How to Manage a Sports Team

The Comprehensive Coach

A team is defined by the mutual connections between individual players, on and off the court. These connections are forged by successful team management.

A player needs to focus mostly on his own job and his specific assignments within the team. Being a coach is a completely different story – a coach needs to guide that team, which means taking care of each individual and the team as a whole.

Creating and maintaining harmony within the team, building honest relationships between the players and yourself, and being extremely perceptive to everything that is going on with your team – that is what team management is about. But not just that, as we will demonstrate.

Preconditions – trust, knowledge, devotion

Veljko Paunovic U19 Serbia 2015 FIFA Coach

Veljko Paunović, head coach of Serbian U19 National Team who won the 2015 FIFA World Cup | Photo: FSS

The main task of a coach is to gain the trust of players, which is a prerequisite for everything that follows. Veljko Paunovic, a coach who became world champion with the Serbian U20 national football team in 2015, says it’s all about the values that a coach is trying to instil in his players.

“Love for the game has to be visible in every move a coach makes. He needs to be hardworking and passionate about details. Enthusiasm, mutual respect, responsibility, tolerance – those are the values I am trying to bring to my teams. Once the players recognise those values, they will start to resemble their coach in a way and, consequently, they will be ready to do whatever it takes on the pitch,” explains Paunovic, who is currently head coach of the Chicago Fire (Major League Soccer).

More experienced coaches have a lot of credibility with a team from the outset, due to their previous work, while younger coaches need more time to establish their ideas and prove their methods successful. However, it is necessary for every coach to possess knowledge of the game – at every moment the players have to be aware that their coach knows more than them.

“You always need to be ready; there can’t be a question to which you do not have an answer,” underlines Marina Maljkovic, a basketball coach and bronze medallist with Serbia at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Just like Paunovic, she emphasises the devotion a coach needs to show in order to manage the group in the right way.

Marina Maljkovic Coach Basketball Serbia

Marina Maljković, prolific Serbian women’s basketball coach | Photo: Serbian Olympic Committee

“I ask my players to give their all, so a coach has to give something in return – she needs to possess a great amount of energy and to be dedicated in even the smallest of things. Also, it is an imperative for the coach to be a leader and to show who is in charge – a firm hand must exist,” adds Maljkovic.

It is true that a firm hand is required, but just like any other good boss, a coach can’t afford to be a tyrant – on the other hand, it is not desirable for her to become too close to the players. Finding a balance usually leads to the form of relationship that is most suited to achieving team goals.

“A coach is constantly between two extremes – on the one hand, you are a general and the player is a soldier, while on the other hand you need to truly love your players, doing a good job is impossible without that – which means caring about the person, wanting them to be fulfilled in every aspect of their life (social, love…). Of course, that kind of relationship includes a lot of emotion. When a player feels both sides of a coach, that is the real deal and that is the balance we are talking about,” explains Maljkovic.

Communication methods

Communication with players is a fundamental part of coaching – be that at training, during a match or off the court. Being direct is the first thing that almost all coaches would mention, but that does not mean being brutally honest.

“Honesty does not mean you should say everything that comes to your mind – a coach has to be able to interact with the players openly, but in a way that will make the player go in the right direction,” explains Paunovic, adding:

“A coach does not only communicate verbally with the players, but also with body language, mimics, gestures – a player has to get a lot of information just by looking in the eyes of a coach, without a word spoken.”

If a coach is dedicated enough, then he is able to see every single thing that is going on – the needs of every player and the needs of the team. With that knowledge, a coach chooses the most appropriate way to deal with a specific situation.

“For example, sometimes I send my assistant to give an instruction to a certain player. I know that if I had gone to her and said the same thing, she would have just started to cry and we would not have accomplished anything. But the message through the assistant will hit the mark – she still knows it is my message, but she is getting it from a person who is perhaps closer to her,” says Maljkovic.

Nonverbal communication

Novak Djokovic Tennis Serbia

Novak’s glance towards his player’s box is worth a thousand words | Photo: Serbian Olympic Committee

Tennis is one of the sports where gestures and mimics are crucial to communication between player and coach, given that it forbidden for them to exchange words during matches. You can often see Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, for instance, turning their heads towards their boxes seeking encouragement, reassurance, calmness…

A coach has to emanate these sentiments, so that one look in the eyes gives a player the much-needed extra energy.

Of course, every coach prefers to handle things in person, but experience has taught them that sometimes you have to be cleverer than that – we have seen that in Marina’s example, but Paunovic has also found himself in similar situations numerous times.

