Shaping and Leading a Winning Team
The captain of Bundesliga underdogs Union Berlin shares the mindset he believes has taken them from strength to strength.
It was a cloudy night, back in November 2019. In the middle of Berlin-Köpenick’s gloomy woodland, the floodlights lay an amber-colored filter on the 21,700 fans, all shouting for their colors inside the stadium. While every football game is a showdown between two teams, a derby has the power to split an entire city in two for 90 minutes.
On this very night, I had the chance to witness the magic of ‘Alte Försterei’ for myself: Hertha BSC Berlin was challenging Union Berlin, the latest addition to the adidas Football family in the German capital. A freshly promoted Bundesliga team, an absolute underdog with limited budget and a scratch squad – but still, Union Berlin crowned themselves after an emotional, energy-sapping performance in this first Berlin derby in the top flight.
Right before the return match at Berlin’s Olympic Stadium, I sat down with Union’s captain Christopher Trimmel to find out how they did it a few months back. Here is his personal derby game plan, revealing five steps to follow when a whole city has their eyes on you.
Preparation: An underdog with a winner’s mindset
Getting to the Bundesliga had been a crime novel, but we actually made it. In the eyes of the public, starting as an underdog means dealing with less pressure – but obviously, we still set ourselves clear targets: Our style of playing was key, while constantly refining it.
These are just followed by tactics, technique, scoring goals.
For the first few games, the element of surprise was all ours. In our first derby match, Hertha BSC underestimated us, letting us do our play. On the highest level, you need to be efficient in front of the goal and act consequently in the back. Still, you must not over-pace – especially, when it comes to those emotional games.
We remain humble, but still we’re fully aware before every game: If we give it our all and stay true to ourselves, we can win this. And if we don’t, we’re still respectful enough to shake hands with our opponents after the final whistle.
Training: How to shape identity in a new team
After our promotion, our squad saw 14 new signings while 20 players left the team – obviously a huge challenge for everyone involved. People often talk about how important a unique team spirit is. It takes work, and it cannot be created by the coach alone, it takes input from the captain and the squad. At Union Berlin, we put emphasis on familial togetherness, which probably makes integration a bit easier.
Obviously, competition is good for the business, but sometimes a permanent substitute might want to change his situation. It’s easy to sense it, you notice it on the training pitch, you see it in the changing room. Just be attentive, sensitive and open – a good talk can solve most issues.
Kick-off: Create chances, not risks
As a captain, the changing room is my primary responsibility. This place has always been important to me: If you keep the tension high before a game, you’re more likely to be successful. To me, this makes up for more than 50 percent.
Once on the pitch, we huddle in a circle, and I address a few words to the team. Usually, this happens spontaneously. Observing the situation, decompressing everyone’s pressure, never being negative. You’re facing the league’s fastest striker? ‘This is a huge opportunity for you – you will make progress today; you’re competing with the best!’ And towards the others: ‘He won’t be able to defend this on his own. We can only win this if we support each other. If there’s a second defender standing right behind him, then the fun is all ours!’
Match time: Let your head do the talking
After kick-off, there’s a lot that I can pass on from the coach towards the team. There’s constant communication – just a quick sign and everyone is aware of it within seconds so we can adapt our game plan, even if a few thousand are losing their voice in the stands.
I’m not a noisy leader and I try to stay calm even when it’s getting hectic. Over the years, I have gained a lot from mental training. When playing in Vienna, I was intensively working on how to communicate with others, how to deal with stressful situations while also finding what is best for myself. I read a lot about how others are leading and dealing with this issue, both entrepreneurs and sportsmen.
Apart from keeping the suspense high in the changing room, I’m accountable for my own performance. As a captain, you’re acting as a role model. If you’re the loudest in the changing room but not delivering on the pitch, you’re immediately losing all respect.
Final whistle: Unwind yourself
Relationships click quite quickly between Union’s fans and the players. They adore you if you’ve given it all – even if it wasn’t your perfect day. This connection is special, and it’s something that works both ways.
After our promotion to Bundesliga, we were celebrating for days. On the second day, I had to give a press conference. Full of euphoria, I promised to create a unique relegation motif – and to tattoo a few of our fans for free.”
Before my professional football career, I wanted to become a teacher of arts and drawing. I fell in love with the process and am still trying to tattoo once or twice a week. It’s fun, I can feel the artistic progression. And it is an offset to the rest of my life, providing me with the power and prudence I need on the pitch.