Thomas Tuchel is the most in-demand young coach in European soccer. The out-of-work German, who came to wider prominence through his sterling work in the Bundesliga, first at Mainz then at Borussia Dortmund, is one of the first names in the frame whenever top European clubs part with their Head Coach. Not that Tuchel is intent on throwing himself thoughtlessly back into the often tempestuous climate of the European game.
He has been on sabbatical since parting ways with Dortmund in May following their 2-1 defeat of Eintracht Frankfurt in the German Cup final. That victory ensured a triumphant conclusion to a season overshadowed by the April bomb attack on the Dortmund team bus as the squad travelled to their Champions League home quarter-final encounter with Monaco. Mercifully, just one player was injured, but the incident spurred Tuchel’s desire to take a step away in the summer.
“When you’re managing and you’re in the tunnel before a game, when you’re in this high stakes competition, there is a real chance that you think this is the most important thing in life – but it is not,” he tells the Leaders Performance Institute.
Tuchel has been using his sabbatical to deepen his coaching knowledge and has sought sources across the globe. It is this ongoing quest that brought him to the Lawn Tennis Association in London for the most recent edition of the Leaders P8 Summit, where he broke bread with GMs including RC Buford of the San Antonio Spurs and Jerry Dipoto of the Seattle Mariners, as well as head coaches such as Roy Hodgson of Crystal Palace and Don Pyke of the Adelaide Crows.
“It will take me several days – weeks even – to process today after being inspired by some big influencers from across the world of sport,” he says of the P8. “In that way I’ll create fresh ideas for my future work that will help inform my decisions.” Before that, we took Tuchel aside to ask exactly what he has been doing since leaving Dortmund.
What have you been doing since May?
TT: To be honest, I first prioritised a long holiday and family time with my wife and kids; to truly be present and not have to think about the next pre-season or the next result. It’s important to finally have time for yourself, time to read, and time for your friends; it calms you down. Then I had the opportunity to visit MLS teams in New York and LA. I got to meet some of the owners of expansion franchise LAFC. I also went to the Wimbledon semi-finals and spent a week at the US Open.
What lessons did you take from tennis?
TT: First of all, it was a true gift to see Roger Federer live – that’s something you have to do – I got the chance to talk to him afterwards for five minutes and I was like a little kid! But it was the speed of the game up close and you realise how complex tennis is and, at the US Open, the crowd is completely different to Wimbledon; it’s noisy, it’s a big crowd, and every point counts; then there’s the mental challenge that the players have. It’s amazing to see and you can also feel it when you sit close to them; it gives you a fresh idea of what they deliver out on the court.
Did it make you reflect on your own coaching style?
TT: Yes, because I sat very close to one of the player’s boxes and his coach; he’s not down on the court and he cannot influence the player and it makes you consider that as athletes they are very self-confident and are able to make their own decisions when it comes to changing their game if they find themselves a set or a break down. The coach in tennis has to enable that decision-making.
What are some of the differences between the Bundesliga and MLS?
TT: There are so many. I’ve never worked closely with owners; there’s also the salary cap and you cannot recruit too many foreign players. It’s very interesting to see how they are building a new club at LAFC and I spoke to the owners and the EVP of Soccer Operations and saw how they are building a club from scratch. They built the stadium, the training facility; and at the time when I was there they didn’t have the coach and they didn’t have a team. It was great to see how they’re approaching it and very nice to experience how open they were towards their opponents; they see it as an opportunity to improve if you have a great rival.
What conditions would you prefer for your next job?
TT: I try hard not to think about it too much because it does not help. I believe that when that club comes along it will feel totally right. It is also linked to my passion for football; I’ll ask myself: do I know this club? Do I have a feeling for this club? Who is onboard? Who is President? Who are the players? What does the training pitch look like? What are the team colours? What does it look like to wear that shirt? It’s easy to think too far in one direction but there are so many possibilities, so I let things come to me and I hope to recognise it when something excites me and I’m ready.
What has been the biggest lesson you’ve learnt since leaving the Bundesliga?
TT: There is a happy and fulfilling life without soccer. In that environment you can become introspective and begin to take things personally; but it’s not only about winning. It’s about being grateful for the great opportunities that have come your way.
Has anything surprised you in the past few months?
TT: Just how good it is without soccer: we’ve just had the latest school holidays and I spent two weeks in Spain with my family and I didn’t watch a game for at least a week and I did not miss it! But seriously, what is surprising is the number of changes I have witnessed this season already on the coaching side, how many coaches have left their clubs already; some have departed after eight games, others as little as two. It makes me sad because I’m ready to work again but I am not a guy that wants anybody to lose their job. I know what it’s like to lose your job and it’s a horrible feeling; I will never wish bad results upon another coach for my personal gain. But it is also the reality that it will happen in this fashion, even at this early stage of the season. I would prefer to take up my next position next summer in order to have time to learn the club and the team within the pre-season and to get to know the people and get to know them. I want to really dig down into it and it’s not that easy to arrive in winter and to play just three days later.
What has been your biggest mistake in your career so far?
TT: There have been lots of mistakes and the biggest is taking on fights that you cannot win or if you fight the fights that someone else has to pay for. It’s a lifelong learning curve and being a coach is a lifelong thing and it is by being daring and being optimistic and making decisions; did you make the right decision in the wrong circumstances? It’s not worth giving yourself a hard time for that so you have to make decisions and keep looking forward. Don’t worry too much about the past.