Sean Van Staden
3 minute read
28 Sep 2013
11:00 am

You will never lose an encounter again

Sean Van Staden

Last week I shared four principles or formulas as you wish, for success, by the great Alex Ferguson. Professor Anita Elberse and her students at Harvard Business School took on the mammoth task to try and understand what made Sir Alex the best manager in the world.

Sean van Staden

This week we delve into his final principles, kick-starting with:

Match the Message to the Moment

Communication, according to Sir Alex, is one of the most fundamental aspects of his job. If a player is expecting to start a match and Sir Alex feels that this is not the best decision, he would approach the situation very delicately and above all, in a private manner.

This would not be the time to stamp his authority but rather build his confidence and let him down gently. “No one likes to be criticised. Few people get better with criticism; most respond to encouragement instead, so I try to give encouragement where I could for any human being there is nothing better than hearing ‘Well Done’.”

Sir Alex firmly believes in not waiting to give feedback. Give the feedback right after the game, explain to the team what areas let them down, what tactical errors certain players made and then it is all over.

What he has to say is done and dusted right after a game. Next training session is next training session and not an opportunity to carry over past burdens.

Prepare to Win

In the past 10 seasons, Manchester United had a better record when tied at halftime and when tied with 15 minutes left to play, and a better record than any other club in the English Premier League, as Professors Elberse research data highlighted.

There is no luck in Ferguson’s tactics but rather preparing each practice as if it were the last three, five or 10 minutes to go. By preparing for situations like that, players have directions and an action plan to be more successful in tough situations.

The true magic comes when practised plays become autonomic. In the dying minutes of the game, there is so much pressure on a player to perform and to score the winning goal that for most players, they will crack under the pressure.

But when you practice for last minute goals, you almost desensitise the situation and this allows you to perform your job better.

“Winning is in my nature, I am a gambler a risk taker and you can see how we play in the late stages of matches. I am confident in my players and I have to win every time” Ferguson told HBS.

Rely on Power of Observation

“Observation is the final part of my management structure” Ferguson said. He firmly believes in delegating and has done so by passing most of the training sessions to his trusted assistant coaches.

Sir Alex made sure he was always present at each practice but just watched. Switching from coach to observer, allowed him to better evaluate the players and their performances.

Stepping away allowed Sir Alex to view each player and the game in more detail without ceding control because his presence and ability to supervise was always there.

“The ability to see things is key – or, more specifically, the ability to see things you don’t expect to see,” Sir Alex had firmly believed in.

Never Stop Adapting

Sir Alex built a club and firmly entrenched a sense of “never standing still,” always adapting, always improving and keeping ahead of the times.

Ultimately, according to David Gill, he believes that Sir Alex has an unbelievable skill to adapt to change and this skill has helped him mould United through the evolution of football.

Evidence of adaption showed when Ferguson adapted his backroom staff and appointed sports scientists to support the coaches, he installed vitamin D booths in the players’ dressing room in order to compensate for the lack of sunlight.

He also pioneered the use of GPS tracking in each player to give a live report on player performance behaviour.

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