Aki Riihilahti and the motivational miracle-workers at Crystal Palace
How a "right shower" was nurtured into becoming an outfit capable of gracing the Premiership
By Arno Seiro in London
Let's be perfectly honest now. The Crystal Palace side does not necessarily belong in the English Premier League.
And yet the side rose at the end of last season, snatching the third promotion spot after an unlikely and whirlwind rise up the First Division (now the Championship) table. It takes a couple of cups of coffee and Aki Riihilahti is ready to explain how mental motivation and growth can produce unique results.
"There are really no adjectives to describe the changes that have taken place at the club since Ian Dowie took over as manager and John Harbin was taken on as fitness coach, back at the end of 2003", says Riihilahti. At the end of this month, he will mark up four years at Selhurst Park since his first appearance in a Palace shirt.
There has certainly been no shortage of changes made. Just over twelve months ago, the side was languishing in 22nd spot (out of 24 clubs) in the First Division. Relegation was a distinct possibility. Now they are 17th in the considerably tougher Premiership race, even though the basic framework of the first-team squad remains the same.
"When things were going badly for us, nobody at the club came out and said anything about making matters better. But since Dowie and Harbin arrived, we have fixed up countless things that were badly run in the club and still we keep finding new areas to improve all the time", says Riihilahti.
The coaching philosophy in South London is based to a great extent on the teachings of the legendary American college basketball coach John Wooden (1910-) and American football coach Vince Lombardi (1913-1970), the man behind the rags-to-riches success of the Green Bay Packers.
Wooden, for instance, taught that the object of the game is not to crush the opposition, but to attain one's own optimum performance. Wooden's method and his "Pyramid of Success" produced a record 10 NCAA titles, an still-unbroken record winning streak of 88 games, and the sort of win-lose record that any coach would gladly die - or kill - for.
The Palace players have had dinned into them a credo that they can develop constantly.
"A year ago at this time, the majority of the players in the squad believed they would never be able to play in the Premiership. Now the line of thought is that you can get absolutely anything and everything out of a person. There is no end to the growth curve", Riihilahti says emphatically.
When the players have this kind of faith in themselves, then the club training sessions have taken on an entirely new level of vim and vigour. "New players often wind up picking up injuries in training after a couple of weeks, because they are just not used to such a fierce pace", reports Riihilahti.
The Palace team is now led like a blue-chip listed company. The team has a clear vision of where it wants itself to be in the future.
The vision is reached through carefully drafted goals and short-term targets. All the activity is backed by lofty values. And then there is one additional ingredient. The will to succeed.
"The laws governing success are very similar throughout history", notes Riihilahti on the subject of the Palace recipe for success.
The target-driven leadership model throws up something a good deal more interesting than merely players who believe in themselves and their ability to develop their game.
"For my part, I want to develop physically and on the emotional level. Football is a way for me continually to dig out from myself new things that I can then use in other parts of my life", says Riiihlahti.
Riihilahti currently has three objectives or virtues that he would like to achieve. He ponders them last thing at night before going to sleep and first thing in the morning after he wakes up. And whenever Aki Riihilahti goes out of the house, he stops for a moment to glance at the text pinned up by the front door: Always be honest with yourself.
Riihilahti has now got into his "dream-team" in the sense that he has always been interested in the psychological dimension of sports. When he was younger, his mother - a teacher and sports psychologist - would answer the boy's questions in this department.
Now at Crystal Palace he is surrounded by the sort of people who don't just dream, but believe in making dreams become reality.
"I have this constant urge to do things better and better. If I stop and content myself with where I am now, then I feel out of sorts with myself."
And the upshot of all this is something that everyone - not just professional footballers - is striving for. "I genuinely feel better every day. For the last year, I've been completely calm and composed in myself."
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 8.3.2005
More on this subject:
Analyse and learn
Finland-Football: Aki Riihilahti
Crystal Palace Official Site (requires registration)
Aki Riihilahti homepage. Riihilahti also has a regular column in The Times