Why does it pay off for a club to focus on talent development, regardless of its size?
Mayer: We as TSG Hoffenheim have now existed as a village in the Bundesliga for 15 years and compete with global cities like Munich or Berlin. Any commercially minded CEO would have said at the beginning: Good idea, nice story, but how are you going to earn money if you hardly generate any reach? That’s why our business model is to develop talents here whose transfer revenues contribute to the club’s success. We take two approaches to this. On the one hand, we try to get kids interested in football as early as possible and give them a perspective. And on the other, we use our methodology to give players a chance to develop their full potential and become good transfers. We have a proof of concept for both approaches. Children are now consciously choosing us rather than going to Munich or Dortmund. And in the academy there are now a number of portraits of players who have made it as professionals with us.
How does the development of a talent start?
Mayer: You should be on it relatively early, because then you can follow the course of development better. In principle, no development is linear, but is characterized by ups and downs. But if there is such a course, I can follow exactly what the player has done well, what are the reasons why he stagnates or possibly even regresses. We work here with the help of diagnostics and technology. If you want to develop potential, you can’t proceed in the same way as in school, where the same thing is done with everyone. It’s about individualized perception and observation, but also about adequate measurement. If I start early, I have fewer empty kilometers and developmental steps taken in the wrong direction.
What developmental steps should be paid special attention to in the early years?
Mayer: The most important thing is to find out the difference between chronological age and biological age. This is a theme that runs through the entire development of talents in sports, especially when good physicality is required, as in football. For example, in our U15s in 2022, we had all 14- and 15-yearolds chronologically, but biologically they were between 12 and 17 years old. These are kids who go to the same school class, but whose shoe size is between 32 and 46. Of course, the player who weighs 30 kilograms more and is 20 centimeters taller inevitably comes out on top. That’s why we use ultrasound measurements and bring players of the same biological age together in training sessions and games so that we can make a fair comparison. If a player who is biologically younger shows that he can play really good football in a group of players who are biologically the same age, you should be patient, because at some point he will make a decisive leap in his physical development.
The coach plays a crucial role in these years. What makes a good coach in the youth sector?
Mayer: I don’t believe in the competition that is only aimed at discovering a giant talent. There is the so-called Pygmalion effect, named after a sculptor in ancient Greece who falls so much in love with the statue he has created that it comes to life. The effect states that positive expectations can bring about positive performance. Applied to football, this means that if a coach is genuinely interested in a player and empathizes with him, then in the vast majority of cases this will have a positive effect on the player. If a coach just wants to show everyone that the player is the most overrated talent, nothing will happen. That’s why I think it’s important to work against this trend and say: this and that player could become a great player and forget about 20 others in return. I once asked our U15 coach who could make it from his team. He said: all of them. That’s the right attitude.
Is it therefore also important to work with individual training as early as possible?
Mayer: It’s usually difficult to do that in the junior area in terms of personnel. But in principle, you should ask yourself whether it makes sense for the entire team to run at the same speed during the run-out. Or whether it wouldn’t be better to form three groups that are adapted to an endurance or lactate level. Or whether it makes sense for everyone to do the same thing in an athletic training session and whether it wouldn’t be better to work at different intensities. In the NFL or the NBA, training sessions for the entire team are always just tactics training. Everything else happens on an individualized basis. There are certainly still many things to improve here.
The transition from young talent to professional is crucial for every player. Is the development of a football player over after that?
Mayer: Development never ends. There are constellations in which you have to think systemically, that is, consider the player and the entire environment around him. As a psychologist, this is essential for me. If someone is not progressing, I ask myself what the player’s system looks like and which components of the system can be changed to advance development. Players like Kevin Vogt or Nico Schulz were athletes who were in the second or third tier at their clubs. Then they came to us and took a big step. You can see from this that development never stops. Football-wise, it ends at some point, but as an adult, you’re constantly developing. Up until you’re old.
Nevertheless, not everyone can become a professional in a top league, even if everyone dreams of it. How can a club give a player a realistic career outlook for his future?
