He left as a German champion. He returned as a doctor of psychology. The former BVB goalkeeper Dr. Philipp Laux was actually done with professional football, having spent 25 years as a goalkeeper, a goalkeeping coach and finally a team psychologist. But Borussia Dortmund, says the 47-year-old, "is a matter close to my heart". It's his third spell at BVB. "I wouldn't have come back to the Bundesliga for any other club." The psychologist has been working with the senior squad and coaching staff since early May.
Philipp, you come from the south-west, live in the south-west and therefore have an outsider's perspective: how did Borussia Dortmund change from 1993 to 2000 and from 2002 to today?
While Ottmar Hitzfeld was coach, we trained on a Rote Erde pitch that would sometimes be ankle-deep during the autumn and the winter. We'd use the "Luftbad" (open-air bath) behind the stadium as an alternative. I still have vivid memories of Stefan Reuter sustaining a deep wound on his hand after going in for a sliding tackle and landing on a piece of broken glass. By the time I came back to BVB for the second time in 2000, the training conditions at the Rabenloh were significantly better – although nowhere near comparable to what exists nowadays. But at least we had one and a half pitches to ourselves there. The goalkeepers went to the half-pitch. They were not top conditions. In winter, we'd sometimes train on the district sports complexes in Marten or Huckarde. The changing room became increasingly congested too, as the squad and support staff increased. In 1993, there was a coach, an assistant coach and a goalkeeping coach. In 2000, there were athletics and rehab coaches too. When I see what has now emerged in Brackel, it shows how the club has undergone a continuous development in the past few years. The management have not only invested in personnel, but also invested impressively in infrastructure too.
Is this also a reflection of the general development of professional football as you've known it since the early 1990s? It may sound exaggerated, but 30 years later it looks almost like a different sport...
Football has undergone a rapid development – both on the pitch and off it. There have been enormous changes in terms of speed, physicality and tactics. But also in terms of the looking-after of players. There are a great many experts from every field you can imagine that have joined the teams. At the same time, the challenges have grown immensely. Everything is now subject to the scrutiny of the public. That was only the case to a limited extent 20 or 30 years ago.
Is that one of the reasons why the topic of sports psychology plays an increasingly important role in football? It part of it about preparing the increasingly younger stars for this "public scrutiny"?
I quite like the fact we prepare them for this and teach them how to deal with it. I like to use the following formula: performance equals potential minus disruptive factors. Observers frequently say: he isn't showing his full potential on the pitch. He can actually perform much better than he is at present. This is not because the player doesn't want to or has forgotten how to play football; rather, it is because he does not have a goal-oriented approach to tackling the very individual disruptive factors that can be present in both the sporting and the private sphere. I see it as part of my job to guide the players step by step as they learn to deal with the demands of the professional business.
Does that also include preparing players for the pressure that social media can create?
The public awareness of the job of professional footballer and the anonymous evaluation of players through social networks has increased hugely. And the players feel this. When reporting takes place that goes beyond the normal sporting evaluation and spills over into the personal, private sphere, this leads to a major problem of how to deal with these issues appropriately and how to process them. This can be a great challenge and, at times, also a considerable burden for the players – despite all the wonderful moments that the professional business offers.
In the matches since the corona crisis, some observers have declared that certain professional footballers produce better performances when there are no spectators in the stadium. Can you confirm this impression?
These players have already demonstrated in front of spectators that they're outstanding footballers. If a player doesn't get a response, it's a totally new situation for him. He is used to every action – whether positive or negative – being linked to a response, even if only from a few spectators. This is stored in the brain. This feedback has now disappeared. That's new. The players who can best adjust to this and focus not so much on the response but on their own game have an advantage and have access to their full potential. I don't think players perform better because they don't feel any pressure.
When did you start to focus on this kind of thing?
There were two relevant experiences. The first one was when I was 18 – and at that time I had no idea about mental training or visualisation – and I spent an hour lying on my bed listening to a meditation tape one evening before a game and visualised how scenes would go in the match the next day. That was intuitive. The other experience was a presentation Hans-Dieter Hermann – now the sports psychologist for the national team – gave about mental match preparation which I found extremely fascinating. Since that point there was regular contact. I was concerned with these questions: how do I deal with pressure? How do I keep my focus? How do success and failure influence how I think and act? The resulting talks did me a real lot of good. When I was then injured at the age of 29 and was facing the question of how my life would continue – not my career, but my life – we discussed the question: why don't you study?
