7 Leadership Lessons The World's Best Managers Use To Improve Their Clubs During The Offseason

Use the offseason to build on what worked, introduce new ideas and prepare for the coming season with these seven leadership lessons.

The dead of winter marks the offseason for most soccer players in America, but that doesn’t mean the time for setting goals and striving for improvement is at an end. Between the end of one season and the next preseason marks an important period for reflection, planning and taking the first steps towards a memorable new year. 

Building on advice from some of the world’s top managers, we look at seven different areas you can focus on during the offseason to take yourself and your club to the next level.   

#1. Building A Family Atmosphere

"Nothing is as important as family." – Carlo Ancelotti

Whether you’re just getting started in a job as club manager or approaching your 10th year in the same position, it isn't wise to approach a challenge without first ensuring that every member of your team is in the boat, so to speak. 

When legendary Italian manager Carlo Ancelotti took over at Paris Saint-Germain in 2011 after successful spells with the likes of Roma, Milan and Chelsea, he first set about executing his extremely particular ideas about team chemistry and the cultivation of a "family atmosphere" throughout the club. He was charged with taking PSG to the next level after the arrival of new ownership, and his actions built the foundations upon which the club stands today.

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Legendary Italian manager Carlo Ancelotti.

“I knew from my time in Milan how important it was for the players to have meals together, to help form a tighter unit,” Ancelotti said in the book Quiet Leadership. “I wanted to bring the family environment I knew so well from Milan to Paris, and mealtimes are an important part of family life. This is how I like the culture of the club to be and I consider the family atmosphere fundamental to success. 

“From the manager to the kit man, everyone needs to be part of this family and to work towards the shared objectives. The key to the success of any organization is to align the whole family in the same direction…It is my job to make sure that the family values, whatever they might be, are honored and respected.”

In Ancelotti’s method, you’re reminded of John F. Kennedy’s famous 1961 visit to NASA, when he introduced himself to a janitor and asked what he did at the agency. “I’m helping put a man on the moon!” replied the janitor. 

Everyone needs to be aware of their role and the vital contribution they're making to the shared objectives of the club. The offseason is the perfect time to reinforce those objectives and to get everyone rowing in the same direction. 

When others see your focus and your single-minded approach to working within these shared family values, that’s when a synergy forms and the total effect of your club is greater than the sum of its individual contributions.   

“Once your team knows you are batting for them, they will accept your way,” legendary Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson told the Harvard Business Review. “You’re really fostering a sense of family. If you give young people your attention and an opportunity to succeed, it’s amazing how much they will surprise you.”

Whether it’s through meals, small group meetings and discourse, preseason trips or other team building exercises, it’s vital to function as a group with everyone contributing their strengths and moving outside their respective comfort zones.

“As a club, we have an educational purpose: to give to those people who love Arsenal so that they learn moral values from our game and how we behave,” Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger told Sportmail. “I believe in work, in connections between the players, I think what makes football great is that it is a team sport. It is the team ethic that interests me, always.”

#2. Use The Hiring Process To Create And/Or Reinforce Club Culture

“A manager is a guide. He takes a group of people and says, ‘With you I can make us a success; I can show you the way.'" – Arsene Wenger

If you need to make adjustments to your staff in the offseason or bring on some new people, it’s the opportune time to either match those hires to a new direction you’re taking or to uphold and maintain the standard you’ve already set at your club. 

“When hiring leaders it is essential that the people hiring them know exactly the role they want the new leader to play — is it to maintain the culture or to create a new one? Interestingly, it is said that Sir Alex Ferguson was hired to revive a culture that had waned at Manchester United,” remarks Ancelotti. “Having done so, he maintained his success by constantly reinforcing the culture, continually referencing the history and tradition of the club.”

Ferguson was one leader who always dared to rebuild. The Scotsman wanted to inspire those around him to reach his level with regards to the passion he displayed day in, day out and so he recruited “bad losers” and created a contagious atmosphere where not giving your all was unacceptable in the eyes of coworkers. 

Soccer Offseason Training

The great Sir Alex Ferguson. Photo: @JayBallYeg | Twitter

“Everything we did was about maintaining the standards we had set as a football club — this applied to all my team building and all my team preparation, motivational talks and tactical talks,” Ferguson said. “The job of a manager, like that of a teacher, is to inspire people to be better. Give them better technical skills, make them winners, make them better people, and they can go anywhere in life.”

Ferguson recollects how he used to be the first to arrive every morning at Manchester United’s Carrington training ground, but in his later years, arriving at 7 AM meant that the center would already be hard at work. “I think they understood why I came in early,” Ferguson said. “They knew there was a job to be done. There was a feeling that ‘If he can do it, then I can do it.’”

People skills are the most important part of the job. You have to have the knowledge and the required expertise of your field, but these skills coupled with effective communication will make those hires exceed even your highest expectations.

