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Insights From Wenger: My Life and Lessons In Red and White (#40)

I really love reading autobiographies of sports coaches because they have to manage egotistical millionaire celebrities while dealing with a lot of pressure in the public eye. It’s leadership and management at it’s highest level (besides military - where it’s life or death).

Wenger: My Life and Lessons In Red And White is on my childhood idol and my favorite sports coach/exec of all time, Arsene Wenger. For my non-soccer-loving American friends - he’s the European version of Billy Beane from Moneyball. He’s known for developing world-class players like Thierry Henry and George Weah (current president of Liberia). 

In addition, he’s the only coach to go unbeaten in a single season in the Premier League, managed the most games in the English Premier League, and qualified for the Champions League 20 years in a row (“the playoffs”), while operating on a lower expense budget that many of his peers. 

This is an interesting hybrid of a business and sports book, would definitely urge you to read if you’ve followed European soccer for the past 5-10 years and are into business. There are some really good tried and tested management insights (in his words).

Time To Read - 6 Minutes 

How To Have A Flawless Year And Accomplish Pie In The Sky Goals

    • I’d always thought a manager’s ultimate goal was to win a championship without losing a match. It was a kind of obsession I carried around with me. 
    • When setting lofty objectives, it takes time and patience for them to become fixed in people’s minds. 
    • The team that had finished 2nd in the league the previous year, was the same exact team that would go the whole season undefeated.
    • That has always been a lesson for me: believing and setting the highest ambitions, sowing the seeds one year and harvesting 2 years later.

    Daring To Dream and Accomplishing Your Dreams

    • You must retain your childlike soul, and never lose sight of your dreams. 
    • What are they: what do you need technically to make them come true?
    • Discard any negative ideas that might prevent you from getting there and above all commit completely

    Instilling A Performance Culture

    • It’s also important to instill a performance culture - a culture that requires the leader and the players to ask themselves the fundamental questions:
    • How can I get better?
    • Have I achieved my full potential?
    • What can I do to get there?
      • One of the things we did to consolidate our values and reinforce the group feeling was to work together before the start of each season to put in place a kind of written constitution.
        •  We divided the players into groups of 5 and got them to write down what they thought was important about how they played and how they behaved. 
      • By writing this constitution with the whole club every season, we created an idea of our shared values, clarified what we expected of each person, and became more united. 

      The Daily Grind

      • For 35 years, I lived like a top athlete, obsessed by my passion. 
        • I didn’t go to the theater or cinema. I neglected those around me. 
        • I didn’t miss a single match which meant living with an iron discipline.
      • Freedom is the discipline you impose on yourself
        • I start my day with an hour and a half in the gym, without exception even Saturday and Sunday.
        • This iron discipline, I have to acknowledge, helps me maintain my energy levels and stay in shape.
      • For all those years, all I wanted was to win. 
      • I did not see beauty or pleasure or relaxation. The idea of taking holidays, having a good time, never occurred to me, or hardly ever. 
      • If happiness is liking the life one lives, I can say I have been happy, and still am.

      Winning People Over With Action

      • I’ve always tried to stick to the principle that a leader should above all embody the values that he holds.
      • Once I started my 1st coaching gig at Nancy, I committed myself totally to the club for the 3 years I spent there. 
        • And I managed to win players over by being committed, by being demanding, sometimes by being severe, too. 

      Talking With Your Players

      • The coach’s role is to make the player understand everything that serves the interests of the game. 
        • To do this, he must speak to the child within the player, to the adolescent he was, and the adult he is now. 
        • Too often a coach tends only to speak to the adult, issuing commands for performance, victory, reflection, to the detriment of the child who is playing for pleasure, living in the present. 
      • If the coach has a good bond with the best players, that makes him stronger. 
      • He should keep 2-way communication permanently open. 
        • A coach tends to overestimate the effectiveness of his communication 

      Improving Your People

        • On average, 2/3rds of people would do more if their qualities were better recognized.
        • Less than 30% of players apply the recommendations they’ve been given owing to:
          • A lack of confidence
          • A lack of respect for the coach
          • Or a lack of clarity or practical recommendations
      • When expressing a negative point to someone about their performance and development, one should put forward 3 positive points as well
      • I dealt with the disappointment of the player who was not selected on Friday, the risk he might not forgive me, and the need to regain his confidence and motivation on Monday, 
      • We realized that enduring motivation is the determining factor in a player’s success. young players need role models in order to learn.
      • When a coach chooses a man and gives him a debut, a very special relationship is established. He has to work hard to convince others and sometimes the player himself. 
      • Often a change of position can make a player really start to soar.
        • The coach’s powers of observation play a crucial part here. 

      Dealing With The Press And Fans

      • When you speak to players, journalists, or supporters, you should be careful with your words and gestures, and that was how I approached press conferences. 
      • I responded honestly, with as much authenticity as possible, and never hid away. 

      Isolation, Pressure, & High Performance

      • Players and managers are increasingly isolated and under greater pressure, at a time when expectations are higher. 
      • Experiencing the loneliness of being in a new city made Wenger understand the state of mind of a player who arrives at a club and in a city he doesn’t know at all. 
        • With that in mind, I have always allowed a player time - at least 6 months - to get his bearing, to feel at home, and to concentrate on the game. 
      • You need good people around you. A manager must have his own entourage.
        • When I arrived at a club, I always tried to surround myself straight away with competent people who knew the club and the culture. 
      • The loneliness of management comes from being the one who has the rigor required to make tough decisions.  

      The Role Of A Coach

      • It’s the manager alone who decides. 
      • He takes advice from everyone but it is his final decision that counts
        • If a player thinks that an assistant or the president can influence the coach’s decision, that coach loses all credibility.
      • Managing means taking action and making decisions while accepting a degree of uncertainty. 
      • Somebody who can handle judgment, stress, and pressure
        • One that does not respond to stress with passivity or aggressiveness.
      • A humane and compassionate person who loves their players and is able to point out their faults, their shortcomings, with know-how that keeps their motivation and their wish to excel intact
      • Somebody who knows what they want, who has a clear vision, a strategy
        • I gradually came to understand that if I wanted the best possible conditions even the tiniest detail was important. 
      • Someone who is a good and clear communicator
      • A coach should instill in his team respect for the game, a feeling for the group and not simply for himself.
        • Everywhere I coached, there were some players who were a bit lax with that rule. It is down to the coach to persuade them that what they put into the team, the team will give back to them. 

      Mental Preparation For A Match

      • If you exaggerate the opposition’s qualities, you increase your player’s fear and the risk they will hideaway. 
      • Something I’ve tried to teach all my teams: cultivating their strengths and qualities, bringing them to the fore to compensate for any deficiencies, not doubting.
      • People at the top are also capable of objectively analyzing their own performance and are hard on themselves. 
        • A good balance between intelligence and constant motivation and a good dose of humility is critical for success. 
        • Humility in sport is knowing that past performance gives you credibility but does not confer any privileges.

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