cortisol and adrenaline. Breathing becomes faster, blood pressure higher, muscles tense. The body prepares to fight or flee. The players can release that physical tension during the game, but the coach can’t. It may not go beyond the dug-out and the trainer’s section. They are caged tigers,” says Van de Wouw.
Kasper Hjulmand wears sneakers on Saturday during the quarterfinal match between Denmark and the Czech Republic. Just before halftime, the Danish national coach literally paces through his profession. Always back and forth. It is then 1-0. He seems content, but is restless. Moments later: the best cross of the tournament. Left back Joakim Maehle with outside foot, Kasper Dolberg taps in: 2-0. It will be enough to make it to the semi-finals.
It’s a fairy tale. A country in deep fear after the cardiac arrest Christian Eriksen suffered in the first game. That with the recovery of Eriksen started to play better and better, just survived the group stage, and can now go to Wembley.
Hjulmand apologized. He felt that his team should not have finished the first game, with all those emotions. After that, his team became increasingly close, he said during a press conference. Precisely because of what had happened. Hjulmand got praise from his players for his humanity and honesty, the way he got them back to playing football anyway. He is not only coach this tournament, but also father of the country. After the 2-0 he turns around. His fists are pumping with joy.
Facade of tranquility
It’s moments in a game when coaches can let down their facade of calm. Because they try to stay calm, always. There’s a reason. From different scientific research It has been found that coaches who radiate stress have a negative influence on their players. Athletes have less self-confidence and poor concentration. Moreover, they will take the coach who keeps going crazy less seriously.
Dick Advocaat, former national coach of the Netherlands, South Korea, Russia, Belgium and Serbia, also says it: players know immediately if you are in doubt. According to him, the tension is greater for national coaches than for club trainers. “Every game is a final. You don’t get a second chance. I did enjoy that tension, that was an advantage,” says Advocaat. He liked to stand during matches, which gave him “a sense of control”.
The Spanish national team surrounds Luis Enrique, their coach. He has a pen and paper in his hand and addresses them. It is Friday evening just before the penalty shootout against Switzerland, which Spain will win. The trainer radiates calm, very different from during the match. He ran through his box, sometimes almost into the field, gesturing and yelling at his players.
After the won penalty series, the control. He also felt calm, Luis Enrique says afterwards. That had, as Dick Advocaat said, to do with control. “I was calm because we had already prepared everything. There was nothing left to do,” said Luis Enrique.
England coach Gareth Southgate makes a small jump in the air after Harry Kane’s 3-0 in the quarter-final against Ukraine. A broad smile, a clenched fist. Immediately afterwards again calmly consult with his assistant coach, serious look. His face is rarely out of place.
No one has been criticized as much as Southgate. Before the European Championship he already wrote a open letter to the English fans. He asked for support after his players were whistled by his own crowd as they knelt in protest against racism. Southgate made it clear that this European Championship is about more than just winning for him. “In the end, that’s just a small part. Because when England plays, there’s a lot more at stake. We bring people together, we inspire and unite,” he wrote.
After the group stage, England did not play sparkling, it was hit again: fierce criticism from the British press. “We also prefer to play champagne football,” Southgate told the BBC. Now he is in the semi-finals, in his own country. Ukraine became a walk over. More important was the victory over Germany a round earlier (2-0). After that victory, in front of a home crowd at Wembley in London, Southgate remained calm, just like Saturday evening. For a moment after the final whistle he clenched his fists, arched his back slightly and looked up at the sky above the stadium. It is still possible: there, at Wembley, to win the European Championship.
Recovering for the semi-finals
Four countries left. Italy against Spain, Denmark against England in the semi-finals next week. The final at Wembley on Sunday.
They need to recover now. The players. But also the coaches, says sports psychologist Afke van de Wouw. They get busy. Traveling to London, analyzing opponents, mentally preparing players for one of the biggest games of their lives.
The risk for the trainers: they can no longer break free from the tournament and they wind themselves into a spiral of stress and fatigue. Arno Havenga, water polo national coach, once told about it at a conference on psychological recovery. The evening before the European Championship final in 2016, he was watching images of the opponent well into the night. The next day he was not fit himself, so he radiated less confidence and overloaded his players with information during the video analysis. In retrospect, he thinks that the players went into the game less calmly as a result. They lost the final and did not qualify for the Olympic Games in Rio.
According to Afke van de Wouw, before an important tournament, coaches need to know themselves well and know how to deal with stress. If they are bad at it, they can learn it: experience helps, but also breathing, relaxation and visualization exercises. Van de Wouw: “Or just – however short – take some distance from the tournament and relax.”
With the collaboration of Danielle Pinedo