A UEFA Champions League-winning coach with Borussia Dortmund and FC Bayern München, Ottmar Hitzfeld shared his wisdom with Pro licence students at a Nyon course this month.
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"A democratic dictator" is how Switzerland coach Ottmar Hitzfeld described himself when he visited Nyon earlier this month to discuss his coaching experiences with the Pro licence students on UEFA's coach education exchange programme. A UEFA Champions League-winning coach with Borussia Dortmund (1997) and FC Bayern München (2001), Hitzfeld delved into his three-decade coaching career to offer some fascinating insights and the following valuable advice.
Work on your weaknesses
I was very shy and inhibited when it came to talking in front of people. As a player it wasn't a big deal, but as a coach I had to learn to stand up and deliver, to address a team. I would practise at home in front of the mirror to make sure that once I was there standing in front of my team, I could be confident enough to get my message across.
It is very important to bring your own philosophy and to implement it, but it goes without saying that you have to work with the players you have. When I went to Dortmund in 1991, I wanted to play 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1, but Dortmund had only ever played a 3-5-2. I realised that although I had my own philosophy, I didn't have the necessary players. I changed my own philosophy and only after being able to sign the right players did I implement my original idea. You need to be flexible.
Deal with difficult players
As player I was rather selfish – I was a striker and wanted to score goals. I was perhaps not a great team player, but as a coach I knew those patterns and knew I would have to focus on that kind of player more than the others. Sometimes the most outstanding players are very difficult, but I never shied away from dealing with them. When you have difficult players you have to invest more, because they will play their heart out for you. If you just deal with the easy players, you will have a weak team.
Learn from your mistakes
You need negative experiences to improve. Losing the 1999 UEFA Champions League final was a very good experience in retrospect, because two years later we won it. We conceded in the 91st and 93rd minutes, and I called the team together afterwards and told the players we didn't want people's pity, but had to look at our mistakes. We didn't play with full concentration up until the final whistle, didn't keep [Manchester United FC] away from our goal during the closing minutes, and were too nervous. The bottom line is that it was our fault. What was important was to tell the team it was our fault, but we were good enough to improve and had what it takes to win a Champions League final. The important thing is to remotivate players. I tried to convey that message, even though I was devastated myself.
Move with the times
It is important to keep an eye on developments. Being a football manager is a full-time job, meaning you have to think football day and night. You have to think about your team and about new developments, such as video analysis. You have to watch video footage of other matches – it is not enough to watch a match once, you have to go back, study and learn things. You also need to make sure you have a good mix of younger and more experienced people on your staff.
I have always told players why I didn't field them. Back in the day, the coach might say: 'You're not playing, that's it.' I tried not to do that, but to tell every player why they were not picked. As a young coach, I spent a lot of time concentrating on how I'd criticise a player. That is something that is learned, not something you know how to do. You have to make sure you don't offend or hurt people. Players are often very sensitive. Every single word you say is important, and you must make sure you keep this relationship of confidence and trust, as only then will you be successful as a coach.
Know your players
My players expect me to know our opponents inside out, but they also expect me to know them inside out. Players want their manager to treat them as more than just a number on shirt. It is not only about tactics and what happens on the pitch, it is also about what happens off it. That is why you need to establish a relationship that will strengthen team spirit.
In the 60s and 70s, players wanted more authority from the manager – these days they expect you to show more empathy. Before Switzerland played a qualifying match in England [in June 2011], I took Granit Xhaka to one side. He was 19 and I asked him: 'Can you play at Wembley surrounded by a crowd of 90,000 enthusiastic people?'
It was a simple question and he said: 'Why not coach – do you not trust me?' These days, young players are much more mature and confident. A player 30 years ago wouldn't have said that. That is why I have to adapt and invest time in dealing with them as human beings. You're working with 20, 25, 30 players, and being able to forge these individuals into one team cannot be done without the human component. That is where you have to develop the gut feeling.
Speak the same language
For me, communication was always the most crucial part of coaching. You need to be able to feel what is going on in your team and have the necessary empathy. If you work with a big club, you represent that club – you are the face of the club and through the media you communicate back to your club and with the players. That is why every little word, every nuance is important. As a foreigner who doesn't speak the language, it is very difficult these days.