Achim Feifel is in his second season as the head coach of the Bayer 04 Women’s team, who went into the winter break in an outstanding fifth position in the Bundesliga having secured their top-flight status in June. In this interview, the 56-year-old talks about the positive development of his players and currently more ambitious targets. With his wealth of experience, the coach also explains the difference in running men’s and women’s teams. The Swabian, who has many years under his belt as a coach in junior football, addresses a serious problem with youth development in men’s football in Germany.
What's your assessment of the season so far for your team? Fifth place after 13 games, 20 points, so that's already three more than in the whole of last season.
Feifel: "It's gone well overall. We’ve produced some very decent performances and achieved good results. Our target of finishing sixth this season was set by the team at the training camp before the start of the season. If it had been unrealistic then I would have said as the coach: Girls, think about that again. But I thought the target was realistic. I've increased the strength of the squad compared with last season with new signings who could be quickly integrated given their quality and I was sure we would have a better half of the season. Indeed, we’ve exceeded the target set for the winter break by one position."
Sixth place at the end of the season would be a big leap forward compared with last season when the team were just able to avoid relegation from the FLYERALARM Woman's Bundesliga. This season is your second at Bayer 04. Does the current improvement meet your expectations from when you joined Leverkusen?
Feifel: "The team had to battle against relegation in 2019 as well. It was clear that the season after that would not be easy because the make-up of the team did not change much with the signing of Milena Nikolic and Dora Zeller. But we couldn't imagine there would be another relegation battle after the first half of the season. The team were lacking mentality against opponents they should have been able to beat. Therefore, it was good we were able to change the squad in the summer to ensure the team’s development. A very important step was the extended stamina and athletics training that was started last year with fitness coach Maurice Mulder. That's really paying off now."
Your team's improvement on the pitch is also clearly evident.
Feifel: "The development in the technical and tactical areas, in versatility is the next step that follows now. In several games we've been able to show we want to play possession football. The defensive organisation you have to have was evident in the narrow defeat against Bayern Munich. We are succeeding in closing down space for opponents and being well-organised to be able to defend higher up the pitch with high aggression. That demands the appropriate fitness levels that the team has achieved. We have more and more phases where we play good football. We also get feedback from other Bundesliga coaches who say we are at a completely different level compared with a year ago."
Is it your aspiration and that of Bayer 04 to soon be able to set a higher target than sixth place?
Feifel: "At a club like Bayer 04 the aspiration should be aimed at continuing to improve performances. I see it like that too. At the moment, we’re in a phase where we want to stabilise the level we've achieved. Then we want to take the next step. Otherwise, we don't need to carry on working. But to do that we have to continue to develop players, the seven new signings from the summer. But also a lot of players who have been Bayer 04 for a longer time have not exploited their full potential. Again and again we have to make adjustments to the squad so we can have quality in depth. At the end of the day, that's what decisive in terms of being more successful."
Was that perspective a precondition for you when you move from Hamburg SV to the Bayer 04 Women in 2018?
Feifel: "Definitely, I saw those development opportunities as well. I was at HSV for seven years and there I learned the opportunities that could be achieved at Leverkusen. I only heard positive things about Bayer 04. And I knew the whole set-up and the structures from my placement that I did here as part of my football coach course. Therefore, I was aware that the opportunities are available here to really be able to make progress."
You've also coached men's teams for many years. At HSV you worked with teams in the youth Bundesliga. But you also have a wealth of experience in women's football. So you're the expert for the following question: Can you reveal the differences between managing a women's team and a men's team?
Feifel: "One really important point, that keeps occurring to me, is this: With the women you have to communicate more openly and clearly as a coach. With the men, there are often issues that somehow get brushed under the carpet or aren't really thought about. To achieve a suitable team spirit in women's football you have to show more sensitivity in dealing with and talking to the individual players. Overall, you need to be prepared to talk more as the women players want more feedback than is often the case with men's or junior teams. I've learned good management in the women's game requires more communication than with the men."