“It depends on the thing in question, but you can communicate with a player via the captain or assistant, sometimes even via physiotherapists.

For instance, if a player does not have the right attitude in practice or is often late, you try to alert him through the captain or an assistant. If that does not work, you talk to him in person,” says Paunovic, adding:

“If it still does not change, you warn him in front of the group, because the other players have noticed his behaviour and you can’t allow team harmony to be disrupted. The last step is criticising the player publicly, in the media – I have never done that, but there are coaches who have.”

The bottom line is that it is essential for a coach to be highly perceptive with regard to their team – to see, hear and follow everything; to notice even minor changes. In short, to know the state of their players at all times – then it is somewhat easier to choose the most convenient ways to approach them.

“Easier” does not mean it is a piece of cake – it is in fact just one of the many opportunities where a coach has to demonstrate his abilities as a psychologist.

“Psychology is changing daily and a coach has to apply it all the time. When a top coach enters the gym, the whole room needs to vibrate; her presence must be felt. You can’t be a psychologist occasionally: ‘I have a problem, let’s now be a psychologist’. No, you have to be a psychologist in every conversation with the players, in every word you say during practice and in the tone of every word you say,” clarifies Maljkovic.

Buidling team spirit

There have been examples in the past when great results were accomplished even though teams had not been as unified as they should have been. Naturally, there are a lot more examples of the opposite – teams not being able to fulfil their potential because of mismanaged relationships within the group.

Aleksandar Djordjevic, head coach of Serbia’s national basketball team, often underlines that the “best team is not made of the 12 best individuals, but of the 12 players that work best as a team”.

A crucial part of “working as a team” is having a harmonious atmosphere where the players are happy with their roles and are compatible with each other on a personal level. That is why the story of a good atmosphere starts from the very beginning – the selection.

“Choosing the right players is the foundation for great relationships within the team – players mostly do not know each other, so a coach has to be able to evaluate which players will fit in with one another, not just basketball-wise, but as personalities as well. When imagining his future team, a coach has to see the synergy and chemistry,” highlights Maljkovic, who is also coach at Turkish club Galatasaray.

Furthermore, a coach needs to select players who are coherent with their philosophy, values and character, so that conflict does not arise when the first obstacles present themselves – infusing those ideals is particularly important when a coach does not get to choose all of their players, when they take over a team mid-season or do not have enough resources to make the changes they deem required.

“Every player feels that he should be in the starting line-up, but they will come to terms with their status as long as the coach treats everyone fairly. When the player looks at the situation from a broader perspective, he realises whether the coach is fair or not – if he is, there is no problem for team spirit. Of course, results are just as important – as long as there are wins, the locker room won’t allow someone to rattle the peace,” explains Paunovic.

Preseason is the key for chemistry

There are different teambuilding methods, but Maljkovic thinks the main part should be done prior to the start of a season.

“I have been with Galatasaray in Belgrade during preseason and the change of scenery is useful for team chemistry. Players are put in everyday circumstances, basically living with each other. There is less room for that later on, but it can be productive if we go as a team to dinner, a movie or a concert in the important part of the season – four times a season is more than enough for something like that, in my experience.”

On the same note, Liverpol manager Jurgen Klopp recently showed what it means to be “fair” – he publicly praised striker Danny Ings, who did not get to see a lot of first team action this season.

“It is not the easiest thing when a player works really hard and is then not involved, so, of course, you want to give the player something back for the unrest. It is not always possible – but as soon as it is possible, I will pay back,” said Klopp, proving himself to be a wonderful pedagogue yet again.

Maljkovic says that she “feels obliged” to give someone a chance if she is working really well at training.

“It is good for that specific player, but for the group as well – it is a demonstration of how hard work is rewarded,” suggests Maljkovic, while Paunovic shares a similar approach.

“When journalists asked me after winning the World Cup who I was most impressed with, I answered: ‘Radovan Pankov’. He did not play a single minute, but he never complained or showed with even one gesture that he was bothered by his status. He was part of the squad in the true sense of the word,” says Paunovic, adding:

“It is of utmost importance that a coach has enough energy and patience for everyone. For instance, the day after the match, those who played have a recovery session and those who did not compensate – I am with the latter, correcting and suggesting, just like I do with the first-choice players.”

No matter how hard you try, disputes will inevitably emerge sooner or later. This is perfectly normal for a group spending so much time together, but the real question is: how to deal with the situation when two or more players are in conflict?

