The psychology of José Mourinho

June 5, 2012

The secret of José Mourinho’s success is best explained by his deep understanding of football’s most unexploited resource: the human psychology.

William James, the distinguished American psychologist and philosopher, once wrote: “Compared with what we ought to be, we are only half awake. We are making use of only a small part of our physical and mental resources… [The human individual] possesses powers of various sorts which he habitually fails to use.”

The thought is as fascinating as it is true: humans operate within a small percentage of their capacity; mentally and physically. What if, say in football, someone found a way to extract some of that potential?

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Ask José Mourinho about the most important thing in coaching, and he will say ‘man management’. “Football for me is a human science; it’s about man, above everything else”, he told BBC Radio 4 in December 2011. For a man who sparks such intrigue, it’s a somewhat underwhelming response, yet his reference goes far beyond ‘rotating the squad’ and ‘keeping players happy’. Rather, it’s about a deep understanding and appreciation of players as complex human beings with desires and emotions, and the knowledge of how to exploit it.

“A coach must be everything: a tactician, motivator, leader, methodologist, psychologist,” Mourinho says. ”A teacher at university told me ‘a coach that knows only about football is not a top one. Every coach knows about football, the difference is made in the other areas’. He was a teacher of philosophy. I got the message.”

Few others have. The human psyche is one of football’s untapped resources, an irony for a sport in which every advantage is exploited so thoroughly. While scientific advances are made to improve players’ capacity, motivation and management – the art of extracting it – is condensed to meetings and pep-talks. While some are good at that, Mourinho is arguable the first football manager to fully embrace – and master – the role of a psychologist.

The individual

A cornerstone in Mourinho’s ‘methodology’ (his favourite expression) is the tailoring of communication to each individual – something he admits is his hardest task as coach. Being a psychologist is complex in itself; players with a near-divine self-image are in equal need of stimulation as fragile personalities. But is it also continually challenging in that the players’ mood must be judged from game to game. Marcelo may be fired-up on Saturday and distraught on Wednesday. Balancing this motivational act with 22-23 players two times a week requires not only a masterful communicator, but someone with a deep understanding of each player’s emotions and personal goals; what drives them, what gets them going.

There are many examples. At Chelsea, Mourinho told Frank Lampard he was the world’s best player but needed to win trophies – challenging his ambition while exploiting the fact that, until then, Lampard had won nothing. At half-time during an Inter game, he told an under-performing Zlatan Ibrahimović, soon to receive the award as Serie A’s best foreign player, to hand the prize to his mother – “someone who actually deserves it”. In saying so, Mourinho was playing on the Swede’s pride. Ibrahimović returned to the pitch, promising to run until he tasted blood.

Clearly, in terms of motivational techniques, Mourinho operates on a much deeper level than other managers. His methodology surpasses pep-talks and hair-dryer treatments, primarily because one message can only speak to so many individuals. Players are different – indeed, humans are different. They have good and bad days – highs and lows. What inspires some may lead others to switch off. “There are many ways to become a great manager,” Mourinho says. “But mostly I believe that the most difficult thing is to lead men with different cultures, brains and qualities. And I think to manage this is the most important thing.”

This also partly explains Mourinho’s ability to succeed in different leagues. He absorbs the cultural values, dismantles the players’ minds and deploys his strategies accordingly. His pragmatism applies not only to tactics.

Beyond professionalism

Connected to motivation is the question of how much success means to a player. Everyone wants to win the league; what they are willing to sacrifice varies greatly. This might be speculative, but Mourinho’s players appear to invest more into his projects than anyone else’s. ”From here each practice, each game, each minute of your social life must centre on the aim of being champions,” Mourinho wrote to his players before meeting them at Chelsea. Such commitment goes beyond professionalism; in fact it nearly eclipses the players’ reality. Football becomes not just work, but the scene on which the meaning of 95 per cent of their day-to-day actions unfolds. Naturally, once the players have invested this much, they will fight to get just rewards.

While Mourinho tirelessly follows his own mantra – current and former players say he works harder than anyone else – he recognises when his players have had enough. At Inter, he noticed Wesley Sneijder was exhausted and encouraged a holiday. “All the other coaches [in my career] only spoke about training”, said Sneijder. ”He sent me to the beach. So I went to Ibiza for three days. When I got back, I was prepared to kill and die for him.” At União de Leiria, Mourinho asked David Barreirinhas, a member of the backroom staff, to become a spiritual and religious counsellor to the first team. Barreirinhas said: “I discovered a José Mourinho who was concerned with the fact that players were human beings as well as sports men and that they could have good and bad days.”

Open any footballer’s autobiography and you’ll find a catalogue of emotional tangles tearing down their psyche. People forget that players are humans, they say. Appreciating this not only makes Mourinho popular with the players, but also frees up their energy to concentrate on football. While acknowledging the importance of eating and sleeping right, Mourinho also focuses on elements like emotional energy and self-esteem. Staying sober isn’t enough. The players must be happy in all aspects of life.

