Because this is a World Cup year, I have decided to countdown to the tournament by providing a short soccer/fitness related preview of each of the 32 participating nations. In the first installment today, I’m going to take a look at Croatia, who will be opening the tournament on June 12th against host nation Brazil.
That first game could be pivotal for Croatia, and if they can come away with at least a draw, they could be well on their way to qualification for the next round. Croatian Head Coach and former captain of the team, Niko Kovac, said “Brazil will have a big support, not only at stadium but also from 200 million people in front of their televisions. But at the same time it is a pressure for the host which could be our advantage.”
It is this pressure that I am going to speak about briefly. Opening matches at the World Cup typically involve either the previous champion, or the host nation. In the past few World Cup opening matches, there have been some notable upsets. For example, in the 2002 World Cup opener in Korea, previous champion France lost 1-0 to newcomers Senegal, who were playing in their very first World Cup game. Several years before that but still relatively recently, in 1990 in Italy, champions Argentina lost 1-0 to Cameroon in the opening game. Could Croatia pull off a similar upset by defeating favorites, 5-time winners and host nation Brazil?
From a sports science perspective, the team that is the underdog – Croatia – must take measures to increase motivation and mental alertness (“excitation”) prior to the start of the game. Excitation can be accomplished with a technique as simple as a self-slap on the wrist. If done with enough force, slapping your own wrist will cause just enough pain to force the body to release adrenalin, a hormone that “excites” the body by preparing it to perform physical activity through a multitude of functions (for example, raising heart rate, diverting blood flow away from the digestive system and into the working muscles, and sharpening vision, to name a few). Coaches and sports psychologists have been using several different versions of the wrist-slap (anything that raises athletes’ adrenaline levels) for decades. For an extreme example, Google the ‘Haka’ performed pre-game by New Zealand’s ‘All-Blacks’ National Rugby Team.
In general, excitation strategies help to take the pressure off your team by keeping them pumped up and ready, while at the same time can increase the pressure on opponents (mostly through intimidation). If the Croatian team is to be successful against Brazil on June 12th, mental excitation strategies might be a useful addition to their training regime. We will all have to wait and see what happens in 3 months’ time.
I’d love to hear your thoughts about this topic. Drop me a line here to get the conversation started.