Aged 18, Philipp Laux was the first-choice shot-stopper at third-tier VfB Gaggenau, barely 15 kilometres from Rastatt, the place where he was born and grew up, situated between Karlsruhe and Baden-Baden. He left the Oberliga outfit after winning the South Baden Cup and joined Borussia Dortmund in the summer of 1993, where the position of back-up goalkeeper to Stefan Klos had become vacant after serious shin and calf injuries to Wolfgang "Teddy" de Beer.
For the 20-year-old, it was a new world entirely.
He was in a dressing room alongside world champion Karl-Heinz Riedle and soon-to-be European Footballer of the Year Matthias Sammer. "I was used to training four times a week, and training intensively, but that was nothing compared to what I experienced as part of the senior squad at Borussia Dortmund. In the first three months I went to my absolute limit physically and mentally; sometimes I went beyond it."
Laux, "a young goalkeeper who was used to playing" and not to sitting on the bench, sought out BVB's then manager Michael Meier at the end of the season for talks and asked for his contract to be terminated. "I generally feel comfortable here, but I believe that professional football is not for me at this point in time," he said.
Laux took two steps back – and then a step forward in each of the next two years. He accepted an offer to join SSV Ulm, who were promoted to the second tier under Ralf Rangnick and then to the top table under Martin Andermatt – with Laux now the captain. "I had the time to develop on both a personal and sporting level," he said on reflection.
Ulm performed well, narrowly losing their home games against Borussia Dortmund (kicker rating 1.0 for Laux) and Bayern Munich 1-0. For the goalkeeper, there were "wonderful experiences" such the 1-1 draw in the return fixture in Dortmund. But despite amassing 35 points, which would've been enough to survive in the previous three seasons and would be nowadays too, SSV Ulm suffered relegation to the second tier at the end of the season. "We were not relegated with a whimper; we competed as equals," said Laux, who missed only one league game in six years in Ulm.
By now 27 - a prime age for a goalkeeper - Laux returned to Dortmund. What followed starting in the summer of 2000 "was wonderful. I felt more mature and ready for the top division too," he said. By 2002, he had made eight appearances – eight in the league and one in the cup – for BVB as they won the league and reached the UEFA Cup final. "Feeling like a real member of the team" meant fulfilment. At the same time, he noticed a knack for connecting people. He also saw it as his responsibility "as the back-up goalkeeper to support those players who weren't playing at the moment and to keep them moving in the same direction. My second spell at Borussia Dortmund was a valuable time for me."
A sporting desire not to spend the vast majority of his time on the bench prompted him to make another transfer, this time to second-tier promoted outfit Eintracht Braunschweig. But cartilage damage to his knee quickly saw his career end. When Laux left the pitch in Burghausen following a 4-2 defeat on 4 October 2002, he had no idea that it would be his final outing as a professional footballer.
The discussions with his friend and confidant Hans-Dieter Hermann prompted Laux to begin his studies in the field of psychology the following year. The ZVS (Central Office for the Allocation of Study Places) in Dortmund allocated him a place to study in Mannheim. At the same time, he was working as the goalkeeping coach for the DFB junior teams. "That combined very well with my studies," he said. When his former coach Ralf Rangnick took over the reins at Regionalliga club TSG Hoffenheim in the summer of 2006, "he asked whether I wanted to join his coaching staff". The agreement was that Laux, upon completing his studies, would work as sports psychologist for the club within the youth set-up. But a request from FC Bayern Munich came "totally out of the blue" in 2008, with Laux invited for an interview with Jürgen Klinsmann and Uli Hoeneß. "Mr. Laux, you were a goalkeeper in Ulm. For Hoeneß it was clear that I understood football and was part of a system that's special." The then head coach Jürgen Klinsmann also gave the young graduate his vote - and the former player was unexpectedly offered a job. "As a completely normal psychology student, I would've definitely never had a chance of working for Bayern Munich."
He spent four years fulfilling the role of team psychologist for FC Bayern, before Rangnick lured him to Leipzig in 2012. For personal reasons – the commute to his wife and children in Heidelberg was taking its toll – he returned to the south-west in 2015 with VfB Stuttgart, who returned to the Bundesliga a year later under the stewardship of former Dortmund man Hannes Wolf.
