The Importance of Man Management in Coaching
By Ronan O Rourke on January 5, 2017

There is an element of coaching that goes far beyond what any course or license could teach an aspiring practitioner. It is an aspect that one either absolutely loves, or perhaps thinks it is the most frustrating and abstract element of coaching education. I am of course talking about man management. 

You could learn absolute everything there is to know about the nuts and bolts of coaching your sport but if you do not have a grasp on this very particular skill, then the chances are rather high that you will not be as successful as your knowledge deserves.

“I’d say handling people is the most important thing you can do as a coach. I’ve found every time I’ve gotten into trouble with a player, it’s because I wasn’t talking to him enough.”

– Lou Holtz, American Football Coach

The term "man management" is most frequently used in European soccer circles but the principles apply all over the world. Former Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi described it as "people management." The concept fits in seamlessly with the common terms of the Euro region. To North American readers, I imagine the hierarchy of a typical soccer team coaching structure may seem a little confusing on the surface. The head coach of most soccer teams is usually called the manager. The reason for this is that somewhere along the line it was deemed that the term "Manager" more appropriately described the all encompassing nature of the role. As we all know though, a head coach is never just a coach.

Man management in a general sense has been defined as follows by the Collins Online Dictionary:

"The control and organization of people who work in a business or organization." 

This definition applies fairly well to how the term is used in sporting circles as well. Essentially man management boils down to how well managers or coaches deal with the personalities and egos of their players to keep the ticking time bomb from exploding which it inevitably will if the coach allows things to get out of hand.

“Coaching is people management- getting people to do what you want them to do and like doing it”

-Vince Lombardi

The very best man managers actually often do very little of the managing themselves. If the correct leadership structure is in place then all the coach needs to do is to approach the right person for the particular task at hand. For example, quite often you will come across a player who won't truly listen to anything a coach tells them. You could label this as youthful stubbornness if you like. In this situation the player wants to do his best but a rebellious streak is holding them back. The coach can then use his captain or one of his leaders to have a word and sort out the issue.

Another essential environment a good man manager must create is mutual trust between themselves and their players. As we have seen frequently, managers don't necessarily have to be well liked but if they don't at least trust or respect their coach then the relationship is bound to become strained. 

Former Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard won the Champions League in 2005 and hit the form of his life in the years under manager Rafa Benitez. However, Gerrard revealed in his autobiography that there wasn't much of a relationship between them at all. Benitez, the ultimate tactician, preferred to keep as many of his players at arms length as he could but there can be little doubt that he gets the very best out of most players he works with.

“Our working relationship was ultra-professional and his frostiness drove me to become a better player. I had a hunger to earn a compliment from him — but also a hunger to let him know he really needed me as a player. We were like fire and ice. Passion surged inside me, while Rafa was the strategic thinker.” 

-Steven Gerrard on Rafa Benitez

Despite their frosty relationship, Gerrard trusted Benitez to get the best out of him.

Another brilliant man manager was former USA hockey coach Herb Brooks. Like Benitez by all accounts he kept very distant from his players but that did not limit his success. Brooks engineered what many consider to be the greatest upset of all time when his USA squad topped the Soviet Union at the Lake Placid Olympics in 1980. The quote below from one his former players demonstrates exactly how much of a winner Brooks truly was, win at any cost was his attitude seemingly.

"When he passed away there were hundreds of players at his funeral and every one of them would tell you they'd play for him tomorrow. He was a winner and that's what you play sports for, but candidly, I was afraid of him." 

-Rob McClanahan on Herb Brooks

Brooks kept distant from his players but knew how to win

Do not fear though, there are countless examples of great man managers who are basically universally liked by their players. Former Manchester City and Real Madrid manager Manuel Pellegrini achieved a fairly high degree of success dealing with teams who had plenty of big egos. The same can be said of former England and Lazio boss Sven-Goran Eriksson who was well renowned as a more democratic manager who wanted to hear the opinions of his players before making any big decisions. This style can be equally effective as the more autocratic style for many coaches.

Ranieri achieved the unthinkable with his easy going man management style

Claudio Ranieri had been a highly successful manager for many years but his greatest glory will almost certainly be remembered as guiding Leicester City to the Premier League title last season. He managed an upset comparable with Herb Brooks and his hockey team but using a completely different style of man management.

Current Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp might well be the perfect example of a coach who gets the most of his players through his unique management style. Many players who seemed lost causes under previous regimes have become undroppable with Klopp at the helm most notably Adam Lallana and Dejan Lovren. Anyone who has observed the German on the sidelines knows he has a burning rage inside of him but he is the type of coach who will do absolutely anything for a player willing to work within his system. He is extremely well liked for a very good reason.

Jurgen Klopp's management style has transformed the fortunes of Adam Lallana

Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens also realizes the importance of man management. His success at both the collegiate level and now in the professional ranks especially at such a young age is a testament to his understanding of what is needed to manage the personalities in his locker room. Stevens knows that the best way to manage personalities is to get to know them and understand what they are searching for. He is extremely good at building rapport with his players, another vital quality in top man managers. 

“You must invest in each person and you do so based on, not their needs for attention or their needs for coaching…more so that they understand that you’re trying to figure out their role in the organization and their role to help the team be successful.” 

-Brad Stevens

Another basketball coach, Gregg Popovich, hit the nail on the end with his quote on how he deals with his San Antonio Spurs. He rightly points out that all his players should be treated in the same manner or trouble will soon follow. You cannot expect to create different rules for certain players and not expect there to be some unrest.

"I think being honest with people is great. Somebody's doing well — you tell them they did well. But you need to have the same standards for everyone. You can treat people differently because each one is different, but they all have to march to the same drummer, to the same standards." 

-Gregg Popovich

Like with any profession it is essential to determine what kind of leader you choose to be based on what fits your personality. If you consider yourself a nice or outgoing person it probably makes less sense to be a distant or autocratic man manager. First and foremost though players will react most positively to managers or coaches they respect and trust. Earn those and the task of man managing all of a sudden becomes a much easier proposition. This point is perfectly illustrated by a former player talking about her relationship with legendary basketball coach Pat Summitt. Gain that respect, and everything else will follow.

"Pat and I had a love-hate relationship when I played for her at Tennessee. I had a tremendous work ethic and a passion to play the game like no other, but I was young and tried to do things “my way” while Pat was coaching me “her way.” Regardless of the ways that I drove Pat crazy with my Polish stubbornness, there was never a time I lost respect for her."

-Michelle Marciniak, Former Tennessee Basketball Player

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