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Bundesliga relegation battle: gaining the mental edge

Hamburg is one of the Bundesliga clubs struggling to avoid dropping to the second-tier. For the players, the pressure has hardly ever been greater - so they are exploring new ways to cope.

Playing for one of Europe's most traditional football clubs would be a dream for any professional: the prestige, the personal honor and the exposure to an international audience. Yet, several of Germany's biggest clubs are locked in a nail-biting Bundesliga relegation battle.

Former European Cup winners Hamburg are the only side never to be relegated from the Bundesliga over 50 seasons. However, their precious record looks insecure with six matches remaining in their 51st campaign; the northern giants temporarily escaped the relegation zone with Friday's win over Leverkusen, but are by no means out of the woods yet.

Last-placed Eintracht Braunschweig's miraculous return to form - winning 3-1 against Mainz, then drawing 1-1 in Leverkusen - has turned up the heat on Hamburg, Stuttgart, Freiburg and Nuremberg as the season approaches a thrilling climax. There is a seven point gap between 18th - the bottom of the table - and 13th, with only eight points separating 17th and 11th.

"I use an expression on German TV about how there's always one team that's too good to go down," Sky Deutschland expert Jan Aage Fjortoft said. "There's always one team who didn't expect to be in that relegation battle. You need to battle and think about your existence as a player at the club. The last two months are a stage where you need to be in it 24-7. And if you have players who have other distractions - their future, contracts, etc - then they will suffer more."

With debts spiraling towards 100 million euros ($137 million), Hamburg would face financial problems if they were relegated to the lower league. That, in addition to other pressures, like winning only twice in 12 games, has impacted on the confidence of the players who appear incapable of dealing with the pressures of the supporters and media.

It's like a domino effect: Relegation may aggravate other deep-rooted problems of the illustrious club. One leading local economist even described the situation of Hamburg being outside of the top-flight as a "disaster" for the city - the second most populous in Germany behind Berlin. The same applies to clubs based in bustling economic hubs, like Frankfurt and Stuttgart.

Breaking down barriers

Stuttgart pick up vital three points againt Hamburg last month.

Stuttgart pick up vital three points againt Hamburg last month

VfB Stuttgart are level with Hamburg on the same number of points. Their demise is more surprising and tougher to quantify considering some of the talent at their disposal - Vedad Ibisevic, Alexandru Maxim, Martin Harnik, and stars in the making like Timo Werner and Rani Khedira. But there is an apparent mentality problem, which looks to have continued under the club's third coach of the season, Huub Stevens.

Sports psychology is still a taboo subject for many in the macho environment of football: Admitting to the need for such help is seen as admitting to weakness or even mental illness.

But this is something sports psychologist Jeannine Ohlert and other professionals in the industry are looking to address. "It [sport psychology] isn't a more important thing than before; but more prominent, certainly," said the sports psychologist from Cologne's specialist sports university, in an interview with DW.

"We still have the problem in Germany that the footballers are very resistant to sports psychology. The perception is that you will turn to a psychologist only when you're mentally ill. This is a really big problem for us, actually."

This example is best illustrated in February during Schalke's 5-1 defeat at Bayern Munich. Leon Goretzka, who is 18 years of age, was withdrawn by head coach Jens Keller and was joined in the technical area by the club's professional sports psychologist.

It prompted a sensationalized headline from daily German newspaper Bild: "PSYCHO-HELP for Bayern victims."

It is, therefore, easy to see the problems that can arise from connecting connotations of having mental illness with the opportunity for positive psychological support from experts in the field. A study published on Thursday by FIFPro, the world footballer's association, revealed that up to 26% of active professional footballers had some kind of mental health issue ranging from distress to depression, or from alcohol-related problems to low self-esteem. The figure for former professionals was 42% of 121 surveyed.

Although the number is gradually increasing, only a handful of Bundesliga clubs employ a full-time professional, including Hoffenheim and Schalke. VfB Stuttgart opened access to a freelance psychologist towards the end of Thomas Schneider's ill-fated tenure as head coach.

Hamburg, for example, appointed a specialist under Frank Arnesen's tenure who left the post at the start of the campaign. Furthermore, since December 2004, Germany's national team has employed a full-time sports psychologist in Dr. Hans-Dieter Herrmann.

Dealing with the pressures

There are several strategies to enhancing the mental toughness development of a professional: the ability to focus on positive situations, emphasizing the player's talent to remain in control of a situation - for example, a high-pressure scoring opportunity, or even when playing something as basic as a short-range pass or tackle.

Academics Clough, Earle and Sewell (2002, p. 38) defined the traits of an athlete with mental toughness as one who is "calm and relaxed" and also has "a high sense of self-belief and an unshakeable faith that they control their own destiny."

Failure is a normal process for any athlete - as Mainz's Thomas Tuchel explained to his players during a pre-game talk - but being able to cope emotionally, especially as a younger athlete, can be a real challenge. Those with previous exposure to high-pressure situations have a better capacity to respond.

Bremen players celebrate after Sebastian Prödl's stoppage time goal at Hannover.

Bremen players celebrate Sebastian Prödl's stoppage time goal against Hannover

Werder Bremen, for example, have gone from Champions League football to staving off relegation in recent seasons - but have acquired an experience with this situation. Robin Dutt's side have bagged three points against fellow strugglers Hamburg, Nuremberg and Hannover - lifting themselves closer to safety while leaving their direct competitiors stuck in the muck and the mire.

"HSV are expected to chase for the Champions League, but Werder Bremen, in spite of their history, have been in this situation for 2-3 years now - so they've been in that role," Fjortoft said.

"There is so much pressure in the sport," Ohlert explained. "If you compare to 10 or 15 years ago, the fans get very impatient. They expect more, they want them to run more and fight for their clubs, and if they don't see that, then they get aggressive. It's hard to play in that atmosphere."

Ohlert also believes the final outcome could very well come down to the team or individuals who can control their emotions and mental state in high-pressure situations. "The difference in player's ability is so small within the league," the former footballer added.

"If you look at the respective players in each team, there shouldn't be much difference. In this specific situation, it is often mental state that is more important. It's like a puzzle to put together the best performance," Ohlert said.

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