In 2018 – 10 years after starting as a team psychologist in Munich – the now 45-year-old felt it was high time for a professional change. "After 10 years as a psychologist in the professional game, I consciously wanted some distance and to only work externally." Requests from the business world, and from the field of coaching and lecturing, tempted him to take on new challenges.
But then came the phone call from Dortmund in the spring of 2020. At the other end of the line was Sebastian Kehl, Head of the Licensed Player Division – and 18 years earlier Laux's team-mate in the 2002 title-winning season. The graduate psychologist would "not have returned to the Bundesliga for any other club" – and declared: "The appreciative and continuous conversations with Sebastian Kehl were the decisive factor in saying 'Yes' with full conviction to this wonderful job once again. It's always something special for me when BVB asks."
Let's quickly step back to the year 2001: following a great start to the season, things weren't going well for BVB. Knocked out of the cup by the VfL Wolfsburg reserves, defeats in the Bundesliga against Bayern and Schalke, hiccoughs and setbacks in the Champions League against Liverpool and Porto. Then, on 13 October 2001, came a match in Mönchengladbach that was later recognised as a milestone on the path to winning the league. Observers felt that on that afternoon at the Bökelberg, 11 highly talented footballers became a team. Can the sports psychologist confirm this evaluation?
It was an important match, because we were under pressure on a sporting level. If my memory serves me correctly, Tomas Rosicky had been sent off for two bookable offences in the first half, and prior to that Jens Lehmann had dislocated his thumb. I went in goal. We were a man down and still won the game 2-1. I still remember how happy the team was with that victory, achieved against all odds. A wonderful moment, on a psychological level too. On that day everyone felt as if every player was there for each other; we were shouldering responsibility and a special atmosphere was developing.
Did those experiences also help you during your studies? Do they still help you with your job today, because you can put yourself in the shoes of a professional footballer?
My sporting career really helped me during the course of my degree. It was a bumpy road to begin with. I had to re-learn how to learn. In the first exam I got a 3.9 and only just managed to avoid failing. I gritted my teeth and fought against the resistance. These are important factors in both areas: how do I deal with setbacks, with resistance, with difficult situations? Only when the wind blows in your face do things get exciting. Careers are usually the result of failure. Sport and my studies have helped me out. I have experienced a lot, from the German championship to relegation from the Bundesliga to the end of my career due to injury. There were times when I played, was captain and others when I had to watch from the bench. That helps me a lot in my work.
What's your everyday life like at Borussia Dortmund?
I'm here on a freelance basis three or four days a week. It's important for me to be independent, I've invested so much in my education. Having a second field of activity, gaining different impressions and thus experiencing very exciting topics that entrepreneurs, managers and teams in the business world bring to the table are important and also enriching moments for me. I would not want to miss them.
Interview: Boris Rupert
Clubs as a player:
until 1993 VfB Gaggenau
1993–1994 Borussia Dortmund 0
1994–2000 SSV Ulm 1846 214
2000–2002 Borussia Dortmund 9
2002–2003 Eintracht Braunschweig 9
...as a goalkeeping coach:
2004-2006 German Football Association
2006-2008 TSG Hoffenheim
...as a team psychologist:
2008-2012 FC Bayern Munich
2012-2015 Rasenballsport Leipzig
2015-2018 VfB Stuttgart
since 05/2020 Borussia Dortmund
"We need to be top in all areas"
"Our aim is to position BVB in the best-possible way in all relevant subdivisions of professional sport and to form a network of specialists who work together in pursuit of a holistic approach. In view of this, we wanted to integrate the topic of sports psychology into the professional domain for the 2020/2021 season, in order to be able to work in a targeted manner on the potential development of each individual," said Sebastian Kehl, who heads up the Licensed Player Division. Kehl added: "In the wake of the corona crisis, which has suddenly confronted us with completely new challenges, we are now bringing this measure forward. In Dr. Philipp Laux, we've succeeded in recruiting a psychologist who, on top of his professional training, has many years of experience as a professional footballer. He will support us in areas such as personality management, mental coaching and interdisciplinary cooperation with other experts. If we want to achieve big goals, we have to be top in all areas! It is important to us to make the best possible use of the players' potential. The experience of Philipp Laux should be an added extra for our team – which they can make use of, but don't have to. Naturally, the cooperation is of a voluntary nature."