Tips for Managers

I was asked by email what I advice I’d give managers. On the proviso that I’m not really into giving “tips” as such – it’s best to treat each person and situation on their merits – I came up with ten rough points. Some of these will be familiar to regular readers:

British football is definitely the sport least interested in the mental
side of what they are doing. I must admit I used to regard that in a
critical way, but I don’t any more. On the one hand, there are so many
bullshit merchants hanging around the game offering their services that
even the most open-minded of managers or players would become wary in
time. On the other, football generates more than its share of “natural
sports psychologists” – the ones who just do the right things from
natural talent – Clough, Paisley, O’Neill, Ferguson, Mourinho, Shanks,
Busby, Bill Nicholson, Don Revie – which begs the question, does
football need to bring in outside help, especially when so much of that
outside help is “dodgy”?

If I was to give a manager advice on how to improve his performance, I’d
probably concentrate on a few specific points, namely:

1: You need to know, in detail, what’s going on with your players. Not
just how their lives are going outside the club, but why they are in
football, what’s important to them, what are their “hot buttons”? If
possible, get someone working with you who has a natural awareness of
this kind of thing – Clough used to say that Peter Taylor could tell if
a player was worried or unhappy 24 hours before he could – find a

2: To get the best out of individual players, you need to realise that
they really do need treating differently from each other. People really
are different and if you just assume that some of them are “delicate
flowers” deserving of your contempt then your team will suffer. It’s
your choice. But it’s more than just realising that some “need an arm
around the shoulder, others a kick up the backside” – you actually have
to do this, and it isn’t easy. There’s something of the great actor in a
great manager.

3: Don’t be too free with praise. That has to be earned. But don’t make
your players afraid to play for fear of your tongue afterwards –
remember that Clough explained his failure at Brighton as being down to
his players being too scared of their big famous manager to perform.

4: Your players are far more likely to fail to perform because they are
too tense and too worried and under too much pressure than out of
laziness or not caring. Keep your players distracted from the big issues
they face at big clubs, keep training fresh and interesting, keep the
press on you and not on them, keep your dressing room smiling and
laughing. Clough gave his Forest players beer on the coach an hour
before a European Cup Final.

5: Find out what each of your players is capable of doing well
consistently – then make sure that that’s what they are mostly called
upon to do in your teams – and that that will work tactically for your
team. If players know that they are only going to be asked to do what
they themselves know they can do, and if they know that that will help
the team, their confidence will soar and that confidence will be based
on real facts, not on airy notions of “inspiration” or “passion”. Leave
all the stuff about heroes and inspiration to the fan magazines. Your
players can only do what they are capable of and no more. Likewise, seek
to remove from their game those things they aren’t so good at. If they
can’t make long passes accurately, stop them making long passes etc. and
don’t play them in a way that means they have to make e.g. long passes.

6: You need to know inside yourself that you aren’t really in full
control of the situation you’re in. In the German phrase, the ball is
round. If you do your best, and your players respond, you are still at
the mercy of the referee, of luck, your board of directors, and your
opponents. Don’t kill yourself when things that you can’t control go
wrong. You’ll have a lot less stress – and perform better – if you are
realistic about this. By all means tell the press that you aren’t going
to make injuries “an excuse” for poor performance, but don’t tell
yourself that.

7: Take a lesson from Jose Mourinho and try to keep on terms with your
board and chairman – treat them as part of the team. It won’t always be
possible, but you don’t have to take the Shackleton/Clough line that
they are class enemies to be fought. (It isn’t always possible, as
Mourinho’s finding out now! but I wonder how many other managers could
have kept things both sweet and ticking along as well as JM has done
over the last few years..)

8: Keep things simple for your players – make sure that they know
exactly what you want them to do on the pitch and make sure it isn’t too
complicated. Not every player is smart enough to carry loads of tactics
around in their heads during a fast game of modern football. Not every
player who is smart enough is actually interested in tactics. Keep it

9: Half time is too late for Churchillian speeches. Take a leaf out of
Woodward’s book and use half time as a chance to calm the players down
and make one or two points, no more.

10: Churchillian speeches at any time are no substitute for your players
thinking that you know what you’re talking about. If you’re feeling the
need to use oratory at a moment of crisis, it’s a sign you haven’t
prepared the players properly. Everyone loves a tale of a manager
changing things with a single line – “You’ve beaten them once, now go
and beat them again” etc. – but there’s a reason why there are no Bob
Paisley speech stories, despite all those trophies. His players knew he
could read the game, and so a quiet word of advice would have more
impact than any amount of shouting.

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