If you’re a coach in the higher levels of sports – or aspiring to get there some day – Leading: Learning from Life and My Years at Manchester United by Alex Ferguson and Michael Moritz is worth reading. Basically, it’s Ferguson sharing his thoughts and experiences about a number of different things (13 chapters with multiple sections). Nominally, it’s a general leadership book rather than a coach’s bio. I think it’s more the latter, though, which works for me.

Ferguson covers a lot of ground. Here are some of the quotes that grabbed my attention.

On being observant – “Most people don’t use their eyes and ears effectively. They aren’t very observant and they fail to listen intently. As a result, they miss half of what is going on around them. I can think of some managers who could talk under water. I don’t think it helps them. There’s a reason that God gave us two ears, two eyes and one mouth. It’s so you can listen and watch twice as much as you talk. Best of all, listening costs you nothing.” (See also The more you talk, the less they train.)

On being able to step back – “When you are a step removed from the fray, you see things that come as surprises–and it is important to allow yourself to be surprised. If you are in the middle of a training session with a whistle in your mouth, your entire focus is on the ball. When I stepped back and watched from the sidelines, my field of view was widened and I could absorb the whole session, as well as pick up on players’ moods, energy and habits. This was one of the most valuable lessons of my career and I’m glad that I received it more than 30 years ago.”

On scouting reports to players“We’d show a short, condensed video of the opponents to the players before we practised and then, at the hotel, on the evening of the game, we’d centre their attention on the things they needed to pay heed to. We kept these videos short because most players, especially the young ones, have limited attention spans. I always liked to dwell on an opponent’s weaknesses rather than its strengths. While it was good to look at video of some of the lethal players we would find ourselves up against, ultimately no battles are won by mounting a sterling defence. The way to win battles, wars and games is by attacking and overrunning the opposing side.” (See also Thoughts on opponent scouting.)

On letting the players play“I made a habit of never going around issuing reminders to individual players. It just plants the seeds of doubt in their minds and they are left wondering whether the manager trusts them. Similarly, I never felt it made any sense to be perpetually barking instructions at players during games. If you have to resort to that, it means that you have not prepared or communicated your plan correctly, or you do not trust the players to do what they are supposed to do. Either shortcoming reflects more poorly on the manager than the players.” (See also My three principles for how my teams play.)

On taking over a team“There is no point suddenly changing routines that players are comfortable with. It is counterproductive, saps morale and immediately provokes players to question the new man’s motives. A leader who arrives in a new setting, or inherits a big role, needs to curb the impulse to display his manhood.”

There are several more I could share, but I think this is enough. If you read the book, I’m sure you’ll find plenty of your own.

By the way, you may also find this Ferguson-related post interesting as well.

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John Forman
John Forman

John is currently the Men's & Women's Head Volleyball Coach at Medaille College, as well as Global Director for Volleyball for Nation Academy (formerly Charleston Academy). His previous experience includes the college and university level in the US and UK, professional coaching in Sweden, and both coaching and club management at the Juniors level. Learn more on his bio page.

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