Emotional Intelligence: How emotions are managed to achieve success in football coaching

Watching Jurgen Klopp on the touchline is often a spectacle in itself. He is energetic – occasionally borderline aggressive – as he stands on his feet for the full ninety minutes, hardly allowing himself the luxury of sitting down. Not even when the referee blows for half time does he slow down, opting instead to run back to the dressing room.

It is not surprising that Klopp’s characteristics are reflected in how his team plays. That aggressiveness, alertness and readiness to pounce on any mistake is a hallmark of the way Liverpool approach games.

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The players and how they view football is a reflection of their manager.

Klopp is not alone; all the great football managers can imprint aspects of their character on to their team. Pep Guardiola’s calmness can be seen in the Manchester City’s patient build-up play whilst Jose Mourinho’s intransigent attitude can be seen in the defensive steeliness of all of his teams.

That should not come as much of a surprise.

To be a football manager at that level, confidence in your own ability must be absolute. You will also have spent years thinking on how you feel your teams should be playing; a vision that is likely to be heavily influenced by the way you view life in general. The classical examples are those of Bill Shankly and Sir Alex Ferguson’s, both of whose idea of a football team as a collection of individuals working hard for each other was borne out of their socialist convictions.

Yet, there are many managers who shape their footballing beliefs on their personal outlook, who never get to experience the kind of success of Klopp, Guardiola and Mourinho. For the multitude of such coaches, the reality is that they do not have the mix of other talents that are also needed in order to win football’s biggest prizes.

For, if you look closely at the management styles of game’s greats mentioned so far, you will notice that even though they all had big personalities they all could read and mould the feelings of those around them.

They all are masters of what is now termed as Emotional Intelligence.

Identified and defined in 1990 by two researchers – Peter Salovey and John Mayer – in an article titled “Emotional Intelligence” published in the journal ‘Imagination, Cognition, and Personality’, the idea has been increasing in popularity thanks also to the subsequent work of psychologist Daniel Goleman who published a number of books and articles on the subject.

Emotional intelligence, as defined by Salovey and Mayer, is the “ability to perceive emotions, to access and generate emotions so as to assist thought, to understand emotions and emotional knowledge, and to reflectively regulate emotions so as to promote emotional and intellectual growth.” Goleman put it more elegantly when he said, “emotional intelligence is a person’s ability to manage his feelings so that those feelings are expressed appropriately and effectively.

Essentially then it is the almost complete mastery of emotions – both your own and those around you – so that you fulfil your potential.

That is obviously a simplistic view. Yet, it is also a very easy concept to understand and appreciate its importance. The history of the game is littered with managers with an incredible understanding for the tactical intricacies but who simply could not get their message across to the players; and, as any football fan will readily tell you, if a coach does not have the support of the dressing room then he doesn’t have any future at the club.

Even so, all that is still fairly vague; it does not really describe how managers can harness their emotional intelligence to guide a successful team.

Fortunately, management theory provides a structure. Indeed Salovey and Mayer identified the four different but inter-related aspect of emotional intelligence that could help drive managers to analyse their past performances to see which mistakes they made.

The starting point lies in the ability to perceive the emotions that are happening to and around them.

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In 2010, Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona side was getting ready for a do-or-die game against Villareal, having just been knocked out of the Champions League. Emotions were understandably frail. Guardiola brought the players together and told them “Guys, you’re all greats. I just want to tell you one thing. If we go out there and lose, and the league escapes us, don’t worry.”

Barcelona won that game 4-1 and with it the league. It was a fantastic side so the probability is that they would have won with or without Guardiola’s little speech. Yet, Guardiola realised that it was a delicate moment for the team and in telling them that there was no need to worry about the prospect of defeat, he took that fear away.

It is also why so many coaches opt to share highlights from previous successes with players in the lead-up to a particularly difficult game. Although it is not as personable as Guardiola’s speech, it too is a way of addressing the anxiety that players might be feeling.

That this tactic is so prevalent is an indication of how awareness about the need to be aware and address the team’s emotional state has increased. Yet coaches also need to be aware of the emotions that they themselves are feeling.

It is why some managers nowadays opt not to have a big conversation with the team after a particularly painful defeat. In those situations the manager might be frustrated whilst the players are disappointed, the perfect recipe for feelings to boil over into pointless arguments and finger pointing.

That is not to say that negative emotions are necessarily to be avoided. Indeed, they can be a powerful tool to bring about a reaction or change in behaviour.

Few could use that as well as Sir Alex Ferguson who often rallied against real or perceived enemies of the club to bring players together, uniting them against this outside force that wanted them to fail.  Not only did it help create an incredible team spirit but it also drove players to focus on one thing: winning. That was the best way in which they could make the outside forces that Ferguson put in front of them pay and so, that desire drove them to incredible and continued success.

Such an ability to use emotions in order to clarify or simplify in players’ minds how they should be thinking is another facet of a coach’s emotional intelligence. That simplification of thoughts is also useful for the managers themselves. This is becoming increasingly more important in the professional game given the rise of statistics and analytics.

