13 Soccer Coaching Lessons from Sir Alex Ferguson
One of the greatest soccer managers of all time.
Sir Alex Ferguson won everything there is to win with Man United.
Over the course of his twenty-six years at the club, he won a staggering thirty-eight trophies. His United teams dominated the Premier League for the best part of three decades.
One of the most incredible things was he managed to construct a number of successful squads over that period, using different tactics and formations to nullify and overwhelm opponents.
Renowned for his stupendous man management skills, impressive consistency, tactical flexibility, and his ability to construct title-winning teams…
Sir Alex Ferguson was a born winner like no other.
Having spent so long in the game and having been so successful over such a long period of time, there is much that aspiring young coaches and players can learn from him.
From his own words, here are 13 coaching lessons from Sir Alex Ferguson:
1. Make the most of every training session
“...we never allowed a bad training session. What you see in training manifests itself on the game field. So every training session was about quality. We didn’t allow a lack of focus. It was about intensity, concentration, speed, a high level of performance.”
Training sessions are some of the most important times that you spend with your team over the season, and each one needs to be productive if you want to stand a chance at the silverware.
This is where standards are set, improvements are made, and competition for places is fierce.
As the coach, you need to make sure that players take each training session seriously and that they give their best every week.
Not only will this help them improve both individually and as a team, but it will also mean they're raring to go once it comes around to match day.
2. Set high standards and demand the best
“I constantly told my squad that working hard all your life is a talent. But I expected even more from the star players. I expected them to work even harder.”
Hard work is the cornerstone of any successful team.
Players need to be prepared to give their all if they want to develop their skills, improve as a player, and excel in their position.
While talent does go a long way to determining whether a team is successful or not, hard work is usually what separates the great players from the average players.
You need to make sure that you set high standards and get your team putting in every last bit of effort in their pursuit of excellence.
Sir Alex is renowned for having wrung out every last bit of effort from his players, and it turned normal, run of the mill, workmanlike players into stars with numerous Premier League titles to their name, all because they worked so hard for each other.
3. Use encourage and praise
“Few people get better with criticism. Most respond to encouragement instead. For a player or any human being, there is nothing better than hearing ‘Well done’'.“
While Sir Alex was renowned for dishing out the so-called 'hairdryer treatment' where he lambasted a player for a poor performance…
One of the main reasons that he could maintain his success for so many decades was that he fiercely defended his players to the media, praising them in public and saving criticism for behind closed doors.
While there will undoubtedly be times where you need to give a player pointers on how they can improve, the vast majority of the time you want to encourage and praise your players.
This will motivate them, show them that you believe in them, and prove that you are invested in their development.
4. Make sure everyone pulls in the same direction
“The work of a team should always embrace a great player but the great player must always work.”
Although it may be tempting to coddle your star player to keep them happy and playing well, in reality, you need to make sure that they’re putting the work in to help the team succeed.
While you can certainly change tactics to suit their unique talent and skillset, at times they will have to sacrifice their attacking output for the team and drop back to cover another player or defend for their lives when the team is under pressure.
No formation or team tactic, no matter how well devised, can work if everyone isn't pulling in the same direction.
You need to ensure that everyone buys into what you're trying to achieve.
If your star player neglects their duties, then they just might not fit into your team as the collective will always trump the individual.
5. Discipline is the key to success
“Once you bid farewell to discipline you say goodbye to success.”
While you certainly want your players to have fun at training, they must be prepared to focus and put in the work that you demand from them.
Sir Alex was famous for retaining the respect of his players.
If a player stepped out of line he quickly got rid of them as he saw that discipline was the key to the team’s success.
Not only does this mean listening to the coach and putting in effort on the training pitch, it also means turning up prepared to a match and respecting fellow teammates.
If problems arise later on in the season, it’s often because discipline wasn't kept earlier on and the standards and accepted behaviour were allowed to dip.
While it can be tough to maintain discipline and keep authority, by getting everyone invested in the team's identity and what you want to achieve, you can create a happy team that is disciplined, works hard for each other, and strives for success.
6. Don't be afraid to innovate
“Most people with my kind of track record don’t look to change. But I always felt I couldn’t afford not to change.”
One of the reasons that Sir Alex was so successful was because he wasn't afraid of change.
Whether that be in terms of playing personnel, team tactics, or modern more scientific approaches to the beautiful game.
While adhering to some key principles such as discipline, hard work, and a win-at-all-costs mentality, Ferguson was happy to innovate and his flexibility and willingness to adapt was what kept him at the top of the game.
As a coach you should always be open to trying new things.
Trying players in new positions, practicing a difficult drill, or trying out a new formation is exactly what training sessions are for.
By switching things up from time to time, you'll keep things fresh and if things work out during practice, you may then have a couple of aces up your sleeve for when your normal tactics aren't coming off in a match.
7. Instil a never give up attitude in your team
“I had to lift players' expectations. They should never give in. I said that to them all the time: "If you give in once, you'll give in twice”.”
The mentality you instil in your players can go a long way in determining whether you manage a successful team or merely a very good one.
By creating a never-say-die attitude where the team refuses to give up and competes right until the end, you'll surely have more good times than bad.
Ferguson's teams never knew when they were beaten and his United players were renowned for snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.
