The first man to walk barefoot across the hot coals was Xesco Espar, the coach of FC Barcelona’s hand-ball team. The second man across was Mauricio Pochettino.
This was at Spurs Lodge last Wednesday, for a night of team-building exercises. Pochettino brought his old friend Espar, a motivational specialist, across from Barcelona for the event. Espar was the man Pochettino and Jesus Perez took their Southampton squad to back in July 2013, to walk across the hot coals themselves. Ever since he took over at Spurs he has been thinking about when would be the best time to walk the players over the coals with Espar. And when better than 10 days before a Champions League final?
There was another activity when the players were handed a long thin arrow with a sharp point. They had to put the point up against their throat and walk into a wall. Trusting that their neck would be strong enough to snap arrow, and that they would not suffer a dangerous injury instead.
The theme of the evening was to teach the Spurs’ players to face their fears. That the hot coals and the arrow point might look scary, but that if approached with the right mindset, then they were nothing to worry about. And that has been the dominant Pochettino message to his players over this long three-week break, building up to the biggest game of their lives.
Six days after walking on coals, Pochettino is in a meeting room at Spurs’ training ground, explaining his thinking in detail to a small group of journalists. About how fear is natural, and no-one is free from it. But how in a week like this, it can only be confronted head-on. He certainly looks like a man taking his own advice. This is Pochettino at his most relaxed, forthcoming and opinionated. Some managers close down in this sort of situation. Pochettino has opened up.
For Pochettino, finals are won in the mind. That is what he has learned over his career, and even over this run. It is the emotional state of the teams in the final that decides who wins. Because emotions are the “trigger” to performance. And if the players have any fears or regrets or hang-ups – any negative mental energy – then they will not able to perform at their best.
“We all have fears. It’s not that you are not going to fear anything. You are still going to have fears, but you’re going to be free to work [through them]. People without fears don’t exist. The difference is people who tackle their fears, who cope with them, and who achieve. The other people are those that freeze with fear. Successful people have the same fears as other people. It’s just that they take them on.”
That is the theory, and for the last three weeks Pochettino has been putting it into practice. His number one priority over this long empty break before the final, has been to get his players’ in the ideal mindset. A fearless mindset. Tactics, fitness, technique, set-pieces, opposition planning, all of this takes second place to the 45 minutes of mental training he does every morning.
“We have created different strategies in that area, in the mental and emotional area,” Pochettino explains. “And now the players realise how important these specific areas are. If you are going to run, of course you need big legs, muscles and everything, but if your mind says ‘no I cannot run, you’re going to be tired’, then you cannot move. And that is why before everything, is your mind. Be ready. Be focused. Your emotions need to be in a good place.
“That is why our strategy from day one after the Everton game, at the end of the league season, was to make this area the priority. And then all of the areas around it. We designed 45 minutes every morning from day one to work in that area. When you have only one objective, and three weeks to prepare, it is easier than when you play every three days. The players have learned a lot in these three weeks because we had the capacity to work in a different way, to create a different plan, to help them in the end.”
The climax of this three weeks of mental preparation was last Wednesday, when Pochettino brought in Xesco Espar to have his players walk over the hot coals. It was after an evening of motivational exercises, all to do with body language, communication and trust. “Before [the fire-walking], for two or three hours, we were preparing, team bonding. That [fire-walking] was a specific thing we did at Southampton during pre-season [in 2013]. We have a very good friend in Barcelona, he’s a mental coach, he does things that can create good feelings and emotions.”
Pochettino hopes that by getting to players to walk across those hot coals, he taught them to push themselves mentally and confront their fears. “It was nice to see the reaction of the players, the character and the personality of them,” he says. “To be honest, all of them were unbelievably involved. They enjoyed it a lot. And of course they were all very brave.”
When the players snapped arrows with their necks, they taught themselves that they are more powerful than they thought. “When you see the arrows, you think it’s impossible. How you are going to break them? You put them here, with the sharp tip against your throat. ‘No, come on! I am going to kill myself!’ And then bang! You break the arrow! But the most important is to learn how you can prepare your mind. That is the most important thing.”
What Pochettino wants his players to do is to connect with the energia universal, the spiritual life-force that he puts so much faith in. The force that he believes can turn dreams into reality. Pochettino puts much of his success in his career down to his ability to feel it, to channel it, and to sense the auras of other people. It is spiritual, almost approaching mystical, a non-religious superstition that overrides the scientific side of his work. And everything Spurs have been doing for the last few weeks has been geared towards it.
“It is a superior energy that you can connect with, if you have opened your mind,” he explains. “With some strategies, you can connect with this energy that is around us, that nearly touches you. But if you are not open to receive this energy, you cannot feel it. All these strategies were to to try to help us, the team, connect with this energy. This energy that is so powerful. That makes you feel invincible. And have you not set limits.”
Pochettino has been reading his players’ auras, trying to interpret their energy, and he feels confident. He believes that the work the players have been doing on their mentality is paying off already. Club staff say that they noticed a difference in body language and positivity almost immediately after. “I feel very positive,” Pochettino says of his team. “They make me feel very positive. The team translates to us a very good energy. That doesn’t mean that we are going to win 3-0, 4-0 or 5-0. We need to go there and do our job. But I think the preparation we are doing is an amazing thing, and is an amazing experience, very positive.”
And now Spurs are one game away from an achievement – winning the Champions League as an outsider – that would be unmatched in modern football history. Whatever you might think about universal energy, it is impossible to disagree with Pochettino saying that a Tottenham triumph would be a “massive example for football forever”. As much as Liverpool like to say that ‘this means more’ with them, Pochettino believes that Spurs lifting the trophy would be far more important.
“To win a title in a different project like Tottenham, like I was at Espanyol, of course that means the satisfaction is more. Because no-one expected from the beginning of the season that Tottenham is going to be in the final of the Champions League. It’s normal that they [City, Liverpool etc] are going to be closer to win in 10 years more than us. Because they have the capacity to act every season: better quality, better quality, better quality, better quality.”
“And of course if you win with Manchester City or Manchester United or another team, it’s like ok. People assume that this project are all based in money. And of course, if you spend a lot of money, you should [win], or you must win. But if you win, it’s normal, because you spend a lot of money. But in Tottenham, no-one expects. And if you build something special, I think it is going to be forever remembered, no? It’s like, in case [if] we win the Champions League, it’s going to be massive example for football, I think forever.”
That is why this means so much to Pochettino. There has been plenty of speculation about Pochettino’s future but he said here that if he wanted to go and manage a richer team – a project where he was expected to win – he could have done it by now. But he is a “romantic”, and he is happy fighting against the odds, teaching his players to believe, sensing their energy, trying to do something that has never been done before, trying to set an example to the rest of the world.
“I am romantic! Yes I am a romantic person,” Pochettino hits the table for emphasis. “In the last five years, the people say ‘if Mauricio receives an offer from a different club…ah yes...’, and the people believe that I am going to act like another person. But it’s true, I am a little bit romantic. And I have this spirit, like Che Guevara. I don’t know, I am a fighter.”
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