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Coaching & Development, Performance | May 24, 2018
The Tottenham Hotspur Manager gives us a good indication in Brave New World.

‘“A good coach can change a game; a great coach can change a life.” These are the words of legendary basketball coach John Wooden. I second that sentiment.’

Mauricio Pochettino, Manager, Tottenham Hotspur


By John Portch

Pochettino may be just the latest in a long line of head coaches and managers to cite Wooden but throughout his book Brave New World: Inside Pochettino’s Spurs, the Argentine leaves the reader in no doubt that he believes in the transformative powers of the coach on their athletes.

‘My team and I love helping young players. It’s like planting a tree, watering it and watching it grow,’ he continues. ‘All the fruit that it bears comes from the land and environment that you put in place.’ Brave New World saw author Guillem Balague gain exclusive access to Pochettino and his backroom staff during the 2016-17 season, his third with the club, and the result is a diary-like first-person account that covers Spurs’ campaign month by month in intimate detail.

In chronicling a season that saw Tottenham claim their highest league finish in decades – finishing second and going unbeaten at home in the Premier League as they played out their final season at the old White Hart Lane stadium – Pochettino paints a picture of a workaholic coach; a restless presence who has carried the passion and commitment of his playing days into his coaching career. Yet the difference between the former Argentina international and other coaches said to share these traits are Pochettino’s results on the pitch and his success in promoting and developing young talent.

He proudly points out that during his three years as Head Coach of Espanyol, between 2009 and 2013, he gave 20 academy graduates their debut. This is a feat he has built on in England; in October 2017, when Spurs’ Harry Winks took to the field for the England men’s national team, his appearance mean that 15 of the last 30 England debutants have been coached by Pochettino at either the north London club or during his 16 months at Southampton between 2013 and 2014.

For all that, his charges leave him bemused at times. He notes that, ‘Players put on a heap of cologne before taking to the pitch these days. We’re all, “come on, come!” and they’re all pshht pshht pshht. The dressing room smells of humidity, the air is thick and dense, at least the aroma of Deep Heat from yesteryear has disappeared.’ Brave New World is dotted with Pochettino’s wry observations but more often it is the serious generational differences, the traits that drive coaches to distraction, that resonate.

‘It’s a difficult era for managing footballers,’ he explains. ‘These days you have to spell it out for them if you want them to be comfortable, as if everything were plotted on a map. Managers are more like architects or highway engineers.’ One can imagine the nods of recognition across elite sport when he adds: ‘You spend the day mapping out and reminding them of the journey because footballers’ concentration spans are shorter and shorter.’

Knowing which buttons to press

Pochettino understands that aside from assembling a team to challenge in the Premier League and the Uefa Champions League, his most important remit is to bridge that generation gap. It involves instilling high performance values, running effective training programmes and tactical drills, as well as guarding against the pitfalls of being a professional footballer in the modern era where social media and smartphones are a perennial distraction. To that end he builds his teams and reputation on the non-negotiables of discipline, hard work and commitment to the collective.

He admits this can be difficult in an era where the balance in power has undoubtedly shifted from the coaches towards the players. ‘We’re just getting started again,’ he says in August 2016, ‘but we’ve had to get tough with a few lads who have come back confused from the summer break or international duty. Sometimes their parents or agents tell them things that do not always help – that they need to think more about themselves, that sort of stuff.’ He has his stock response ready: ‘“If he doesn’t work for the team he won’t play”. And I make sure not to laugh or flinch even in the slightest. I think the message is sent out loud and clear.’

Pochettino will sit down one-to-one with players he feels have not been up to scratch in pre-season. ‘Sometimes a good tournament can distract you,’ he observes. ‘Transfer rumours are also unsettling and it can be helpful sit down with a player to remind him that he has your confidence.’ He works hard to earn the trust of his players so that these difficult – but constructive – conversations can be hard. The night before those one-to-ones he took the team, both players and coaches, to dinner at the restaurant of the player’s choice.

Communicating such belonging cues – protecting players in the media is another example he regularly turns to – enables Pochettino to perform his essential work as he gets to know his players’ personality traits and backstories. Brave New World is packed with stories of team barbecues, mealtimes and personal conversations where he finds the means to impart some wisdom, reduce a player’s stress levels, or deliver some tactical instruction. As Pochettino points out, the players know that he, as Manager, carries the can when things go wrong, so he works tirelessly to earn their trust.

