He doesn’t just push his players, he stretches at their limits until they twang. But what really stands out about Diego Simeone is his ability to keep that going over such a long period of time.
There has been many a great motivator before, of course, but a high intensity, combative style often has a short shelf-life. Consider the self-destruction of Mourinho’s 2nd-wave Chelsea, or Simeone’s mentor Marcelo Bielsa, and the way his previously magnificent Athletic Bilbao side fell away at the end of the 11/12 season.
As Beyond the Last Man commented, it takes a special kind of man to inspire such a “snarling, scorched-earth approach over an extended period of time”.
And Simeone does ask a great deal of his players. Guillem Balague pointed out that “every press conference he ever does has an abundance of words like “humility” “sacrifice” and “passion””. But talking about these things is one thing, getting your players to commit to them is, as they would say in Spain, flour from a different sack (harina de otra costal, apparently).
Similarly, it’s one thing to paint yourself as a leader, but making players, fans and press believe it is very different. After all, there are various managers who talk of leadership and sacrifice, but few have gatecrashed at football’s top table with such a prolonged and impressive lack of etiquette.
It’s clear, then, that the man has a rare ability to motivate, and his use of language is a big part of that. But while his Atlético side still feel fresh in the world of football, Simeone’s modes of persuasion are time-honoured, and can be traced back to the Ancient Greeks.
Ethos, Pathos and Logos
Aristotle argued that there were three ways to persuade an audience:
- Presenting yourself as a credible and authoritative source (known as Ethos)
- Appealing to your audience’s sense of logic (Logos)
- Appealing to your audience’s emotions (Pathos)
2,000 odd years on, these devices are still recognised as the foundations of persuasion and motivation. And while he might phrase it differently (probably while pacing the touchline and pointing a lot), the key quotes below show how El Cholo has made use of them all.
Ethos – or how Diego established his credibility as a speaker
“Either you follow me or you don’t. Leadership can’t be explained.”
Ethos is about self-portrayal, personal branding, and establishing yourself as a source of credibility. Being believable and authoritative is an intangible, hard to claim quality, and its absence is why many fail where Simeone has succeeded.
Ethos is achieved through a combination of the speaker’s reputation, the way they present themselves and their style of communication.
In terms of reputation, Simeone’s playing career was a big help, having captained and won the double with Atleti. Earning your stripes on the pitch is important in Spain: Rafa Benitez was treated as an intruder in the Real Madrid dressing room due to his less than stellar playing career. For Simeone, no such trouble. His social position and reputation ensure an authority to his words.
And while his “man in black” get-up has helped create a personal brand, it also means that the intensity he demands from his players is matched in the way he presents himself. At the training ground, he dresses like his players, he is one of the group; on the touchline, he is the leader and source of inspiration for his players.
But providing this pitchside inspiration is not just about appearance. Simeone’s body language is famously energetic, full of wide gestures which capture a rare intensity. Equally important is his use of space: in the clip below, his movements convey an absolute dominance of the touchline to assert his authority and accompany his cries of encouragement.
Logos – how El Cholo makes it all seem so logical
Although he relies heavily on Ethos and Pathos, El Cholo still needs to ensure that his players understand what he wants from them, and that fans and media view his ideas as credible. So it helps if these ideas are given the third-party endorsement of rational logic.
“I watch a lot of football and I read about psychology. If you put together the group, the team appears much more easily.”
So in this case, his methods are backed by extensive research into football, and by the science of psychology. With this external backing these methods are externally endorsed as being capable of working.
“The winner isn’t always the best team, it’s the one that battles.”
Simeone presents his ideas as straightforward and logical: it’s not always the best team that wins, it’s the one that fights hardest. He goes on to highlight the direct relationship between effort and victory, which creates an internal consistency in his argument: playing with maximum effort is better than simply playing attractive football, and to do this we need to stick to the plan, meaning we need to listen to our leader, which will lead us to victory.
Pathos – how Simeone appeals to the values, emotions and beliefs of his audience
With a logical message in place, Simeone uses the inspirational, vivid language of Pathos to motivate his players and sell his vision to fans. Given his aim is to inspire absolute effort, it’s fitting that Simeone uses Pathos to such a degree.
“You have to play the game with a knife between your teeth.“
“These guys were born with big balls. I congratulate their mothers.“
Simeone clearly understands his players, and the aggressive, hyper-masculine world they inhabit. He also understands that this masculinity comes with a need for validation, which he is quite willing to tap into by praising their huevos (lit. “eggs”, fig. “balls”).
“Belonging is important and I belong to Atlético…I know what the people want, what the club wants.”
Pathos focuses on touching the values and beliefs of the audience. It is here that his understanding of what Atlético de Madrid is, and the “fierce, emotional commitment” (Sid Lowe) the fans demand, are important. Along with pertenencia (“belonging”), you can see that in his constant repetition of the word humilidad (“humility”) which is central to the club’s working class identity.
Next to the inflated pomp of their neighbours, Atleti is the team of the people, the Pupas (“unlucky ones” – a tag Simeone has all but eradicated), the artists and fighters. By showing the world he gets this, Simeone touches the fans’ emotions and gives the players an example to follow.
“I aspire only to be an uncomfortable team to play against.”
And while it may not match Mourinho’s “special one” for opening salvo soundbite status, Simeone’s first press conference laid out exactly what he expects from his players. The word molesto (“uncomfortable” / “irritating” / “aggravating”) turns being an underdog into a mission statement. This is a clear appeal to the spirit of Atlético de Madrid, and makes it clear to his players what kind of team he expected them to become.
Could he do the same elsewhere?
It’s been questioned whether Simeone could achieve success in, say, England, where he doesn’t have complete control over the language.
A better question might be whether he could weave the same magic anywhere outside Atleti. Prior to the rojiblancos he managed 6 clubs in 5 years, which contrasts sharply with his current successes. At the Calderon his reputation ensures the authenticity of his words, while his authentic pertenencia helps him whip players and fans into a frenzy of Pathos. He has the perfect circumstances to inspire an underdog spirit and continued, lung-busting devotion.
These are far from the only tools in his arsenal, but wherever he would go next, it’s hard to shake the feeling that in leaving Atleti something would be lost.