Konstantinos Stafylidis enjoys a no-nonsense reputation at TSG Hoffenheim. So Steven Zuber didn't hesitate long before the Bundesliga restart when he was looking for someone he could trust to do a good job. His hair had grown considerably during the hairdresser-free Coronavirus lockdown period and Zuber did not want to go into the game with a wild mane. Stafylidis reached straight for the trimmers – and gave Zuber a fresh trim. Zuber did not have to worry about the Greek, who is known for being a joker, taking advantage of the opportunity to get creative and go for something unusual: "I'm not fussy and fortunately I can pull off quite a lot – it never really looks bad."
However, when it comes to the inside of his head, the 28-year-old leaves nothing to chance. Zuber is an analytical type. Thoughtful, alert and always focused on optimisation. After the early contract extension at Hoffenheim until 2023, sporting director Alexander Rosen explicitly praised the "outstanding and exemplary attitude" of the Swiss national player. That is the result of a constant analysis of himself, the environment and any factors that could potentially improve his success.
Vegan diet and intensive training for the mind
Even before he moved to TSG Hoffenheim in 2014, he dealt intensively with the best possible nutrition for his body, which is subject to particular strain as a performance athlete. Last year, he finally discovered the benefits of a vegan diet for himself (see box). And he puts his mind through intensive training as well as his body. Zuber likes to read a lot, and most recently recommended "The Power of Awareness" by Neville Lancelot to his fans. "In this book, the mystical teacher of success Neville describes how you can reliably achieve your goals through imagination, putting yourself into a relaxed physical state ("Theta state") and repeated emotional visualisation of achieving what you desire" – that is how the publishing house tredition advertises the book, first published in 1952. From books like this, Zuber add important elements to his mental strength. "There is a lot you can learn from successful people – no matter the field. This continuous further education helps me to set new goals, motivate myself and approach things in the right way." He gets literature tips from his wife Mirjana and a friend with whom he speaks above all "about things outside football".
One of his most important lessons learned from books and discussions is to always focus on the things that he can influence himself. So the interruption of the Bundesliga, just after he had returned from a serious foot injury, and the postponement of the planned European Championships did not lead to any negative mental consequences. "I couldn't change it anyway. So I devoted myself to the things that were in my own hands. I have done everything I can to prepare and play in the best possible way under the new conditions when it comes back."
"When the whistle blows, I have tunnel vision"
While he describes games without spectators as "strange experiences," he naturally does not consider the lack of support from fans to be an excuse for poor performance. "It has a bit of a Sunday league feeling. You warm up – nobody is there. And then you come out of the dressing room and the stands are still empty. It is more special with the atmosphere and it has to be said that it is not the same without the fans. But I'm always focused and can absolutely tune it out. When the whistle blows, I have tunnel vision"
He does not accept any excuses about a lack of additional motivation from outside. "It is our profession. We earn our money by scoring goals and winning. Especially when you see the consequences of the Coronavirus crisis for other professions, you should not be moaning about the lack of fans. Other people have been hit much harder than us. It's simply our job to perform at 100 percent even under these circumstances.
Zuber is happy to be thought of as a role model. He knows the value of his attitude – for himself and the team. He leads the way in the daily training sessions, but alongside his self-optimisation, he also cares about the development of his teammates. "Even as a young player, I was motivated to do more after training and to become the best version of myself. I instilled that in myself at some point and now I want to be a good example for the lads. Because I know that I always give everything in preparation, in training and on the pitch and am really motivated to get better all the time. If I can inspire others and they can also internalise that, competition in training increases. And you need that environment to improve as a player, but also as a collective, and to find out where your own limits really lie."
He is not worried that he could lose his mental edge over the competitors by talking and giving tips to his teammates. Zuber doesn't shy away from competition. "For me, there's a simple principle: if you work with better people, you'll get better. It's the same everywhere. If everyone gives everything in every training session, the quality will increase. In the end, the best players will play – and all at a higher level. That way, every one of us will improve. And I'm convinced that I will always be playing in this scenario too."
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