“The key thing is not to wait for a problem to escalate – you need to gather as much information as possible and address it instantly,” Paunovic elaborates his strategy, adding:

“But the issue does not have to be between the players – if the problem is being manifested in the locker room, it does not mean it has its roots there. A player could be having problems with his parents, going through a divorce, having troubles with his surroundings… When you know the nature of the concern, you will know how to tackle it.”

Coach Maljkovic agrees that those sorts of troubles have to be met head on.

“It is necessary for all the players involved in a dispute to be present – it is not nice if I talk to one about the other and vice versa. A coach has to look them in the eyes and try to solve a problem through conversation. That kind of meeting can even be arranged without the presence of a coach, who only comes later to kind of confirm it all in a way.”

Serbia Basketball National Team Bronze Olympic Games

Serbian Basketball National Team led by Marina Maljković, winner of the bronze medal at the Olympic Games in Rio, 2016 | Photo: Serbian Olympic Committee

The practice – before, during and after

A coach has to be thorough, and that is particularly true when planning the most important part of a player’s development – training. Coaches usually have a one- or two-week schedule, but they must be ready to accommodate changes due to fatigue from matches, injuries and so forth – this demands a lot of flexibility, creativity and patience.

Paunovic epitomises his approach to training sessions in one sentence that is by now well-known to all of his pupils: “Each practice is a work of art”.

“This means that every practice session is special, with its particular demands. All the schemes and plays are hanging on the boards of our conference hall – then we adapt, we add, we build and we come to a work of art. The match consists of those littles ‘works of art’, it is our masterpiece,” illustrates Paunovic.

Maljkovic also has a rather unique ritual – every training session she has led since February 2007, when she started working with Serbian club Hemofarm, is written on paper.

“I have never left for practice without a specific plan for that session. That programme consists of the drills we are going to do (one, five, six, seven, depending) and for how long – every drill has its description in writing and as a drawing. As I think about basketball 24 hours a day, there are a lot of ideas that I have drawn while travelling by plane, for example, or on a napkin while eating at a restaurant.”

These exercises are not set in stone – as Maljkovic says herself, she changes something during practice “a thousand times”, but she always writes those changes down so that she can remember what the idea behind it was.

“You can’t just go through the motions; a coach has to lead and control the session – you have to feel the team and adapt, depending on the state of your players. If I have planned for practice to last 90 minutes and I notice my players are not focused, I must know how to get it done in 60 minutes and still be satisfied and execute the plan. The opposite is true as well – I can make a session last 15 minutes longer if players are working extremely well or I can reward them with a shorter session if they managed to fulfill the agenda sooner than anticipated.”

Those 60 or 90 minutes are the duration of a training session for the players – for coaches, however, practice lasts much longer.

“My staff and I are at the training centre two or three hours before practice – we need to have enough time to discuss the upcoming practice and consult with the physios and doctors about the state of the players. At the start of the practice we play a video, if needed, and then we start the exercises,” says Paunovic, continuing:

“We make adjustments within the drills all the time, but once we’re on the pitch we can’t afford to lose any time, everything must be precisely as planned – that requires discipline and organisation, so that we can meet our requirements within the envisaged period of time.”

Motivation – one spot

“There are one, two or three minutes before every training session or match that serve as a motivational boost. There is not one specific formula – you decide what your speech is about based on the current situation, but you always need to have that one spot, one nerve you are targeting,” says Paunovic, explaining one of his own methods.

Practice is the place where all the capacities of a coach come into play – they have to reveal themselves as a complete person.

“Sport is a polygon for all the sciences. You have to know the basics of almost everything – maths, physics, psychology… For example, when you have a player whose glucose level is dropping often, the chemist inside you wonders: ‘Why is this happening?’ Of course, you have to surround yourself with experts from all of those fields, but a coach must know the rudiments in order to detect a problem.”

When practice is over, it actually isn’t.

“Every practice session is recorded with one or several cameras – we analyse to see if we made any mistakes or we simply take a closer look at individual players. It is a holistic approach to every session – we process as much information as possible and then we focus on the most significant,” concludes Paunovic.

Managing a group of people, especially in sports, is a complicated venture – a “holistic approach”, the phrase used by Veljko, describes it best.

As shown, a coach has to be a talented, hardworking, charismatic and creative person, with great social skills, in order to have all the angles covered at all times.

Marina Maljkovic Bronze Medal Olympics Celebration

Basketball Team of Serbia celebrates bronze in Rio | Photo: Serbian Olympic Committee