Top 5 Coaching Principles of Sir Alex Ferguson

In the Coaches’ Box explores the philosophy of sports great coaches and considers what amateur coaches can learn and apply from their success. This post explores the five principles that drove the success of Manchester United stalwart – Sir Alex Ferguson.

Trust in youth

Sir Alex’s first priority at Man U was bringing in young players, and establishing a youth system that would build sustained success. He took great pride in seeing younger players develop, believing the job of a manager to be like that of a teacher; inspiring players to be better people, and giving them skills to go anywhere in life.


In his new book Leading, Ferguson said “Youngsters can inject a fantastic spirit into an organisation, and a youngster never forgets the person or organisation that gave them their first big chance,’Ferguson said. “They will repay it with a loyalty that lasts a lifetime”.


“Once they know you are batting for them, they will accept your way. You’re really fostering a sense of family. If you give young people your attention and an opportunity to succeed, it is amazing how much they will surprise you”.


How do you rate the trust and investment placed in junior players at your club?


Always be looking to the future

Fergie wasn’t afraid of being fired and made decisions based on what the team would look like in four years. He was always in the cycle of rebuilding; evaluating players’ life cycles and how much value the players brought to the team at any point in time. Though, this talent development process inevitably involved cutting mature players, including loyal veterans, to whom Ferguson had a personal attachment. As legendary player, Ryan Giggs stated “He’s never really looking at this moment, he’s always looking into the future,”


“When you run any organisation, you have to look as far down the road as you can.” Sir Alex


Are your decisions dictated by the now or with the end in mind?

The Power of Observation

While known as a controlling figure, throughout his career, Ferguson often delegated the task of running training sessions to his assistants. He would simply watch and observe what took place. Ferguson revealed, “I don’t think many people fully understand the value of observing.” The underlying principle behind this approach is that if you want to learn about a player, watch them when they think no one is.


“If you give in once, you’ll give in twice.” – Sir Alex on setting standards. 


Do you take the opportunity to observe your players, rather than always running sessions?

Build a Club, Not a Team

Ferguson played a central role in the whole United organisation, managing not just the first team, but the entire club. Ferguson was a key component of the Manchester United ‘brand’.  He is well-known for taking a broad view at club events, bringing the collective together, like a conductor of an orchestra.


“Steve Jobs was Apple; Sir Alex Ferguson is Manchester United,” David Gil – Former chief executive


Is your role as coach purely an on-field responsibility, or do you take a wider influence on operations at the club?

No one likes criticism

Ferguson believed “few people get better with criticism; most respond to encouragement instead”. Ferguson tried to give positive reinforcement wherever possible, saying “there is nothing better than hearing “Well done.” Those are the two best words ever invented. You don’t need to use superlatives”.


Although the media often portrayed him as favouring ferocious halftime sprays, in fact, he varied his approach. “You can’t always come in shouting and screaming; that doesn’t work.”


“If you lose and Sir Alex believes you gave your best, it’s not a problem. But if you lose [in a] limp way…then mind your ears!” Andy Cole – Former Player


Are consistent in your delivery of team talks?  Is the half-time spray effective?


Ferguson freely admits to being a dictator, believing it was imperative that he remained in control at all times. “You can’t ever lose control—not when you are dealing with 30 top professionals who are all millionaires,” Ferguson said. “And if any players want to take me on, to challenge my authority and control, I deal with them.” This consistent approach led to the high-profile departures of established star players Roy Keane & Ruud van Nistelrooy.


Ferguson believed the position and profile of the manager needed to be bigger than the players. When the United board proposed a new deal for striker Wayne Rooney, that would pay him more than Ferguson, he stated “”I did not think it fair that Rooney should earn twice what I made…We will just agree that no player should be paid more than me.”


Ferguson also stated that “If the day came that the club was controlled by the players, it would not be the Manchester United we know”.


His approach clearly contrasts with the Leading Teams approach, endorsed by former Sydney Swans Coach, Paul Roos. The Leading Teams philosophy is to empower the playing group to become leaders, be accountable, and participate in open and honest reviews of performance.


To what degree do you allow input and decisions to be made by the playing group?
Is Manchester United’s lack of success ‘post-Fergie’ a consequence of this approach?


Thanks for reading. Send us a comment below if you have thoughts on the discussion questions.








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