Mauricio Pochettino felt the tip of the arrow dig into his throat, in the groove below his Adam’s apple. Then, eyes widening and adrenaline flowing, the Tottenham manager charged forward. The arrow bent and snapped. Pochettino felt the surge of elation, of energy, of power. Now, it was the turn of each of his players.
“When you see the arrow, you think: ‘It’s impossible. How am I going to break the arrow against my throat?’” Pochettino says. “You say: ‘No, come on, I am going to kill myself.’ You put it with the sharp tip against your throat but then, bang, you come forward and break the arrow. The most important thing is to learn how you can prepare your mind. To be focused. To be proactive. This is the key in football.”
One by one, his players followed suit: breaking arrows and, in the process, mental barriers. Spurs’ team-bonding session before the Champions League final took place on Wednesday last week and it certainly brought a degree of jeopardy, of risk before the reward. There was more.
The final activity of the evening was the firewalk, something Pochettino had done with the players at his previous club, Southampton, in the summer of 2013. Then, as now, everything was overseen by his friend Xesco Espar, a motivational coach from Barcelona.
The burning embers were spread out across a little walkway and, with fire extinguishers close by (health and safety, you know), Espar went first, striding barefoot across the coals. Pochettino was next and then it was the players and the members of staff.
If the club’s in-house TV channel ever wants to screen the footage, it had better find a bleeper button, but the first thing to say – other than do not try this at home – is that everyone came through unscathed. And with their confidence boosted. There were springs in various steps at training the following day.
The wider point talks to Pochettino’s obsession with steeling the mentality of his players; of pushing the limits of what they think is possible. To Pochettino, the power of the mind is everything. It comes before tactics, technique and physicality. In his opinion, the ability to manage and control emotion holds the key to the expression of talent.
And so, as Pochettino looks ahead to the biggest game of his life, the biggest in Spurs’ history – against Liverpool in Madrid on Saturday night – he has prioritised the psychological preparation of his players.
The arrow breaking and firewalking have been the most talked-about details, but Pochettino has included a 45-minute exercise to open and sharpen minds on every training day since the end of the Premier League season on 12 May, when the meticulously planned push for Champions League glory began.
One example was the body language game that Espar led on the evening of the main team-bonding get-together. The players paired up and were told to tell one boring story and one exciting story and comment on the differences in the body language. They then had to tell the boring story with excited body language and vice versa, the idea being to show how positive energy can lift and enrich.
“We’ve created different strategies in the mental, psychological and emotional areas and now the players realise how important these specific areas are,” Pochettino says. “If you are going to run, of course you need big legs, muscle and everything, but if your mind says: ‘No, I cannot run, you’re going to be tired,’ then you cannot move. That is why, before everything, is your mind; your emotions need to be in a good place. Your mind is powerful and only you settle your limits.”
The firewalk is an ancient ritual practised by many cultures to demonstrate strength, courage and faith, and Espar has described it as “a metaphor to inspire you to face the obstacles and challenges that life gives us with security and certainty”.
Pochettino has often been asked whether he would get his Spurs players to do it, having done so at Southampton, and it is surely a one‑time-only ploy. He came to realise that before a Champions League final was the time.
“The thing that’s important to say is we all have fear. People without fears don’t exist,” he says. “It’s not that the players are not going to fear anything, but they are going to be free to work [through them]. There are people that freeze with fear. Successful people have the same fears – it’s just that they take them on.
“The players have learned a lot in these three weeks because we’ve had the capacity to work in a different way, to create a different plan. When you have only one objective and three weeks to prepare, it’s easier than when you play every three days. We are going to arrive in a perfect condition and the most important thing is that the players have enjoyed the journey over these three weeks. They’ll always remember it. It’s been an amazing time to share all together.”
Pochettino has long been guided by his faith in what he calls universal energy, a vital force that influences everything and conspires to help people fulfil their dreams.
“You can connect with this superior energy that is around us if you have opened your mind,” he says. “All of these strategies [over the last three weeks] were to help us and the team connect with this energy that is so powerful and makes you feel invincible. And you set no limits.”
Pochettino gave an example of how he felt the energy as a boy. “One night I said: ‘Tomorrow, I want to score three goals,’” he says. “I was thinking that 15 minutes before I went to sleep. And the next day I scored three goals. It’s a small thing. But the biggest dreams are the same.”
As he grew up, Pochettino came to be increasingly curious about the power of positive thought. “It’s difficult to explain,” he says. “You feel and you cannot explain why.” Pochettino tried to understand. Convinced that there was a scientific basis to it, he read widely and met with some “weird-looking people that are maybe two or three steps over me in this”.
Pochettino adds: “Then I met my wife, Karina, and she loved this subject. She helped me gain a more in-depth understanding of it. It’s helped me a lot in my career, in my life – to have these principles with me.”
Pochettino says he can detect an aura that accompanies people, which gives a lot of information about them. So how are those of his players now that the moment of truth is upon them? “They make me feel very positive,” he says. “The team translates to us a very good energy.”
Tottenham’s run to the final has been coloured by late comebacks and outlandish drama, leading to the view in some quarters that their name could be on the trophy. Do Pochettino’s philosophies extend to things that are preordained? Yes and no. He says that he believes in destiny, but it must be shaped by the individual, partly through hard work and partly through notions such as good faith.
“I believe in destiny but when you create your destiny,” he says. “I don’t believe in sitting here and waiting for something to happen. You create your destiny with your behaviour, with your actions; if you’re natural, spontaneous, genuine in all that you do.”
Pochettino has manoeuvred himself and Spurs to a historic final and one thing is clear – having spent relatively little money in net terms in the transfer market over his five-year tenure, any success would taste all the sweeter.
“To win a title in a different project like Tottenham – that means the satisfaction is more,” he says. “If you win with Manchester City or Manchester United, it’s normal. If you spend a lot of money, you should win or you must win. But at Tottenham, no one expects.
“And if you build something special, it is going to be remembered for ever. If we win the Champions League, it’s going to be a massive example for football – I think for ever.”
It is a typically romantic Pochettino soundbite.
“I am a romantic. Yes, I am a romantic person,” he says. “Now Daniel [Levy, the Spurs chairman] has started to feel that I am so romantic … he has started to fall in love with me.
“The people say: ‘If Mauricio receives an offer from a different club … Ah, yes.’ They believe that I am going to act like another person. But it’s true, I am a little bit romantic. I have this spirit – like Che Guevara. I am a fighter.
“At Espanyol, when we stayed up in my first season in management, the fans created ‘Po-Che’ [T-shirts]. My face like this. With the beret. It’s unbelievable. I was so proud. Was he a genuine hero of mine? I don’t know, I don’t want to mix politics. It’s still unbelievable …”
From arrows to the throat to Che Guevara, there is a symbolic parallel in there somewhere. Pochettino’s revolution is close to its defining moment.