If improving the lines of communication at your club is one of your priorities for 2018, the TeamSnap app offers customizable roster contact information, unparalleled communication software and streamlined club or league administration tools. 

#3. Nurture A Team-First Mindset 

“We have to understand that eleven men chasing an objective is completely different from one man doing it.” – Jose Mourinho

When Jose Mourinho first took over at Porto following extensive time as an assistant under Bobby Robson and Louis van Gaal, the 39-year-old’s training methods, polished philosophy and high press were a revelation. He placed a special emphasis on eliminating the barriers between the first team and the reserves, making every player accountable for the fact that their chance could be handed to them at any moment.

Mourinho’s immaculate 90-minute sessions saw him heralded as the finest coach on the planet, and he did it by turning training into the source of motivation as opposed to match day. 

“Fitness, agility and tactical training are all parts of a single activity called training,” Mourinho once declared. “There are no separate types of training, every single activity contributes to the final objective…The basic methodological concepts must be instilled in both the elite and the base. At Porto I regularly met with the youth and reserve team directors to explain exactly how all the different teams should play. That way no player gets lost when making the step up. Everything is already trained into his mind.” 

Soccer Offseason Training

Legendary Portuguese manager Jose Mourinho. Photo: @BigFootballGB | Twitter

After six years as an assistant, Mourinho stepped into management knowing exactly what was at the base of determining Porto’s success over the coming years and that was establishing a club-first mindset from top to bottom. He fostered relationships with every employee and player at the club, knowing the success of the whole depended on the understanding of each individual. Mourinho’s own understanding of this principle is mirrored in Ferguson’s recollections on his first days at United. 

“I thought of only one thing: building a football club,” recalls Ferguson. “I wanted to build right from the bottom. That was in order to create fluency and a continuity of supply to the first team. With this approach, the players all grow up together, producing a bond that, in turn, creates a spirit…winning a game is only a short-term gain — you can lose the next game. Building a club brings stability and consistency.

“The long-term view of the club is more important than any individual, and the manager has to be the most important one in the club…You can complicate your life in many ways by asking, ‘Oh, I wonder if the players like me?’ If I did my job well, the players would respect me, and that’s all you need.”

Ferguson steered away from criticism, regardless of how infamous his “hairdryer treatment” of players had become. According to the manager, there are two simple forms of encouragement that always worked in his career: 1. Telling players “Well done.” - “These are the two best words ever invented.” 2. Referring to working-class principles — i.e. telling players how far they’ve come and that nothing is more important than trusting in one another.

Building the character of the team and enhancing the pride of those involved is the job of the manager. It can sometimes require playing different roles than the one you’ve signed up for, but the needs of the club outweigh all else. 

#4. Hone Your Club’s Philosophy

“Ego is the source of the majority of a team’s problems.” – Pep Guardiola

Amidst the constant striving and growth we experience in football, the obtainment of perfection remains as obstinate as ever. It’s a simple game with innumerable complexities, and that’s what keeps us working and striving towards those unreachable heights. There’s perhaps no higher sanctified ground than your club’s guiding principles, but you must wage a daily assault on those tenets if you’re realistically hoping to improve your methods.  

“My greatest worry is the team,” says Mourinho. “The collective effort. I have no idea where the physical aspect ends and the tactical/psychological aspect begins, but football encaptures both. I can’t separate the two, but what I can say is that football is not all about the physical aspect, it’s about much more than that.

"In the grand scheme of things, the physical aspect is probably the least important element. Without organization and a talent in exploring the different tactical models of the game, your weaknesses quickly become apparent.”

Accordingly, you should be prepared to make this a focus from day one. Having a style of play — a philosophy or set of principles that provides organization and clarity to the team — is of the utmost importance. Be prepared, from the beginning, to hammer home this ideology. 

Nothing should ever interfere with your team’s principles or with the system you’ve entrusted to your players, regardless of the opposition's strengths and weaknesses. From this need for discipline and understanding comes a motivation that stems from belief, and that’s crucial to successfully implementing your philosophy.

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Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp.

“I know what I want,” says Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp. “First I need to talk to the players to find a common way. We will find that and who wants to do what I propose…You have to change from doubter to believer.”

That process, in earnest, should begin now and continue every day.

#5. Make The Mantra “Practice Like You Play” A Reality

“If you give in once, you’ll give in twice.” – Sir Alex Ferguson

If you’re searching for a golden thread between Jose Mourinho, Pep Guardiola and Sir Alex Ferguson, look no further than their insistence on immaculate training sessions. For the three, what happened on Saturday was largely of little importance — or at least extremely predictable/explainable — compared to what was worked on during training throughout the week. 

“We never allowed a bad training session,” says Ferguson. “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.”

Compare this to Guardiola’s views on training:

“You play at the rhythm you train at. In the match it’s down to each player to do the right thing tactically but the team’s rhythm depends on the training they have done. If you train badly, you play badly. If you work like a beast in training, you play the same way.” 

