UTRECHT, August 3, 2017 - The Willem II Stadium held its breath for the quarter-final shootout between Spain and Austria. The silence was broken only by the laughter of the Austrian players.
They were enjoying every second -- unlike the Spanish players feeling the stress and pressure as they tried to concentrate.
This Austrian reaction appeared even more inexplicable when coach Dominik Thalhammer later reported they had not practised spotkicks at the UEFA Women’s EURO 2017. But the work Austria's team had undertaken was much bigger and wider then an ordinary training sessions.
Thalhammer said: “We decided to work from a different angle and instead of training the physical aspect we worked on the mental side of it. We developed a plan for action for every single player, where she should shoot and how she is going to shoot.”
Goalkeeper Manuela Zinsberger admitted after the decisive shootout save that even goalkeepers had not practised penalties at the tournament.
The decision to use such a method was simple, as Thalhammer explained.
He said: "We practised trained penalties before the Cyprus Cup but lost confidence in ourselves when we sometimes failed in training.
"This destroyed our self-confidence when the situation arose in the tournament so we decided to try another approach and focus on mental preparation.”
Indeed, the coach does not interfere in players’ preparation for penalties at all. This task falls to mental coach Mirjiam Wolf who has been working with the team since 2011 when Thalhammer was appointed.
Considering the strength and technique of the tournament favourites, the main goal of the Austrian coach staff was to build resistant team spirit.
Zinsberger said: “When the referee whistled at the end of the 120 minutes, I thought: 'Manu, now it is coming down to the penalties, now you have to be there for your team.' It is absolutely unbelievable to see how mentally strong our team is and how we keep strengthening each other all the time.
"Even when I was standing in the goal, on my own, it was still about the team. I knew that we were going to make this happen together and that I was not there on my own.”
The mental coach works with players individually every day for an hour and Zinsberger added: "She had told me: 'Manu, we are going to make a difference tonight.'
“This tournament is a great signal of what you can reach as the underdog with team spirit and a lot of tactical discipline.
"We are still the underdog of all the teams still in the tournament. Maybe we can destroy the myth that underdogs cannot make it in women’s football.”
Austria have not lost in all their four matches at Euro 2017. They are also the only newcomers among the semi-finalists. Next Austria play Denmark in Breda, one more opportunity to make a difference.