Out on Top

For German Soccer Team Captain, Key to Success Is Knowing When to Leave

APTOPIX Brazil Soccer WCup Germany Argentina
Captain Phillip Lahm hosts the World Cup after the German win in Brazil on July 13, 2014. Lahm announced days after the win that he is retiring as captain.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Germany won its fourth World Cup this year in Brazil, beating Argentina 1-0 in overtime. Captain Phillip Lahm announced shortly after the win that he is retiring as team captain. He explains why.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Mr. Lahm has had his share of losses — including a humiliating defeat on home turf in two years ago when his professional team, FC Bayern Munich, lost to FC Chelsea in the Champions League.
    • In hindsigh that was one of the games that affected him the most. You often learn as much or more from losses than wins.
    • The younger members of the national team should pick a new leader. Mr. Lahm wants to concentrate on his work this Bavarian club.
  • Audio

    Audio

  • Pdf

I’ll never forget the moment I held up the World Cup trophy in Maracanã Stadium. Slowly, I realized that we had done it, that all the concentration and hard work had paid off. Suddenly the pressure was gone. Basti, Miro, Per, Thomas and Manuel came over and thanked me from the bottom of their hearts, and that meant a lot to me. I don’t get so caught up in the moment that I forget everything else, but being the world champion feels absolutely amazing.

But I don’t want to fool myself. I know the other side of the coin, the disappointment that takes hold when you can’t quite give it your all at a key moment. Losing affects you at least as strongly as winning. I don’t do things halfway. Some say it’s one of my biggest strengths, but I think it’s completely normal. Unfortunately, giving it your all only makes the disappointment worse when you don’t achieve what you’ve set out to do.

 

“It’s my life. If I want to stay happy, even beyond my soccer career, I have to control my life. That means making decisions before they catch up to me. ”

Phillip Lahm

In soccer, victory and defeat are agonizingly close together. How would the World Cup final have ended if Gonzalo Higuaín had scored for Argentina in the 22nd minute? Or if someone had used another opportunity? I’d rather not think about it.

This emotional roller coaster is a challenge for every soccer player. To master the balancing act you face as a competitive athlete, you constantly have to remember that things can go wrong.

I came to that realization two years ago, when I was playing for FC Bayern. We had narrowly lost the final match in the Champions League against FC Chelsea, in a home game in Munich. In retrospect, it was a career-changing match, one that shaped me as a player. I was at the top of my game that day, but it still wasn’t enough. I was merely frustrated at first, but then I kept thinking about the match, and I realized that there is very little certainty in football and, probably, at the highest levels of all professional sports.

We athletes are constantly dependent on coincidences, and some things are just a question of luck. I slowly began to accept that failure is part of the game, and I developed a sense of humility. We won the Champions League the next year. An outsider might say that it was incredibly gratifying, and that the pure joy of winning had cancelled out all the negative experiences. But it isn’t that easy. Now, with 10 years of experience playing at the top level, I know that the trick is to take the right steps at the right moment.

Events like the Champions League final are especially taxing for a team captain, who has to focus on more than his own game. I assume responsibility, and I develop the mindset I need to lead. It’s nice, but it’s also exhausting. The extreme experiences I’ve had within a year have made me realize that I don’t want to be driven by competitive sports. It’s my life. If I want to stay happy, even beyond my soccer career, I have to control my life. That means making decisions before they catch up to me.

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