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May 20, 2013

The secrets of motivation

Motivation looks like a fairly simple issue. If you're motivated, you tend to do well, and if you're not, you tend to fail.

Of course, it's much more complicated than that. In the field of education, for example, there's a famous paradox: does a student get good grades because he's motivated, or is he motivated because he gets good grades? Don't write your answers on a postcard this time, please. Even as you read this, thousands of folks out there are writing their PhDs on the subject, and they'll be no nearer resolving the issue. Similarly, in football does a team win because they're motivated, or did they get their motivation from a spectacular run of results?

Usually, you'd be best off asking the coach. If we've learned anything from La Liga this season, it's the simple enough lesson that a squad of players must be happy - not only with their manager but also with each other. The lesson might be simple, but the formula for achieving this magical dressing-room ambience is rather more complex. In scientific terms, the variables that can affect the outcome are multiple and often unpredictable.

Levante, for example, have taken a mere two points from their last six games since the infamous Depor-gate incident, when four of their players were indirectly accused by another, Jose Javier Barkero, of showing an unusual lack of effort against Deportivo in a 4-0 home defeat. It's an extreme example of 'demotivation', but one that is almost impossible to predict. Once it has happened, there is almost nothing anyone can do about it.

Like a lack of trust in a relationship, when the husband or wife has confessed to playing away from home, there's usually no turning back. You can try to patch it up, but it doesn't tend to work. Levante have collapsed in on themselves and are finishing closer to the relegation zone than the European one after two seasons of wonderful overachievement. Sergio Ballesteros, one of the accused, has threatened to take team-mate Barkero to court and, all the while, they're expected to win football matches. Rayo Vallecano were the latest to benefit, winning 3-2 in Valencia on Sunday lunchtime.

On Friday night, Atletico Madrid buried 14 years of hurt in the most spectacular manner possible, beating Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey final at the Bernabeu. It had been 14 years since they last beat them in any competition, and 16 since they last won the trophy. Manager Diego Simeone was playing for them back then, in the league and cup double side of 1996, and since rejoining as coach has landed three trophies in less than two years. Did Atlético get lucky last Friday? Sure - Real hit the post three times and were probably the better side over the whole game, but fortune favours the happy.

The contrast between the two camps was significant. The Atletico players believe in Simeone and his simple mantra: Hay que creer (You have to believe). It's kind of cheesy, but it works. They play as a unit, often crudely, in the manner that Simeone played the game himself - but they have become effective. Over in the white camp, you got the distinct impression that Real Madrid were putting on a face for the occasion. Their happier opponents pulled together, battened down the hatches, rode their luck and then scored a winner that you just knew was coming. After the three off the post, it was inevitable. The plot, the poem, the play. It was written into the script.

Jose Mourinho, marginalised and seemingly alone, accompanied only by his ever-faithful lapdog Aitor Karanka, spent the entire game in the shade of the dugout, emerging briefly to protest over a foul and be subsequently sent off. There are those who say he did it deliberately in order to avoid having to climb the stairs to receive his loser's medal.

For such an intelligent man, a coach who has prided himself on his ability to motivate over the years, Mourinho's post-match performance spoke volumes for his present state of dysfunction. "I have failed," he announced, focusing, as usual, on himself. The problem with his subsequent speech was that basing this fracaso (failure) on a lack of trophies over his three seasons was one of the dumbest things I've ever heard an intelligent man say. Up to that point, I liked Mourinho. Now I'm beginning to wonder, too. Surely his failure resides in the fact that he has left the club in spiritual tatters, with the motivation mark invisible, well below the water-line? The unhappiness that surrounds the club represents his failure, not the poor trophy count. It's not all the teacher's fault, but he has failed to control the difficult kids.

Atletico, on the other hand, had Simeone standing on the touchline for the whole game, shouting encouragement, adjusting players' positions, applauding - in short, motivating. It's hard to like Atletico, but it's a good job they won on Friday - not only for themselves, but also for Real Madrid. One day, Madrid will look back on that game and realise that it was a turning point. Had they won, things would have been more complicated for them; now they can end the Mourinho era and look forward to some sort of less tension-filled future.

And of course, as a Real Sociedad supporter, I'm delighted that they won't be especially motivated when they turn up in San Sebastian next Sunday night, most likely without Cristiano Ronaldo. Will Mou, presumably suspended too, even bother to make the journey? Perhaps he should stay at home and calculate how much he's going to earn next year at Chelsea. That should keep him motivated.

