Learning to deal with low blows and getting back up again
The outstanding 2015/16 season, including a fourth place finish and re-qualification for the EHF Cup, represented the best results in the 90-year history of the club. This year, though, handball Bundesliga club MT Melsungen has crashed back down to earth without warning... With seven matchdays come and gone, the report is not good: 4:10 points, rank 16, the first of three relegation spots! How did we get here? Especially given that with but a few exceptions, this is the same squad out on the floor that just four months ago was one of the top clubs in the entire league? A club that duelled Flensburg, Kiel and the eventually German champions to a draw, even managing to beat each of them once. But now, in this still-young season, all those attributes that made coach Michael Roth's team so special seem to have vanished overnight. But why? How did this happen? Could anyone have seen this coming?
The answer to the last question is simply: no! Because of three key injuries the pre-season ran a bit differently than expected, but they did show the on-court progress Coach Roth had been preaching. The team improved from tournament to tournament and after six weeks of preparation was good and ready for the season. They proved that right away with a dominant performance in the first round of the DHB Cup, with wins over Second Bundesliga sides Leutershausen and Neuhausen. But just one week later the cold water hit in the form of a home loss to newly promoted Coburg. That should have been a warning shot across the bow, but the signs were ignored. Six days after than, in Erlangen, another new Bundesliga club performed the same trick on the MT, with almost the same final score. What a horrific start to the year.
The role of underdog in the third match of the season, in this case against the title holders, was clear. The lads in red-and-white showed fight and spirit against the Rhein-Neckar Löwen, but they couldn't pull off the upset. The breakthrough finally came against Gummersbach. But the fixtures list was merciless, with an away match at title contender Flensburg/Handewitt up next. Here again the MT showed more than a bit of inspired play, and even if the match fell to the hosts, Melsungen could see clear progress. That hope then fed the 31-27 win over Frisch Auf Göppingen. After the final whistle, the fans offered minutes-long standing ovations to their heroes after that compelling performance. The MT, it appeared, had finally gotten back on track. Which made the 20-23 setback in Leipzig all the more bitter, as it involved an opponent the MT had dominated twice last season. And now 16th place, miles from the original season goal — to prove that last year's extraordinary results were no fluke.
Whether the goals need to be reassessed, whether the causes of the crisis have finally been identified and whether a path out of the hole has been found, these are questions that MT President Axel Geerken faced up to in an interview with the editors of MT's Bundesliga magazine.
The fans are unhappy when they look at the table right now. The team they love is unrecognisable. What does club management have to say about the current situation?
Geerken: The impressions and emotions of the fans are completely understandable. The situation is also hard to comprehend, because everyone who follows the MT still has last season's outstanding performance in mind. And the current spate of results stands in sharp contrast to that. We cannot and do not want to try and paper this over. The facts, meaning the results to date and our spot on the table, speak all too loudly for themselves.
Are you suggesting that, seven matches in, the goals for this season need re-defining?
Geerken: Given the strong way that the team has developed and the very good results last year, it may initially seem incomprehensible to lower our target to 'a spot in the middle of the pack.' For the club, coach and trainer it was clear: that outstanding season needs to be followed up with yet another one! Right now it doesn't look like we're going to manage that. But we're not thinking right now about the goals we hope to have achieved when the end of the year rolls around. We're busy dealing with present reality. Constant nostalgia for better times, or even contemplation of 'what would have happened if only...' won't help us right now. The truth is what happens on the court.
Whereby the MT has hardly impressed there in the first weeks of the new season. What's the underlying cause?
Geerken: This kind of situation isn't so simply to analyse. Which doesn't mean we've given up trying to identify root causes, of course. Management, coach, the team itself — as individual working groups and of course together. One potential explanation that makes sense at a human level: last season's success automatically raised expectations at all levels. Which isn't exactly a surprise. The club wants more, the fans want more and the team as well. But when things don't all go smoothly on the court, the disappointment is multiplied. Because expectation and reality collide hard. First and foremost among the players, of course. They suddenly are faced with the realisation that they are playing below their own expectations. Which inherently leads to uncertainty, which then ramps up all the more when the victories still prove elusive. The result: the players become dissatisfied not only with their own performance, but also suddenly start sensing flaws, real or only perceived, in their teammates. In many cases it's the same habits that occur during winning matches too, but they just don't matter as much then. Ultra-simple passes are thrown away, shots are taken without enough preparation, everything's out of harmony, the agreed-upon strategy gets ignored, etc. Viewing all of this as an outside, you wonder why pro athletes are susceptible to this at all. But ultimately you're dealing with people, not robots.
What conclusions can be drawn from this?
Geerken: When assessing why things are not running smoothly on the court, you must for example differentiate between errors made out of uncertainty and errors made through a lack of discipline. Depending on which it is, the coaches can plan measures to correct it. For example, if a player is losing the confidence of his teammates through tentative play, you can explain his mistake to him without immediately substituting for him. If, however, somebody is ignoring the coach's orders and playing selfishly instead of thinking about the team, then you have to have strong words or even bench him. We see the MT as being very team oriented, fortunately. The team wins and loses together. So when there is a slump, no one person is responsible for it alone. So the team needs to work together to dig itself back out.
What measures are being taken?
Geerken: First off, the club's management made very clear to the players just what their status within the club is, and how each one is being treated and rewarded here. Because our players have the chance to focus fully and completely on training and competition because all of the other things are handled for them. From other clubs I know that we support our players as much as any club in the Champions League. But from this springs certain expectations for the team as well. If you want to enjoy the full service package, then you need to perform and display an attitude worthy of it. Otherwise the club will need to rein things in. On the athletic side of things, Michael Roth will continue to push his players hard, including at training. It's going to be harder for the team to earn free days, for example. As club management, it's our job to shake things up if we feel that — as is the case here — the sporting malaise could be avoided with a different attitude and different level of commitment by the team.
So it sounds like there's a bit of tension behind the scenes, doesn't it?
Geerken: No, not at all. We approach these steps objectively and in proper proportion. There are certain unplannable elements to sports. Even last season where we climbed to such heights, we noticed that there are often steps backward. So while we weren't counting on the magnitude of the lesson we're learning here after reaching fourth place last year, these situations aren't exactly unheard of in pro sports either. Even given our current spot in the standings, there's no need to panic. We've proven in the past that the key thing when facing unexpected circumstance is to keep calm. For the past five or six years, the MT has been on a massive upward trend. We're not going to let this one down moment break that chain. What matters is that the athletes learn to cope with adversity and get back up if they're knocked down. I'm certain anyone involved with pro sports would say the same. We're convinced that our team will soon get back in form and give the fans something to cheer about. The next opportunity is around the corner, and we intend to seize both points if possible on Sunday against Stuttgart.