War

Throughout the press, the tribalism of Mourinho’s methods is well documented, inclusive of the “us against them” theory. But another interesting technique is spotted in a blog by James Hamilton, a sports psychologist, pointing to Mourinho’s insistence of a 24-man squad. Aside from involving every player, it means that, when the squad is slashed, those left are “survivors”. Rather than simply being inherited, the players get a feeling of value, of being chosen for a reason. This psychology is very powerful. As Mourinho once told the Portuguese press, “I only go to war with those I trust.”

In such press conferences, Mourinho’s vocabulary is also interesting. Whereas British managers refer to their players as “boys” or “lads”, he calls them “men”. Watch or read any Real Madrid post-match event and the word occurs throughout. This fuels the sense of tribalism, making him sound almost like a war general speaking to his troops. Yet it also testifies respect towards the group, a treatment of players as grown-ups; men on an equal footing. By calling them men, he invites them to act maturely and take responsibility.

Authority

One of Mourinho’s potential problems with not having played professionally was to win players’ respect, yet his excellence at man management has helped him past that obstacle – and well beyond. His first work with real stars was at Barcelona. “When you coach players of this calibre, you learn about human relationships,” he says. “Players at this level don’t accept what they’re told simply because of the authority of the person who’s saying it. We have to show them that we’re right.

“The tactical work I encourage isn’t about there being a ‘transmitter’ on the one hand and a ‘receiver’ on the other. I call it ‘guided discovery’; that is they discover according to my clues. I construct practice situations that will lead them on a certain path.”

This is as clever as it is important, because instead of being told what to do, players get a cognitive sense of creating the ideas themselves. Inevitably, they buy into them. Anyone who has read the excellent The Italian Job, co-written by Gianluca Vialli and Italian journalist Gabriele Marcotti, will know how in England, loyalty to the manager is taken for granted, whereas in Italy, and potentially Spain, there is more scepticism. Mourinho could not have succeeded in four countries without his ability to make players believe in his work. I don’t know how he does it,” says Karim Benzema. “He has some sort of trick and everybody listens to him.”

Special ability

In a field like football where so much has been tried and tested, Mourinho’s remarkable success would not be possible without an exclusive advantage. Quite rightly, the supremacy of his attention to emotional, mental and interpersonal issues is roughly proportional with the success he enjoys over his peers. It is what makes him genuinely special. Attributing his results fully to man management would be wrong, though it is clear, even from what Mourinho says, that it is the most important one.

Whether he will become a revolutionary figure inspiring a more all-encompassing approach to football management is less certain, though younger managers could do worse than embracing the advice Mourinho’s teacher gave him: “Every coach knows about football. The difference is made in other areas.”

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Pictures

Chelsea open bus parade (top): Paul Bence

Inter training session: Coach_J

Real Madrid press conference: apasciuto

9 comments

Jose Mourinho is one of the best coach in the World. He understand his story when coming to the game of football. A motivator,a leader and again the psychologist.

by Dichaba on May 24, 2013 at 5:56 pm. #

Thank you for such a great read.
It’s so vital to look at all aspects that drives players to success, and Mourinho does that in such style.
Still it makes me wonder how one player is ready to kill and die for him, while another (can’t think of anyone but Casillas) gives him attitude. I’d love to know what really happened. And I don’t know why but I think Mourinho was doing it for a bigger reason.
A man that knows how to make a player triumph, surely knows how to bring him down

by Mo Ktesh on May 22, 2013 at 11:42 am. #

It’s a difficult subject. There are so many important side-effects to the Casillas situation. Perhaps Mourinho wanted to affirm his power by making an example of Casillas, and thus gain more respect among the players. Whether that worked or not is another question.

by Thore Haugstad on May 22, 2013 at 11:51 am. #

I really enjoyed reading this piece! Some good insights and examples here. Thanks Thore. From my own work on Mourinho I believe he is a master of employing the power of Emotional Intelligence, and thus of making an intimate connection with a variety of people – though he can still of course occasionally overstep the mark of acceptable behaviour himself.

by David Turner on March 19, 2013 at 5:26 pm. #

Yes, emotional intelligence is a cornerstone in how he works, and perhaps his biggest strength. I’m sure many other coaches wouldn’t even know what the term means.

by Thore Haugstad on March 19, 2013 at 5:29 pm. #

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xLVI9-KBQHg
A very good documentary on mourinho

by wazza on March 5, 2013 at 11:23 pm. #

nice article.
you have done a great job of humanizing a character who is a complete dick.

by indian on January 28, 2013 at 5:22 pm. #

mourinho ur the best ever

by Abdallah on September 29, 2012 at 10:06 am. #

Absolutely great. It s interesting to read someone else giving oppinions about mourinho i think it would be much more interesting to listen to him in person

by daniel on September 2, 2012 at 4:53 am. #