Real Sociedad are a case in point. I've resisted writing too much about them this season, for obvious reasons, but the theme of motivation gives me a good excuse. Besides, their scrap for the fourth spot in the Champions League with Valencia is about the only thing that can keep us interested for the next two weeks, apart from the identity of the three teams that go down, and Barcelona's pursuit of a 100-point tally.

The strange thing about Real Sociedad - a club that only came out of administration a year ago, and whose annual budget is still considerably less than the three sides above them and the one chasing them - is that they seem to be on the verge of losing their manager, Philippe Montanier. Questioned for the whole of his first season, and saved from the sack by a spectacular winner at Betis by centre-back Inigo Martinez last season, Montanier is now regarded as the big new thing back in his native France having attracted attention for his success in La Liga, where not many French coaches have made an impact.

The San Sebastian public have taken the news this week that he has been made an offer by the far richer Rennes with a Gallic shrug. This is because there are two views about Montanier. One is that he got lucky and inherited a squad of talented young players about to mature and take the league by storm. They think he remains tactically naive and that, with a better manager, Sociedad would have the Champions League place sewn up by now. The other view is that he is a masterful man-manager, quiet and unassuming, and that he has built a unity among the players that has been the principal factor in their transformation this season. We're back to the motivation factor.

I must say that I was among the ranks of the doubters. But, little by little, news has filtered through from contacts and friends of players, and it suggests the squad really rates him. They like his calmness, his obsessive insistence on a possession-movement game and his seeming unflappability. He also has no ego problems, and has changed several very ordinary players (Carlos Martinez, Alberto de La Bella, Markel Bergara, Imanol Agirretxe) into major La Liga figures, almost overnight. Surely, this is the kind of guy you want in the long term.

I'm surprised now that Real Sociedad are prepared to let him go without a fight. If he does, then I suppose Unai Emery might be persuaded to come home. Emery was in charge of Sevilla on Saturday night, and watched his team outplayed and out-thought by the visitors, restored to winning ways by the return of the pea-mountain, Asier Illarramendi.

Emery is a student of motivation and has a decent record, although there are those who accuse him of talking too much and not listening enough. He may be tempted to take on this squad, with the collective promise of Antoine Griezmann, Ruben Pardo, Inigo Martinez, Carlos Vela and Illarramendi too tempting to resist. But the point remains: among the five players in the previous sentence, there are two or three potentially difficult chaps. Under a less intelligent manager, they might not be where they are today - on the verge of greatness.

By the way, I was watching my son try out at centre-back against a big hairy team from the regional 'Preferente' level early on Friday evening, and got talking to a man from Mutriku, Illarremendi's home town. The legendary father of my Friday-night friend was organising the team my son was guesting for (it was a friendly), and he 'discovered' Illaramendi some years ago. I asked if the player was on his way to Barcelona next season. "No way," the chap told me. "I was with him last week in Mutriku. He's happy at Sociedad, because he can go and see his mates when he wants to, and go back to Mutriku.

"He's not interested in the glamour thing. He's got a crappy little car and he's happy with it. He said that he doesn't want to go to Barcelona or Madrid and be hounded by Marca every weekend, and then get criticised and overanalysed. He's happy here. Besides, he likes Montanier."

It seems odd that the player most likely to succeed Xavi or Xabi Alonso (take your pick) in the next two to three years says he will stay at Sociedad because it means he can still go and chew the fat with his mates from his two-horse town during the week. It was an interesting insight into how some players think, as the rain pelted down onto the heads of a team of wise semi-pros and a team of motivated youngsters, trying to prove a point.

The man's chatter clashed with how I imagined players thought, ever ambitious, ever motivated to climb the steps to fame and fortune. Illarramendi says he's happy where he is. You read it here first.

Finally, on the weekend that arch motivator Sir Alex Ferguson decided to call it a day, I'll leave the last words to Alan Hansen, Liverpool legend turned TV pundit, capable of occasional nonsense but clearly an intelligent man. Asked by Gary Lineker to sum up Ferguson's main attribute in one sentence, Hansen paused briefly before replying: "It was the ability to keep his players hungry, despite all the success." Exactly.

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