A typical day will see him arrive at the Tottenham training ground with his fellow coaches at 7.30am to plan the day’s programme and by the time the players start rolling in for breakfast at 9am he is free to head to the canteen. ‘I like to wait for the players sitting on the sofa, and them to come over and say hello,’ he writes. ‘This is our first conversation, our first contact. I need to see what state of mind they are in. Sometimes I show my face even earlier. The day after the Monaco game [a 1-2 defeat for Tottenham], I was in position after 8.00, observing if anyone was earlier than usual and keeping an eye on their expressions.’

Pochettino prides himself on his intuition, which he refers to as a ‘sixth-sense’. ‘I need data and tests, but what most influences my decisions is my ability to see if the right energy is flowing. I can foresee things that are going to happen and the associated consequences, or which path each player is going to take. I can see it in their auras.’

 

 

His early meetings with Victor Wanyama provide one such example. Wanyama, a former Celtic midfielder who has refined his game under Pochettino’s stewardship, first at Southampton, then at Tottenham, had plenty of scope for improvement when their paths first crossed. ‘“I’ve seen you play several times and we’re going to make you even better, one of the best,”’ Pochettino told the then 21-year-old in 2013 upon his arrival at the St Mary’s Stadium. ‘It was the first time that a coach had phoned him and spoken to him in that way. I lit the touch paper. We arranged to meet at a hotel and I noticed how uptight he was while sitting on the sofa. I gave him a hug and saw how the tension he’d given off on arrival disappeared. Both of us quickly felt we’d known each other for a long time.’ He goes on to say: ‘I felt like a father to him’ and ‘these days, I know which buttons to press and how far I can push him.’

Love is a losing game

Pochettino does, however, warn against ‘falling in love’ with players, describing it as a ‘dangerous business’. ‘I don’t partake in such activities because it’s a concept that I save for my other half,’ he offers, half in jest, ‘not to mention that sooner or later you’ll fall out of love. It happens in football faster than it does in life.’ It works both ways: ‘The problem is that a footballer’s psychology is directed towards self-defence. They don’t want to get too close to their coaches because they don’t want to put themselves in a position where they might get hurt. Maybe they think someone who hugs them today might drop them from the team tomorrow. That can’t be negated with a chat or second hug.’ As he says: ‘The ideal scenario is to strike a balance between what the footballer needs and what I demand.’

He continues: ‘Once we’ve opened the door [to a young player], our job consists of shaping the environment in which players can channel their energy; we try to give them the confidence and allow them to express themselves.’ He strikes one note of caution: ‘But the source of that energy comes from their own motivation; we can’t constantly keep up that level of passion all season long or throughout a player’s career. That passion has to be accompanied by rationality. We need to shape their way of thinking, so that they want to do what we want them to do.’

 

 

Pochettino cites the example of Tottenham’s Harry Kane who, on Pochettino’s watch, has gone from drifting around the fringes of the team to becoming one of Europe’s most respected strikers – a ‘warrior’ in his manager’s words. They clashed in Pochettino’s early days at the club due to what he perceived as Kane’s poor lifestyle habits and choices, while the forward harboured a residual mistrust of his new coach. Gradually the younger man was won over and, as Pochettino says, is now the first person to arrive and the last to leave training; Kane even lives in a house closer to the training ground during the week.

‘And it just hit me,’ reflects Kane in Brave New World. ‘This is what I’ve got to do’. He is one of several players and former colleagues who provide a testimony on Pochettino. ‘I have not been to his place for a meal,’ he continues. ‘Actually, I should invite him around to meet my daughter. He’ll have to come around one day. I’ll have a barbecue and we’ll spend some time together. Because he’s a family man I feel comfortable with him. Maybe with some managers you don’t feel comfortable doing that but he’s a friend.’ It is clear from Pochettino’s body of work that Kane’s is just one example of a player’s life he has been instrumental in changing for the better.

John Wooden would likely approve.

To delve deeper into Mauricio Pochettino’s coaching principles and work with young players at Tottenham read Brave New World: Inside Pochettino’s Spurs by Guillem Balague. Widely available from Orion Publishing Co.

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