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Pressure on Playing Fields Can Be Mind-Bending

September 26th, 2017 · No Comments · Champions League, Football, soccer, Sports Journalism

We cannot know what it is like, at the remove that is the TV in your living room.

Radio can convey some of the noise but little of the energy. Even inside the stadium, the nervous tension does not always register up into the seats.

To gauge the real impact of a big and painfully noisy crowd, a person needs to be on the field, at ground level.

Like, say, Timo Werner was tonight — when the 21-year-old RB Leipzig forward had a bit of a meltdown and asked to be taken out of a Champions League match, in the 30th minute, at the Turkish club Besiktas.

The symptoms he was said to have described — breathing and circulatory problems — sound a bit like a panic attack, which can be terrifying to someone who has never had one.

But it may be something as simple as mental overload from a lack of preparation for what the overwhelming noise and tension and pressure to perform, in an alien environment.

For most of my career covering sports, reporters were allowed onto the field at NFL and college games when the matchup reached the final five minutes or, later, the final two.

I was always deeply impressed by the barely controlled chaos and the almost palpable sound pounding down on the players and coaches during a big game in front of a big crowd.

I was not playing. In some cases, I had no favorite. But as soon as I flashed a press pass at the guard and walked out into the field and the narrow strip of grass between stands and players …

I could feel my body react in not necessarily pleasant ways.

A near-instant surge of adrenaline. A sense of struggling for air. A throbbing in my temples that indicated a soaring pulse rate.

And I wasn’t playing! I wasn’t out there in the crucible, hitting, getting hit, feeling like the target of tens of thousands of fans.

The match at Besiktas was the first Champions League road game for young Timo Werner. It also was the first Champions League road game for Leipzig, the rising power in the east of Germany.

Werner apparently was uncomfortable throughout. He complained of the noise (check the embedded video at this link, and listen. Doesn’t it seem more shrill than usual? … Like half the crowd is doing those incredibly loud, two-fingers-in-the-mouth whistles?)

Werner at one point stuck in earplugs, but he could be seen quickly discarding them. Eventually, he begged to come out.

His coach, Ralph Hasenhuttl, was not particularly sympathetic.

“He asked to come off so I took him off,” the coach said, then suggested that his most dependable scorer, before tonight, had let him down.

“For me, as coach, it is important to see who I can rely on in moments like these, who is prepared to defend himself against what is going on on the pitch,” he said. “To encounter such an atmosphere was too much for some.”

It may be premature to write off Werner.

If he had never before been dumped into the cauldron of a big road game before a painfully loud crowd, well it can make a person feel like he may fall over dead.

(I have wondered for decades why more middle-aged head coaches are not stricken with cardiac issues while making hundreds of pressure decisions in the chaos of a big game.)

Werner perhaps will be better-prepared, next time. He will need to be, because being the target of all that noise and energy, well, somehow he has to be able to ignore it and focus on the job that needs doing.

I can vouch … it is not easy.


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