How to Manage a Football Team
20-Tips All Inexperienced Football Managers Should Read
With preseason now in full swing, I thought I would update my list of football management tips for new and inexperienced managers. As some of you may know my PhD is in sport psychology, however, for this, I haven’t considered how and where the tips presented are based on theory. Instead, this is primarily a list of random thoughts that came to mind one day as I noticed a local junior team training on a nearby field. If you’re looking for all the answers in a short post, you’ve come to the wrong place. I have a reasonable amount of coaching experience, but I am no Sir Alex Ferguson. There are other people and other blog posts out there (LOTS!) from people who are of a higher profile than me, but if you want some practical advice from someone who has been where you, I hope you’ll find this helpful. The list is broken down into two parts with the first section focusing on interacting with players and the second on getting organised. These are obviously both huge topics and it is important to note that the list is not meant to be exhaustive. Instead, it is my hope that the tips presented stimulate discussion. With that in mind, if you see something you like or dislike, feel free to comment, share, criticise or recommend.
Before starting, I just want to make you aware that the initial ideas presented in this blogpost have since developed into a book. The 20 initial observations discussed here turned into 125 practical and evidence or experienced-based tips for First-Time Sports Coaches. You can buy a copy on Amazon (amazon.co.uk/dp/1916204503) or via your local bookstore. If you’re not ready for that yet and just want to read through my initial musings, read on.
In this section I’ll discuss a couple of tips for dealing with players. I won’t pretend that the following covers anything close to all of the player interactions you are likely to experience, but it will hopefully act as a bit of a nudge to some who may have overlooked a tip or two.
Tip #1: Set clear, but realistic expectations — be it tactics, effort or attitude.
For me, this is one of the most important aspects of management, so don’t neglect it. Speak to your players, get to know them and their goals and encourage and support them to surpass them. Easy hey? If only. I can’t stress strongly enough how important it is that everyone knows each other’s standards and expectations, as without doing so, disagreement and disappointment are an inevitability.
Tip #2: Speak with every player at every session.
You should know this already, but get to know your players, what their ambitions are, and how life is outside of the club. You can’t possibly expect to be a supportive and effective coach if you know nothing about your players, so it’s a no brainer.
Tip #3: Talking of brains, get your players to use theirs.
Set problems and support your players to find suitable answers. For example, ask them how they would approach defending a set piece from a specific area or how to get organised while outnumbered. Let them break off into smaller groups and encourage them to come up with solutions. It will not only help you to improve, but it also has the added bonus of showing players that you value their input.
Tip #4: Be respectful and dignified.
Show the players, the referee, opposition and everyone else for that matter, respect. Some people may throw this back in your face, but as the team’s leader, you have a responsibility to guide your players and the club through both your words and actions. If you can’t achieve this, you’re in the wrong job.
Tip #5: Don’t wait to pounce on a mistake.
I know coaching courses have taught this in the past, but I do not think this is particularly good practice. If you see an area for improvement, consider pairing players up who can support one another (try to make it beneficial to both players where possible) to progress. Work with the players to support them by suggesting appropriate role models in the professional game and offer additional practices that the individual can work on in private. Videos help here too, but videos of themselves performing the task previously works wonders. For me, publicly scolding a player mid-session does little to develop a strong relationship or improve ability.
Tip #6: Praise more than you criticise.
If you do need to criticise, try to do so constructively. Similarly, praise sparingly, evenly and for more than what happens on the pitch. This is especially important when you’re working with youngsters. Don’t be the guy that ends a young kid’s potential lifelong love affair with sport trying to be a ‘mini Mourinho’, the game is the most important thing, so keep that in mind.
Tip #7: Speak to your players before and during the game, but know that little is likely to go in.
Reinforce existing topics, but avoid introducing new information. Focus on encouragement. Be supportive and let each player do their own thing — not everyone has the same pre-match routine, so try to find out what your players generally prefer. The captain can be of considerable benefit here too.
Tip #8: As with the previous tip, know that some players will have limited ability to focus on in-situ instruction.
Prepare tactical changes in training so that when an alteration is needed, everyone knows what is happening. If a player fails to understand what you’re trying to do, be prepared to take your fair share of ownership and try to keep this in mind if feelings of frustration emerge.
Tip #9: Stay positive and focus on the process, not the outcome.
Sometimes things don’t go as you had planned and while there is the temptation to allocate blame, it rarely helps. Stick together and focus on incrementally improving the team’s performance. It may take time so be patient, but performances will improve.
Tip #10: Avoid articles that tell you how to win or use the type of language below:
“Having used these soccer coaching tactics with my team, I know they work”.
Stop it. Bad coach. Don’t make me get the rolled up newspaper! I jest, but seriously, don’t obsess over winning or drills. At a youth level, coaching is about these things as much as cooking is about the type of gas used to heat the pans. It may make the end product a little better, but 99% of the process is about the way you treat your ingredients. Focus on the players, consider their individual needs and do your best to meet them. If you do that you will be fine.