Soccer Offseason Training

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola. Photo: @BBCRMcity | Twitter

All three managers put an emphasis on dynamic sessions that focused on the present — not an opponent weeks down the line — and preparing for any given match situation. Ferguson would regularly train players under the conditions of needing a goal with 10, five or three minutes remaining in a match. Knowing what it took to be successful in those situations was a large part of why United accomplished so much under Ferguson when the going got tough.

“The message is simple: we cannot sit still at this club,” Ferguson said. “I think all my teams had perseverance — they never gave in. So I didn’t really need to worry about getting that message across. It’s a fantastic characteristic to have, and it is amazing to see what can happen in the dying seconds of a match.”

Mourinho puts an emphasis on loving and knowing what to do with the ball. According to Mourinho, winning the initiative for a dangerous attack stems from clearly defining player roles, from ensuring that players know what to do with the ball once they win it back. And so the training focus is mirrored in this belief while other activities take a backseat.

“Have you ever seen a pianist run around his piano before sitting down to unleash a masterpiece?” asks Mourinho. “In our methodology we don’t send them on laps around the pitch either.” 

Working to make your training sessions more efficient, more effective and more like match days comes from a desire to never be satisfied with where you’re at. It takes diligent preparation and meticulous planning, all of which should start now. 

“We have to work every single day as if we’d won nothing — as if we’re starting from zero,” says Pep Guardiola. “Mistakes come when you relax, if you lose focus when you pass the ball, or receive it, or press for it. It’s when you think everything’s done.”

If you want to ensure the best training sessions for your club, the TeamSnap app is a great place to start. With TeamSnap, you'll immediately have access to roster information, including who can make the day's session, you'll be able to communicate with your team at the push of a button and you can sort out all the logistics well in advance.

#6. Take Time To Observe

“This is a great club because of many, many great decisions in the past. Now we have to work in the present.” – Jurgen Klopp

Chances are, if you go full steam ahead on the five points above, you’ll achieve a lot while simultaneously driving yourself insane on a crusade that no one person can actually accomplish. If you’re fully immersed on the field, you certainly don’t see everything going on around it.

Transitioning from an entirely hands-on approach to that of a regular observer allows you to spot changes and patterns that you would’ve missed before. Delegating direct supervision to others and trusting them to do their job results in a massive advancement with regards to your own personal knowledge of the club.

“What you can pick up by watching is incredibly valuable," says Ferguson. "Once I stepped out of the bubble, I became more aware of a range of details, and my performance level jumped. Seeing a change in a player’s habits or a sudden dip in his enthusiasm allowed me to go further with him: Is it family problems? Is he struggling financially? Is he tired? What kind of mood is he in? Sometimes I could even tell that a player was injured when he thought he was fine.

"I don’t think many people fully understand the value of observing. I came to see observation as a critical part of my management skills. The ability to see things is key — or, more specifically, the ability to see things you don’t expect to see.”

Evaluate your performances last season and ask how you can improve and how you can strive towards your best. Accept what you’ve accomplished, look back on the struggles and be honest with your approach. Attack the offseason with a structured plan.

  • Set performance goals and have a vision of how you want to improve — write it down for clarity.
  • With intention spelled out, the following action will serve to highlight focus, inspire drive and create lasting enthusiasm.
  • Surround yourself with positivity. Cut out negativity and energy-sapping habits while fine-tuning your approach with an emphasis on what's working.

#7. Accept Change Forever

“I believe the target of anything in life should be to do it so well that it becomes an art.” – Arsene Wenger

The mind boggles when looking at the longevity of managers like Sir Alex Ferguson (26 years with Man United) and Arsene Wenger (21 years with Arsenal), but the two have long outlasted the competition primarily because of their phenomenal ability to adapt to the times. 

“One of the things I’ve done well over the years is manage change," Ferguson said. "I believe that you control change by accepting it. That also means having confidence in the people you hire. The minute staff members are employed, you have to trust that they are doing their jobs. If you micromanage and tell people what to do, there is no point in hiring them.

"The most important thing is to not stagnate. Most people with my kind of track record don’t look to change. But I always felt I couldn’t afford not to change. We had to be successful — there was no other option for me — I would explore any means of improving. I continued to work hard. I treated every success as my first. My job was to give us the best possible chance of winning. That is what drove me.”

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Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger.

For Arsene Wenger, the need for change stems from motivation. If a person is motivated to achieve a goal, they'll prove capable of recruiting the resources needed to reach it. While the levels are always changing and new methods are always being introduced, it remains a matter of motivation, goal setting and innovation to reach your targets. Naturally, this will invoke change. 

For coaches, managers and clubs that want to spend more time doing and less time organizing, get started for free with TeamSnap and join thousands of other soccer enthusiasts who put the game first.

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