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How did Alex Ferguson do it? Last year’s Harvard study provided some answers

May 8, 2013, 12:00 PM EDT

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Sir Alex Ferguson is clearly a wise manager and a learned man. Harvard is clearly a place with a lot of smarties, too.

So what better conflagration for sorting out the Sir Alex way? Just a few months ago Harvard released an in-depth study of Ferguson’s management approaches. It really was a revealing look, candid and reasonably condensed, at the tool and techniques of one of global soccer’s top managers yet.

The study by the Harvard Business School in America was released last September, just as Ferguson was getting into the current, championship season.

One of the best bits was his approach to criticizing players. We tend to think of the man’s gruff exterior and probably all believe that it’s all about applying constant pressure and grinding his men into perfection – the famous Ferguson “hair-dryer” and all. But the reality sounds different. From the study:

There is no room for criticism on the training field. For a player – and for any human being – there is nothing better than hearing ‘Well done’. Those are the two best words ever invented in sports. Also, you can’t always come in (after a game) shouting and screaming. That doesn’t work. No one likes to get criticized. But in the dressing room, it’s necessary that you point out your players’ mistakes. I do it right after the game. I don’t wait until Monday, I do it, and it’s finished. I’m on to the next match. There is no point in criticizing a player forever. And I never discuss an individual player in public. The players know that. It stays indoors.”

It’s interesting, because so many managers more or less leave the players along after matches. They believe that players are emotional at that time and need to be left to themselves. As for the problems that need addressing, that’s what practice is for.

This excerpt is interesting, too, because Ferguson gets to the very core of his success at Old Trafford: building a “club” and not just building a “team” to survive. He also moves on to talking about older players, the likes of Nicky Butt and the tough business of seeing not what they are at the moment, but what they are going to be in two years.

The first thought for 99 per cent of new managers is to make sure they win – to survive. They bring experienced players in, often from their previous clubs. But I think it is important to build a structure for a football club, not just a football team. You need a foundation. And there is nothing better than seeing a young player make it to the first team. The idea is that the younger players are developing and meeting the standards that the older ones have set before. The hardest thing is to let go of a player who has been a great guy. But all the evidence is on the football field. If you see the change, the deterioration, you have to start asking yourself what it is going to be like two years ahead.

You can purchase the Harvard study here. Or you can check out more of the highlights of the big work here.

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