Tip #11: Foster the development of life skills.
If you are reading this it is unlikely that any of your players will turn pro. Really, really unlikely! With this in mind it is important to integrate life skill development into your training. Sport provides a fabulous vehicle to develop life skills from communicating with others, organising and managing people, through to inspiring and motivating team-mates. Make sure to encourage and support more than technical skills when interacting with your players and where possible, highlight how the types of skills discussed transfer into other environments. If you want to read up on the literature in this area Nick Holt’s book is a reasonable place to start.
In the next section I’ll discuss a couple of tips for dealing with organisation. Managing a football team is difficult at any level, but the more organised you can be, the more you will enjoy the process.
Tip #12: Don’t run the line yourself.
Get organised and find someone to act as an assistant referee. That said, make sure to support the person who occupies the role by not allowing abusive behaviour to go unchallenged. If funds permit, it would also be beneficial to all involved if the individual went on a refereeing course. If you can’t find someone, don’t force a player. If someone offers, great, but don’t force them. Consider trying to raise funds (if the players are adults you could ask them to contribute) and if you can’t, find some way of offering another form of incentive to do the job.
Tip #13: Try to get an assistant.
Even if it is just someone to collect subs, fill out the team-sheet, and pay the ref (if appropriate). If you can’t get one person to do all the tasks, try getting multiple. I know it sounds counterintuitive, but it’s often easier to get people to help with smaller tasks than it is one person to do them all. If all else fails and if the players are old enough, delegate some of these tasks to them. If they’re not old enough, then their parents should really help you out — although I appreciate that this is not always the case.
Tip #14: If you’re working with adults, put a fine system in place, but only use the money on things for the team.
Try to make it fun and get the players’ buy-in. Also, don’t administer this yourself as this is a good task for your captain. In an ideal world you’ll have an incentive system too, as it doesn’t send the best message to only fine and not reward.
Tip #15: Consider asking the players to purchase a football each for training.
I have not tried this one myself, but have often thought about it. Each player is then responsible for making sure that the ball is inflated and not lost. You may also need a core stock of balls, but it could be a good way of making sure that you have suitable equipment that is well looked after at training. P.s. if you have tried this let me know how it went in the comments!
Tip #16: Make sure that you have at least basic first aid training and in an ideal world, have someone who can take this role.
If it is just you, when an injury occurs (at some point it will), make sure that you have put in place a procedure where multiple people (players, assistants, club officials etc.) understand the process you will follow. Have a phone handy in the medical bag (don’t ever skimp on this!) and should the incident require medical attention, try to make sure the player is as comfortable and calm as possible. Some players will likely try to act as if they are in less pain than they are and some teammates may try to lighten the mood with jokes. In my experience, this should be avoided where possible. It could be a coping strategy, but for me it’s best that the other players be removed from the situation.
Tip #17: Take food and water with you.
You do not need to have enough to feed and water the whole team, but you know, every once in a while a player will miss breakfast/lunch/tea or forget to bring their water bottle to training. Check with the parents that they are happy for you to provide a certain food and check for allergies, but the last thing you want is a player attempting to train while hungry or dehydrated. Breakfast bars are a staple as they tend to be full of oats and often last months in the car without spoiling.
Tip #18: Make a contract with the parents.
Okay so maybe not a contract, but discuss how and when you would like to receive communication. Things can get heated during match days, so a policy of not discussing performances/playing time during or directly after the game is best. Allow everyone to sleep on events and then discuss calmly and rationally at a mutually convenient time.
Tip #19: Outline the type of communication that best supports the team from the touchline.
Explain how shouting tactical advice to one child can place them in a difficult situation and create chaos in the team. It is best not to assume that all the parents will know what comments are acceptable from the sideline, so clearly outline expectations in pre-season rather than hoping for the best come Autumn.
Tip #20: Feel free to ignore these tips and do your own thing.
Managing, as with most things in life, is about finding your own path and what works for you. Listen, learn and improve, but don’t try to be someone else (yes I’m talking to you mini Mourinho!). Read books, listen to instructors, watch peers and everything in between, but don’t try copy people to the letter — it doesn’t work. Be the best version of you possible. Be good. Be decent. Be fair and if you can do that, you’ll be fine.
Well that’t it for now. If you have any tips or feedback you want to add, please do so in the comments section. If you want to discuss any of these points in greater detail or would like help accessing the literature that underpin these ideas, feel free to get in touch on email or Twitter (@jpmillsphd). You can also find out more about me and my research at www.johnpmills.com Oh and one last thing, if you enjoyed this post don’t forget that you can buy a copy of the book that grew out of it (i.e., First-Time Sports Coach) here.