What makes a group of great players into a great team?
What turns a group of great players into a great team? It is about so much more than the physical elements related to handball. Time and time again, we have seen teams pull off the seemingly impossible, underdogs come through with big surprises and, on the other side, the apparently strongest sides on paper crumble in the critical moments or matches.
With that in mind, I spoke with renowned sports psychologist Bojana Jelicic, who is participating in her first EHF EURO as part of the team working with referees. Jelicic has more than 15 years’ experience in top performance sports psychology, is an EHF Expert and has a parallel specialty in the education of athletes, coaches and team staff. Among her handball team accolades are the Montenegro and Croatia national sides, as well as EHF Champions League side Buducnost.
As outsiders looking in at the squads, Jelicic and I discussed the psychology-related challenges for national players, staff and the teams overall.
Jelicic highlights age and experience as an important factor in managing the mental side of the game, especially close ones with late decisions as to the winner. For example, consider the close match Hungary played against Denmark to open the main round, which ended with a two-goal victory for the Scandinavian side after Hungary led with six minutes to go before the final buzzer.
Hungary are not the youngest squad on average at the EHF EURO 2022, but they are still a young side, with an average age of 25.8 years.
On the other hand, Norway played an equal game with Sweden on the second main round day for group I, winning in the final minutes. Unquestionably, they have experience on their side, with their young talents playing alongside the likes of goalkeeper Katrine Lunde, who is the most capped player overall at the Women’s EHF EURO. Norway have the highest average age of any team at the event, at 27.4 years.
What else can be important in the high-pressure final minutes? Players must not only be aware of the strategies in place, but their roles within the team: “Like the leadership role, for example, or in a situation when we need quick decisions, we know which players we can rely upon — and it doesn’t always have to be the most experienced ones,” says Jelicic.
That kind of ability to step up in the important moments reflects the personality and mentality of the individuals, which are elements that can be developed with a psychologist — to finetune any areas that may need work regarding the individual’s mindset, including topics unrelated to the court and handball. It can also be helpful for the team staff to know which players have the mindsets to be the most effective in the high-pressure moments.
“How are they approaching the game? And how do they see themselves in those kinds of stressful moments or tight situations?” says Jelicic. “Through experience they became used to being more efficient in those moments.”
Players are also only human. They can have bad days in these two weeks — nobody can be at their best the whole time in these two weeks. We see oscillations, but with some people, especially the true elite, it’s less visible, or it’s better covered within the team. It’s very complex, what influences a game.
Aside from the players themselves, the way the coach approaches critical situations can be vital, along with the communication between team staff. For example, a good relationship between the coach and their assistant coach can be very important.
One topic often discussed surrounding players and teams is the physical and mental tiredness that comes with a journey through a championship. But this topic is also something to consider for coaches.
“They’re also only human. They can have bad days in these two weeks — nobody can be at their best the whole time in these two weeks,” says Jelicic. “We see oscillations, but with some people, especially the true elite, it’s less visible, or it’s better covered within the team. It’s very complex, what influences a game.”
Denmark, another main round team in group I, have been led by Jesper Jensen since late in 2020. The Danish coach has spoken about the importance of his players being developed as complete people, not only athletes. Of course, a psychologist working with a team can be largely focused on the sport side, but any other topic that might impact the human beings within the team can be important to address. Sometimes, that means involving a psychologist outside the team, if there is a more personal issue to attend to. A holistic approach is important.
Mentality is also very important when identifying young talents.
“We need to search which kids not only have talent, but which kids are ready to accept the tempo and the lifestyle that goes with this. If you want to train — not just train physically, but train this side, to become maybe one day professional,” says Jelicic.
I have already touched on the collaboration between the team staff, and Jelicic really highlights this area as being extremely important for the success of a team. A clear structure built on trust is critical, wherein everyone knows their role, what is expected of them and the collective goals. The coach must feel they are able to rely on the others in the leadership team. Open communication and trust are key factors in this context, to ensure everyone in the team and across the staff feels comfortable and can have an active role in contributing their expertise.
Discussing this topic, Norway come to mind. I had the opportunity to interview coach Thorir Hergeirsson in longer phone conversations a couple of times when he won the IHF Coach of the Year award, in 2015 and 2016, and he always referenced the complete staff of the team and federation when discussing their achievements. In particular, goalkeeper coach Mats Olsson and the assistant coach at that time Mia Hermansson Høgdahl — now Tonje Larsen.
Jelicic is not at all surprised by this collaborative approach from Hergeirsson, given Norway’s immense success — 30 medals won in the last 30 years, including eight European titles. Clearly, they have been doing a lot of things right.
Thinking back to Norway’s last title, won at the 2021 World Championship almost exactly one year ago, the team were behind 12:16 at half-time and France very much dominated the opening 30 minutes. But in the space of 10 minutes at the start of the second half, Norway turned the deficit into a 22:20 lead, and went on to take a 29:22 victory and with that their fourth world title.
A great collaboration between the team staff and across the federation, plus a lot of belief and confidence were surely required to pull that off.
“It’s something that is done on the individual level but also on the team level,” says Jelicic. “Working on the individual level concerning self-awareness, confidence, goals, and doing all that in parallel on the team level.”
Then, after all the work behind the scenes, the players must be able to see that way the coach — in this case Hergeirsson — acts during the match ties in with everything that has led up to that moment. “The verbalisations need to be compatible with his psychological messages, the energy that he has. He needs to approach them in a certain way that they can register and see and trust his decisions — his behaviour, his words, his plans. Of course, behind all that is also his experience.
“Building that trust level and the bond between them is something we can call a pillar. And the way he describes his collaborates, I’m sure that the team sees that and has been, let’s say, having in mind the work for some time now — the team has enjoyed that collaboration.”
The players are always observing the work of the team staff, and the staff must therefore act as role models for the culture of the team. “There’s no room for you to expect something from them not expected from yourself. They’re going to see that.
“Having in mind the level of the Norwegian team for so many years now, there’s definitely things that we can learn from them,” says Jelicic. “When you look at them just standing or when they come out on the court, it’s a different energy. Completely different — so powerful, so aware, confidence.”
Aside from the way skills and talent are nurtured in Norway, that confidence is built on all the right decisions made in terms of building the staff around the team, the individual work, and the bond between all — and the past. No doubt, it is different for a team trying to break through with their first results versus one that has seen their national flag top the podium over and over.
“After 30 years of results, they know what stands behind them,” says Jelicic.
In this context, how can other teams catch up to where Norway are, after all they have built on for so long? The most basic level is the attention to the individuals.
“Every athlete needs to learn perseverance if they want to achieve. That means to have the mental strength to make it through a challenging game, to continuously focus on your game with complete dedication to your tasks on the court, to remain consistent, and to persist in spite of obstacles — until the referee whistles the end. If we allow ourselves a short loss of concentration in those moments, we need to be fully aware of the negative impact this can have on the rest of our performance. It is what separates success from failure and disappointment,” concludes Jelicic.