Mayer: This is achieved through diagnostic procedures and comparisons. You can then see in black and white how well someone performs in the 30-meter sprint, for example. There are various options, including those offered by skills.lab, that provide objective values and make it possible to diagnose a person’s level of football development. If this level matches the impressions from the training sessions, you don’t need to explain much more. Then it’s just a matter of how much a player can still improve in which area.
Do the players at Hoffenheim have access to their diagnostic data at all times?
Mayer: It’s a highly systematic process here. All the players are measured twice a year and the results are discussed with them and the coaches. Based on the data, we draw up individual development plans so that we can determine after six months how the development has gone. This is our model, which is built on norm values. That’s why it’s important to measure a few years to be able to say exactly what norm values a full-back, for example, should reach.
As a psychologist, you speak in lectures about a “culture of excellence” that you want to establish in the club and also try to bring to other companies. What do you mean by this?
Mayer: Excellence in this context does not mean that you have to be the best, but that you should develop your potential. To do this, you have to start with yourself and understand what conditions are necessary for me to develop a sense of coherence. If this is the case and there is no negativity or other disturbing emotions such as jealousy or envy, then I am also capable of relationships and can achieve something in a group. In society, however, we unfortunately grow up to live in confrontation rather than cooperation. That’s why it’s so important to start with yourself. Football exemplifies this beautifully. If you’re not coherent as a football player and don’t engage with your team to the maximum, the team won’t work. We carry that over from football into daily life. As we see this working on the pitch every weekend, it’s also an incentive to challenge yourself in the various roles in everyday life and to recognize your own thought patterns and emotions.
To what extent can you train and work on this individually?
Mayer: You have to go into introspection and ask yourself questions: Why am I jealous or envious right now? What is triggering me? This is something unpleasant. But we don’t even realize that this state ultimately doesn’t make us happy or capable. Then it’s a matter of working with rituals and asking ourselves: Do my thoughts fit in with what I want to do? Or are they disturbing me and actually destructive? If you can perceive your thoughts, you should also be aware of them: You are not your thoughts. And if you can distance yourself from a thought, you can observe and shape them and tell your brain to get busy with something constructive.
Does this approach also help players in stressful situations in the game?
Mayer: Of course. We have been working with self-talk in sports psychology for a long time. In doing so, we prepare which thought helps in which situation. When a player has to take a penalty kick, it doesn’t help him to think about what the media will write the next day if he misses. That’s when a player has to know what to put in his head. If I don’t think anything, the outside world has a chance to influence my thinking. Maybe positively, but mostly negatively. And if I think negative thoughts myself and don’t notice it, then it’s my own fault. In top-level sports, you can learn something like that early on by being pushed into stressful situations over and over again and then reflecting on what you’ve been thinking about. There are no standard thoughts. Everyone has to learn for themselves how to deal with such situations.
To what extent has football already learned to implement technology, especially when it comes to talent development?
Mayer: There are already a lot of technologies that help us objectify processes. It started in the medical field, where diagnostics is the most normal thing in the world. After all, everyone wants to have their fever taken, not just have someone put their hand on their forehead and guess. The whole thing was transferred to athletics, and the question appeared as to what extent a measurement can tell us how well someone plays football. For this, there are systems like the skills.lab Arena, where you bring this complexity into the lab. There you can take apart a bouquet of factors. In business, this would be called an assessment center, where I can simulate certain situations exactly.
What could be the next step in this technological development?
Mayer: Perhaps it goes in the direction that I have already tried to outline with my culture idea. In other words, you look at how you get into a flow state and something like team spirit develops. There are also various approaches that we have already tried out to determine something like a sense of coherence with the help of heart rate variability. Ideally, you could then see from the outside whether a player is currently in his coherence or not. It would be exciting to be able to measure this component.
This is Prof. Dr. Jan Mayer
Prof. Dr. Jan Mayer is a sports scientist and graduate psychologist. He teaches at the German University of Prevention and Health Management in Saarbrücken and is an honorary professor at the Saarland Institute of Sports Science. As a sports psychologist, Mayer has been coaching top athletes from various disciplines for more than 20 years, including individual athletes as well as teams and national teams. At TSG Hoffenheim, Mayer started as a sports psychologist in 2008 and was appointed to the management board in 2021, where he is responsible for innovation, science and corporate development.