Whilst these are incredibly powerful tools are aimed at bringing a level of rationality within a game that previously relied only on common beliefs and gut feelings, it is important that the pendulum does not swing too much in the direction of cold numbers. A manager that is aware of the emotional implications of certain decisions will be able to see that which in turn makes it easier to take those decisions.

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For instance, Klopp is against having a huge squad. He realises that leaving players out even though they tried their hardest during training is likely to build a negative pool of emotions both in the players and in themselves as the last thing a coach wants to see is players being disappointed. This realisation, in turn, makes it easier for many managers to decide against bringing in more players unless the jump in quality is such that validates it.

That ability to use emotions to calibrate their decisions as well as understanding the impact of what might happen if they act in disregard of the feelings within the group as a result of their decisions are among the reasons why they are such great managers.

After a toxic La Liga season in 2012/13, Real Madrid turned to Carlo Ancelotti to bring a balance of energy within the squad. A man known for both his tactical prowess and his soft demeanour, Ancelotti was able to bond better with the players.

Arsène Wenger was another proponent of having an open channel of communication with players rather than resort to a hairdryer treatment. In an interview with Arsenal Magazine he said, “You have to explain things to the people you manage – people are better informed, better educated and want to know more. You are in a position where you have to explain why you do something and what the purpose of it all is – and there are more demands made communication-wise.”

Wenger believed that modern football and society in general have changed. He added, “You are still the boss, and it is you who makes the decisions, but you have to explain things much better than you did 20 or 30 years ago. Modern society wants less pain, wants to suffer less and wants to be treated better in every aspect of modern life. Pain has to disappear, whether you go to the dentist or go to work. That’s why man-management has become more sensitive as well, because you have to treat people better and in a more tactful way. It is the way in which society has moved.”

It is crucial to understand, however, that it isn’t just managers at the highest end of the game that are capable of perceiving, using and understanding emotions. John Coleman, for instance, has driven a small club like Accrington Stanley from non-league to the higher end of League One through his ability to judge a player’s desire to succeed.

The club’s tiny transfer and wage budget have always forced him to look at lower leagues or players out of contract when he wanted to add bodies. This made it vital for him to understand not only the technical qualities that any possible new player might bring to his team but also how determined they were to improve.

That, for him, is the crucial thing to look for in a player because it provides him with the main ingredient that he needs to make his team successful. His ability to understand that emotion, distil it to form the framework of his transfer strategy and then perceive it among the players he signs are key reasons why he has done so well.

Yet, all of that would amount to very little if Coleman didn’t also manage his players’ desire to succeed once they join the club. By focusing their hunger into the drive to improve both on a personal level and within the whole team, he ensures that they grow whilst the team is successful.

Coleman can do so because he has a history that shows that ability. He speaks honestly and frankly to his players who know that he is there to help them, but only if they are willing to put in the effort.

Looking closely at that aspect of Coleman’s job brings the whole emotional intelligence journey full circle. Players trust him because that is how he acts. He might be frustrated and angry in some situations – everyone is – but in general he is in control of those emotions to the extent that players cannot but be inspired by his demeanour.

Any coach who has a handle on his own emotions is likely to be in a better position to help his players during tough moments. For it is to the coach that they will look at when things are going against them. If they see someone who is in control then the probability is that they too will manage to calm down which makes it more likely that they will take in his instructions. On the other end of the scale, a coach who is panicking will likely infect his players with the same feeling.

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All of that is intuitive, even if not easy to master. The same applies to being able to manage conflict situations where any coach who has a history of being in control and aware of the various emotions at play will be in a better position to make the right move.

More challenging are situations where players are reaching the end of their journey within a team. It is not easy to accept that a player’s ambitions and ability have exceeded what the team can provide at that point in time. Equally, no one likes to tell a player who in the past played a key role that they are no longer part of the plan.

Any manager who does not handle those situations well is doomed to failure. Holding on to a player for too long, for instance, is likely to poison the whole team. Keeping a player who is no longer good enough for the side can lead to resentment. Recognising those possibilities as well as the manager’s own feeling and then rising above them to make the right decision for the emotional balance of the team is crucial.

Here, a prime example is Brendan Rodgers. In his comments and actions with players along the years, he has always been extremely fair with those who felt the need for a move; and he has had to face plenty of those moments, be it Luis Suarez threatening to strike at Liverpool or else Harry Maguire and Ben Chilwell pressing for a move to bigger clubs. In all of those cases, Rodgers has said the right things to the players. The results of that have been reflected on the pitch; Suarez’s final season at Anfield almost drove the club to the league title, whilst both Maguire and Chilwell excelled despite have it made it known that they felt the need to progress.

It could even be argued that the manner in which Rodgers has managed the departure of Maguire and Chilwell – with new players already in place to replace them – has shown an increased maturity and emotional growth by the Northern Irish coach.

This is a key factor. There is no coach who is ready to handle all situations from the start. What distinguishes great coaches from the rest is their appreciation of the fact and being able to learn to improve.

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There lies the path to greatness. A successful coach must be a combination of many skills be it tactical insight, ability to set a playing philosophy, managing his career trajectory and even handling the softer side of man management through their handling of emotions.

Indeed, by acknowledging that, and working to improve each of the various aspect rather than ignoring them, a coach is showing that they have the basic emotional awareness needed for them to grow and prosper in the role.

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