For any Dinamo Zagreb defenders watching Tottenham’s 4-1 win over Crystal Palace on Sunday evening, the prospect of facing Gareth Bale and Harry Kane in tonight’s Europa League round of 16 first leg might not have seemed particularly appealing.
Despite Dinamo’s excellent run in this season’s competition – the Croatian side have yet to taste defeat – the physical and mental demands of facing a fit and firing Bale and Kane represent a step-up from their previous matches. Fortunately, in sports psychologist Boris Balent, they have a man well-versed in preparing teams to take on North London clubs.
Balent was part of the Dinamo setup in 2015, when the current Croatian league leaders upset the odds in a 2-1 Champions League victory against Arsenal. Whilst he will not be specifically drawing on that result in the build-up to tonight’s match against Spurs, the support Balent provides to the Dinamo squad will take on a similar form to the preparations for that famous night in Zagreb.Embed from Getty Images
Balent has employed an ‘action-orientated’ approach throughout his career, which started with Dinamo’s academy some 15 years ago. The psychologist – who also worked for Hajduk Split for three years – says that the ethos is about understanding the difference between ‘functional and non-functional thinking’, a distinction noted by one of the players he worked with.
“He said to me, ‘If the opposing player is faster than me and I try and take my mind off this, it helps me to stop worrying, but tactically, I’m not doing a good job. If I remain aware of his pace, it means I’m thinking about what to do to compensate for this. I’m focused on what to do, so worrying actually helps me to make a decision,’” recalls Balent.
As well as helping players realise that concerns can be harnessed in a positive way, Balent also preaches the need for a balance between energy and focus, the two elements of a player’s performance he generally focuses on.
“Some players are very good at focusing, but their energy levels are too high or too low,” says Balent.
“On the flip side, when we try and counter that we run into a bigger problem, which is that when we try to boost players, they become energised but lose their focus.”
Whilst a player’s ‘energy level’ is often assessed in slightly rudimentary fashion by commentary teams, Balent uses a range of innovative bio-feedback measurements – monitoring muscle tension, heart rate and even perspiration levels – to scientifically assess aggression.
Balent uses the data to deliver progressive muscle relaxation and autogenic training, which uses controlled breathing to help alleviate stress. The treatment is part of an attempt to help players manage their emotions throughout a game.
“It’s not about being very calm or very aggressive: it’s about manipulating levels of aggression to find the right balance,” says Balent.
“A player I worked with told me that he was consciously trying to repress his aggression because he was getting too many yellow and red cards. I said to him that it’s not about being calm for 90 minutes: you have to know the situations which require more aggression and those that don’t.”
As well as responding to events on the pitch, Balent also helps players react positively to situations off the field of play and understand what they can and can’t influence.
“I teach them to be aware of what they can control,” says Balent.
“In Split, the supporters are everywhere. You go to the shop and you have an 80-year-old lady talking to you about tactics. That’s a lot of pressure for a player to handle, but it’s important for them to realise it’s a cultural issue, it’s the environment they live in.”Embed from Getty Images
Whilst Croatian supporters are notoriously passionate, Balent has not been averse to using novel techniques to help players deal with intimidating stadiums overseas.
“We arrived at one ground and the supporters were very vocal, so we did the warm-up in front of them,” recalls Balent.
“The fans were hurling personal insults at the players. Afterwards, I said to the team, ‘Remember the worst thing they said to you: now go and use that energy.’”
The reception at an empty Tottenham Hotspur Stadium is sure to be less vociferous and if Dinamo’s players experience any nightmares at the hands of Bale and Kane, they will have a trusted confidant to speak to on their return to Zagreb.
“Often, the question for coaches and players is, ‘Can they trust you?’,” says Balent, referring to a situation faced by many psychologists working in football.
“If the players know you’re working with a coach or you’re part of the coaching staff they start to question whether they should be telling you about the fact they’re insecure about their performance , for example, because they think it might influence team selection.
“The first thing I did at Dinamo was to establish some clear rules. So, I communicate with the coach a lot, but I won’t reveal details of a private conversation (with players).
“My second rule is that if there is a sensitive topic which I think the coach should know about, I say to the player directly, ‘I think it’s a good idea for me to go to talk to the coach. Is it okay?’”
Balent, who believes that psychologists should play a background role within a club’s setup(“we are giving directions and empowering the players, not playing God”), refuses to be drawn on the outcome of the tie against Tottenham.
However, he points to Dinamo’s 2016 pre-season, which saw current coach Zoran Mamic end his first spell with the club to move to Saudi Arabia and take charge of Al-Nassr, as evidence that football is full of surprises.
“The coach went abroad and it was a slight shock for everyone,” says Balent.
“But one player said to me, ‘That’s football. You never know where you will wake up.’”