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When emotions run high

EHF EURO blogger Magda Pluszewska digs deep into the pyschological side of handball, exploring the pros and - occasional - cons of showing emotion on the court

Photo: Uros Hocevar

Controlling emotions is a topic that is not overly in the focus when it comes to the training of handball players. "The emotional states of the players are treated with neglect," says Wojciech Nowinski, a former Polish international, trainer and lecturer at international coaching conferences.

Why? "Because a player should cope with emotions and stress himself. In individual sports psychologists are used. In handball as well, but it's hard to say how deep their intervention is because there is a need for individual work with each player," he adds.

So how many psychologists wuld we need to deal with a team of 16? Each of them with a different personality, temperament, self-esteem, motivation and attitude. But let's have a look at three different entities that make up a handball team: the coach, the relationship to teammates and the player himself.

Onesta versus Dujshebaev

According to Nowinski a coach in a certain sense should take on the duties of a psychologist. However, first of all, coach needs to control himself. "The coach, who loses his temper, cannot be a coach," believes Nowiński. "He can show emotions, but they are unlikely to outweigh his operations".

Does this mean that for sixty minutes the coach has to stand like a statue? Absolutely not. Although there are those like French head coach Claude Onesta, who never seems to lose control. And then there is Talant Dujshebaev – almost the exact opposite courtside. However, both are great professionals.

It's emotions that Zlatko Saračević, 1996 Olympic champions from Croatia and now coach knows all too well.

"SometimesI want to murder my boys for what they do on the court, but I know that I will need them later! In general, I'm all for showing emotions. If the coach is sitting on the bench with his arms crossed, what can a player do?"

To criticise or to motivate?

Should a coach criticise the players for mistakes they made during the game, or rather give them a pat on the back?

Wojciech Nowinski thinks that criticism is important, but it shouldn't ncessarily come from the head coach in professional handball. “The assistant coach should somehow show the player what he did wrong. The player needs to be ready for the next entry, " he says. "So when he did something stupid, someone has to tell him that he did it, so that he doesn’t do it again".

Saračević thinks a little different: “I'm rather opposed to criticism, I prefer the second approach. Seat on the bench? Yes, but only so that the player can recover. Some coaches take players out of the court just to demonstrate their authority.”

Majestic stride after the ball

Coaches are coaches, but it's the players who are the handball spectacle's main actors. They must deal with the biggest emotions that on the one hand stimulate them and on the other might influence them in a negative way. How many times have we heard players say: "We lost this game in our heads." So how to deal with it?

"Emotional responses help me to stay focused on the game," says Andreas Wolff. The German goalkeeper attracted the attention not only with his sensational saves, but also with the emotions has shown. "It's hard to keep concentration when after defending you just wait idly between the posts for the next action. The release of emotions generates energy that flows through my body and stimulates me furthermore," explains Wolff.

The main thing is to close the previous chapter

The biggest challenge for the goalkeeper is facing the situation in which he didn’t defend an easy ball. "Yes, it's a very difficult time for the goalkeeper," says Wolff. The German goalie after such incidents usually sits on the court for a very long time before he get back on his feet. "Then I think about what I did wrong and I compare it to the video analyses and I’m preparing for the next save. I need this time to close a chapter, to realise that I will not change anything and now I have to save more balls to make up for the one I haven’t saved,” he explains.

Emotional body language

Emotional reactions weren’t once as common as they are now. Wojciech Nowinski thinks indeed that it’s an expression of fashion. “If they do it because it helps them to let go of the emotions and focus on the game or how much is this a matter of fashion, I do not know. But many years ago, no one ran on the field doing 'airplanes'. An important role was played certainly by the media, that love such gestures,” he says.

That argument is supported by Saračević. "Sport is now one big showbiz. It needs excitement, because it’s spectacular. But that does not mean we did not have any gestures before. I, for example, after I had scored a goal I liked to do a pirouette.”

Saračević admits that he, as a coach, urges his players to emotional responses. “This is a kind of body language how you communicate with the audience, your rivals, but also with members of the team. You can say to rivals 'Ha! See what I did. Be afraid!' and motivate your teammates.”

A master of spectacular reaction is without a doubt Michal Jurecki. I've always wondered if he even knows what he is doing on the court, when emotions take him up. "Everything is in control and I always know what I'm doing,” he says.

Support from the bench

Zlatko Saračević mentions that it is very important to share emotions with the teammates. We often see players giving high-fives to each other after a successful action, or comforting each other after an unsuccessful one.

We see explosive reactions across the bench - Germany were probably the most consistent in this element at the EHF EURO. Andreas Wolff admits that it really helps. "When the whole team is cheering for you, then you lose the feeling of insecurity, you know you're good. It's very good for your psyche," he explains. "Very important is also an ongoing conversation. Sometimes on the bench you can see more than from the court and colleagues can supportt you a lot, " he adds.

Poland's Michal Jurecki draws attention to another aspect of enthusiastic responses from the bench. "In a moment, those who sit can enter the floor. Then they need to already feel the atmosphere of the game,” he explains.

Historic caterpillar

Emotional reactions of the entire team may also go down in history, hust like the Croatian caterpillar did in handball.

"It was in Atlanta in 1996, after we had beaten Russia in the last seconds of the game,” remembers Zlatko Saračević.

“Božidar Jović kneed down first, and we all stood behind him and followed him.”

From that moment onwards Croatia celebrated every victory in Atlanta in this way, and later on even wins in other important matches. The players themselves called this celebration a small train, but fans compared it to the caterpillar. And so it was. As a result, in 2009 the mascot of the World Cup in Croatia was a caterpillar.

Someone has to lose, so that someone can win

In my opinion, emotions are as important thing for an athlete as technical and physical training. The ability to control them is what distinguishes a good player from the star. The question is: how to verify whether someone is coping with them? Number of goals scored? Time spent on the court?

Everyone reacts differently. One will show his emotions, the next one will hide them. Not everyone is open about what he feels. Look at Karol Bielecki. Does the face that he does not jump like Jurecki, exclude him from being a handball star? By the way, I must admit that in recent years his expression has changed. But that's another story.

The slogan for this tournament is “Feel the emotions.” I'm sure that everyone - players, coaches, fans, journalists – did it. The results are just results. Someone has to lose, so that someone else could win. There will never be only winners. And the emotions will always be there. And that's the beauty of sport.

written by Magda Pluszewska