Teams used to sit back and drop deeper as they knew the inevitable United onslaught was about to come and this all came about from Sir Alex having instilled a never give up attitude amongst his players.
While it’s fine to lose from time to time, the important thing is that your players have given their all and done everything possible to win the game.
With this competitive attitude, your opponents will never fancy playing against you as they know that they'll always be in for a tough match.
8. Learn from defeat and bounce back stronger
“The experience of defeat, or more particularly the manner in which a leader reacts to it, is an essential part of what makes a winner.”
All coaches must know how to react in defeat.
Do you criticise the team for their performance, accept that the better team won on the day, or encourage your team to learn from their mistakes and try and improve?
You know the answer.
Reacting to setbacks is a key part of soccer management and it’s important that you get your words right when speaking to the team after the defeat.
Criticising them when they have given their all can be demoralising and so it is up to you to analyse the performance, see what went wrong, and then calmly explain to the players how to improve for next time.
While it can be frustrating to lose a game, it can set you in great stead for the season ahead if you use it to your advantage and help the team learn from their mistakes.
9. Figure out the basics
“If you can assemble a team of 11 talented players who concentrate intently during training sessions, take care of their diet and bodies, get enough sleep and show up on time, then you are almost halfway to winning a trophy. It is always astonishing how many clubs are incapable of doing this.'”
In youth soccer, it is incredible how far simply doing the basics can take you.
By working on the team's fitness and encouraging them to turn up to every training session, you'll already be better than most teams in your league.
By getting the basics right, you'll set yourself up for success and this will snowball into even better performances and results as the players gain motivation and are energised from seeing all their hard work pay off.
No matter how talented a team or player is, if they don't prepare well, don't train, and aren't fit, then they’re going to have problems.
Consequently, if you're fitter and more prepared than your opposition, then you will greatly improve your chances of winning the game.
10. Encourage players to act responsibly
“With young people you have to try to impart a sense of responsibility. If they can add greater awareness to their energy and their talents they can be rewarded with great careers.”
This lesson not only applies to soccer, but to life in general.
It’s important to remember that as their coach and a person of authority, you are also partially responsible for them growing up to be well adjusted young adults.
By encouraging your players to act responsibly, you help make sure that they turn up to training sessions at the right time, bring the right gear with them, and are in the right state of mind and physical condition to give their all for the team.
By holding them accountable for their actions, you also help them learn how to be responsible.
Give them tasks during training to help you set up drills or improve their leadership skills by letting them run different parts of the session.
When you trust a youth player and give them responsibility, most of the time you'll find they embrace the challenge and enjoy your faith in them.
11. Always keep learning
“Watching others, listening to their advice, and reading about people are three of the best things I ever did.”
As a manager, Ferguson managed to stay successful for so long because he listened to others, took their advice, and brought in expert assistants to help keep things fresh and add more knowledge.
While you may not be able to bring in a fitness and conditioning coach to help train your U13s, you yourself can learn a lot about a particular soccer topic simply by reading and researching about it.
There are a wealth of useful resources you can find online that will teach you everything there is to know about how to run training sessions, what formations to use, and what type of nutrients your players should look to consume before a match.
By learning from others, watching endless soccer videos online, and consulting with other coaches - you'll learn a lot that will be of use to your team.
This can be another string in your bow and when you add it to all the other lessons we've looked at above, it can you give you that extra something you need to win the league.
12. Plan as much as possible
“Part of the pursuit of excellence involves eliminating as many surprises as possible because life is full of the unexpected.”
As the saying goes…
“Failure to prepare is preparing to fail.”
Whether it’s what the team is going to focus on in the next training session, the route to the weekend's match, or simply always having some back up drills on hand…
You ideally want to plan as much as possible in advance.
This means that your star striker not being available for a match turns into a minor convenience instead of a catastrophe as you've worked out a couple of different ways that the team can play without them.
By preparing well, you'll be ready to face whatever comes your way and never lose your cool when the team faces a setback.
Over a season this will certainly help turn a few losses into draws and draws into wins.
13. Have fun, but remain in control
“You can’t ever lose control - not when you are dealing with 30 top professionals who are all millionaires. And if any players want to take me on, to challenge my authority and control, I deal with them.”
Discipline is key to success.
And while you do want your players to have fun in training, you also need to make sure that you retain your control and authority over the team.
While you’re unlikely to have too many child millionaires in your midst, teenagers may be even worse in terms of acting out in that respect!
As with everything, you want to treat them with respect, set clear boundaries, and let them know when a line has been crossed and their behaviour is unacceptable.
Having clearly laid out rules goes a long way to helping you retain control.
One thing that is important to bear in mind is that they might have things going on away from the pitch which is causing them to act out, so it’s well worth investing in your relationship with them so that you can always support them in whatever they're going through.
While this is the right thing to do, this will also help you to win their respect, trust, and help you to retain discipline and control in training.
One of the greatest managers of all time, Sir Alex Ferguson has a wealth of wisdom that we can all learn from. After all, there are still Premier League managers who call him from time to time to ask for advice.
Having sustained success for such a long period of time at just one club, Ferguson saw soccer change from decade to decade and had to move with the times if he wanted to remain at the top.
There is so much that aspiring young coaches can learn from him when it comes to soccer.
These 13 lessons are just the tip of the iceberg.