You will often hear phrases such as a desire to win or the will to win in football but what do they really mean? And what specifically does it mean for coaches. My personal belief is that a strong desire to win and to succeed is reflected by the level of preparation. It is not too difficult to turn up on a Saturday and say you want to win. Similarly it does not take too much effort to go around a dressing room telling the players that they ‘have’ to win today and that they have to be ‘winners’ in this dressing room. How much you want to succeed as a coach is dictated by the the amount of hard work you put in to maximise the chance of your players and your team being successful. Actions very much speak louder than words.
My aim going into every single game is that I have a clear conscience. I want to be able to look every player in the eye knowing I did everything I possibly could to give them the best possible chance of success. I need to know that I have prepared as thoroughly as I possibly could and be as ready as possible for any eventuality within the game. Once that whistle blows you never know what is going to happen but you can prepare yourself to best support the players and help the team to win the game.
“Preparation is everything. If you get it right, the chances of your team being successful are high. But in a team of human beings nothing is guaranteed.”
Does your preparation reflect the strongest desire to be successful?
Have you done everything possible within your role in order to win the game? In terms of training all sessions should have been as specific and as effective as possible in preparation for the game. Even right from the start of the week. Preparing sessions that fit the playing principles and that are relevant to the upcoming game can take time and effort. There are always far easier options. But the high level of detail, planning, and organisation is what counts when the game starts. If you have coached generically early in the week before focusing in on the game a day or two before have you really prepared as best as you could? My firm belief is that every session should be directly relevant to the philosophy and playing principles. Those principles should not change from game to game but the tactics will alter. So one week you will be coaching those principles to expose certain spaces or to disrupt the opposition shape in one way, and then the following week you will be coaching those principles to disrupt and attack the opposition shape in a slightly different way. This is one of the aspects of the game that I love. The challenge of identifying the best way of winning the game and the subsequent positioning of your players to cause problems for the opposition team. The bottom line for me is and always will be that every game is winnable.
It has always been important for me to know everything I possibly can about the opposition. As a coach I do not want to be surprised or caught out by anything. Whether that be in terms of how the opposition play, the threats they pose from set pieces, the tendencies of the opposition manager in terms of making changes, the timings and type of substitutions, right down to the possibility of an Under 23 player being promoted to the squad. It is always about minimising the grey areas as much as possible. As a coach you only have very limited control but I always want to make sure that any control and influence I do have is maximised. That often means extra hours and long days at the training ground but the outcome is a clear conscience, having done everything possible in the build-up.
The art in the preparation is knowing which information players need, what they need psychologically before a game, and more specifically which players need what. In terms of team meetings in the Premier League a high volume of matches, data, and footage would be filtered down into just 3 meetings for the team. These 3 meetings would be presented at different times and would last no longer than 5-6 minutes. The key is always about removing any ego I may have as a coach and only giving the players exactly what they need in order to maximise their chance of winning the game. I could present meetings twice or even three times as long to show my knowledge and how much I know about the opposition but that is not what the players need. And they are likely to lose concentration if a meeting is too long. They need clarity in terms of what to expect and what is required to win the game. What are the key tactical elements and principles that will give the best possible chance of winning. Also giving them the confidence and belief that they can win the game.
Individually certain players want to know as much as possible about their direct opponent or opponents, some want to know as much as possible about the team in general. Other players actually prefer only to be given limited details or not to be given any information at all. My stance is to be flexible and do whatever works for each player. It is they who have to perform. If an individual performs at his best going into a game confident because he has studied every detail of the opposition then help him to do that. Similarly if another player is confident without that information and performs better with a clear head then support that. I have always tried to be flexible in order to get the best out of each individual. Just as I would be disappointed if I hadn’t prepared thoroughly enough I would also be angry with myself if I had overloaded a player with information and demands if I knew it was the wrong thing for that player. Again I would take it back to a no-excuses policy. As a coach was everything available for players that they could want or need before the game. It is then up to the individuals how they utilise what has been put in place and as a coach for you to support that.
First look post-match should always be internal:
After each game the first thing to analyse should be yourself. Did I prepare as well as I could? Did I work hard enough? Was there anything else I could have done? Earlier on in my career I really struggled with losses. I still hate losing but it is now a more rational hatred of losing whereas before it was just hatred without any balance. Over time the hatred has grown into a desire to understand why it happened and to do everything possible to reduce the chances of it happening again. I have grown to love that process. Not the losing, I am still a terrible loser. But the process of rationalising it, understanding why, and then going forwards positively with that knowledge and experience.
This process has also become a lot more consistent regardless of result. The tendency is to gloss over a win and to delve deeper after a defeat. But sometimes a good result does not reflect a good performance and vice versa. As a coach using the overall performance as the reference point is a much more valuable process than simply the result. It certainly allows you to be more balanced in your views and not to be swayed by either the result or the reaction to the result. I believe it is also important to have this level of consistency with the players. If they have performed really well with lots of positive aspects then make sure they know that, even if they have lost the game. Obviously you want good performances to achieve positive results but sometimes it is just a case of building on those positives and trying to just fine-tune the performance for the next game. Similarly not playing well and winning. Make the players aware of where the performance needs to improve without compromising the confidence that a win brings. If you ignore the poor performance and don’t address any issues then it is less likely that future wins will follow. I am a big believer that consistently good performances will ultimately achieve the necessary results.
The preparation for the next game begins as soon as the game ends as a coach. How you react to the result, how you interact with the players, and what immediate recovery strategies you have in place will have a bearing on the next performance. With experience there are always improvements to be made in all of these areas. The most important thing is to first look at yourself and ask the big question… how much do I want to win and does the preparation I am putting in reflect that. Wanting to win is preparing to win.