Does that communication just cover technical issues or does a coach have to achieve things differently at an emotional level with the women compared with the men?
Feifel: "Both apply. But many women need more positive feedback in psychological and pedagogical areas due to their greater emotionalism. You can achieve more with the women with positive feedback, rather than just being critical and highlighting the negative things that don't work. Of course, objective criticism is okay but banging on about it doesn't achieve anything."
Does that mean that women feel more affected by harsh criticism?
Feifel: "Statements are often taken more personally than in the men's or junior sides. That demands more sensitivity in dealing with them."
Another coach from the Women's Bundesliga recently said women listen to him more closely than was ever the case with men's teams. The women players always knew exactly what he'd said.
Feifel: "We know that too – from home. It's exactly the same with the women's team. It's quite right, they listen closely, appreciate the nuances and react more sensitively to what’s said. At the end of the day, that explains why you can affect them more emotionally with negative reactions. A lot of women players take things incredibly personally if a hasty comment slips out."
As a coach of the women's team do you have to be more careful that you don't adopt the wrong tone?
Feifel: "You have to be very careful not to shout or say things during a game based on emotion. It's a very important point in team management in the women's game that you have to remain as objective as possible and not overstep the mark. It's easier to get away with that in the men's game. There everything is forgotten in a day or two. With women it lasts a bit longer before everything settles down. Women are more sensitive and that doesn't change just because they're playing football."
Do you think more about what you want to say to your players in team meetings than you used to with men's teams?
Feifel: "I definitely have to think a bit more about addressing certain subjects. Let's take for example that a male player or woman player misses training. With the men it is said they are missing for private reasons. That's the end of the matter. But with the women it's important that the background is clearly explained so that everybody knows why a particular player isn't at training today. My experience with team management with women is that it is even more important to have honest, open, clear communication than is the case with men."
But there are individual differences?
Feifel: "Of course, there are junior players who want more feedback from you as a coach on the one hand and, on the other, not all women want a lot of feedback. It's a question of personality. At Bayer 04, we’re now doing a relatively large amount of individual analysis and have one-to-one discussions with the players to again and again agree with them how their assessment is made and what we expect from them. But in our team there are also players who don't need so much communication as they know what needs doing. And I know there are others who long for more feedback."
Are women more proactive? Do they possibly ask more questions?
Feifel: "That's right. That's why it was more fun for me from the start because you could see that there is a greater readiness to learn. And a greater readiness to learn leads to a greater ability to learn. If you work sensibly with the women players then you can relatively quickly achieve good development. What a lot of junior and men's teams lack is namely the ability to take criticism including accepting things from the coach. This ability to take criticism is much more evident in women's football and sometimes it's even too much."
Is that possibly where there is a particularly big difference?
Feifel: "A lot of the 16 to 18 year old lads who play with confidence in the junior Bundesliga think of themselves, I'm the greatest, I can do anything. They don't want to be told a lot more. In my experience, that's the source of the biggest problem in German football. It's not the lack of quality, it's the fact that many of our top young players have had too much too early. A lot of them could learn a huge amount from the girls and women who are much more self-critical although they have a much tougher time because, as football players, they mostly have to combine competitive sport and career development. Fortunately, nobody in women's football has to learn how to handle financial excess early on."
Date of birth: 3 August 1964
Birthplace: Schwäbisch Gmünd
Football coach (UEFA Pro Level) and graduate sports teacher
From 1 July 2019: Bayer 04 Leverkusen Women
2014 - 2019: Hamburg SV youth teams (U16 - U21)
2013 - 2014: FFC Potsdam Women
2012 - 2013: FC Rossiyanka/Russia Women
2005 - 2012: Hamburg SV Women
2003 - 2005: Assistant coach Germany U 23 Women's team
1999 - 2003: Association sports teacher in Württemberg
1990 - 1999: Various higher-level amateur teams (men) in Württemberg
This interview is in the current Werks11 Magazine no. 29.