For a football manager, or any coach in professional sports, communication may very well be the most important skill one can possess. Here is an ode to the sideline maestros who’ve managed to turn communicating (or trying to) into an art form.
I am not sure what it is in my DNA, but I find all managers in football inherently likable. I could probably extend that to all professional sports, actually. That’s not to say that I like all managers; indeed many have lost whatever goodwill I initially extended towards them, but the fact remains that my default mode for a manager or coach is to like them until they do something to change that. This is fairly baffling to me. With athletes, I am generally neutral, even with players on teams I love. Same goes for people I meet in my day-to-day life, my default mode of feeling is skepticism bordering on dislike, so why do I love coaches?
I’m sure there’s something to be said about being raised to respect authority figures, etc. And that may be true, but I don’t feel the same way about politicians or governments or any other public figure. In every other walk of life, my warm feelings must be earned, but with football managers, it’s theirs to lose. I love watching managers’ press conferences and post-match interviews. I love watching them chat with their players and trying to dissect their body language to detect their personal feelings with one another. But perhaps my favourite manager pastime is the sideline communiqué: that awkward, shouted instruction to the players, normally accompanied by flailing, jabbing, poking or pushing with the upper extremities and digits.
Any manager can shout platitudes at his players, but it takes a real artist to convey specific instruction to a solitary player at 50 yards over the shouting and cheering of thousands of spectators. Frankly, I think mostly these gestures, or Managersticulations, if you will, serve to calm the manager down, providing a much needed balm to his invariably shot nerves. The sideline is a realm of solitude and futility. After all, outside of giving the fourth official a piece of your mind, what effect can you really have out there short of making changes to the team?
Managersticulations are a gaffer’s twiddling of thumbs, a way to keep busy while your players put your preparations to practice. Maybe, just maybe, you can get through to a player or two and your genius can be vindicated, but mostly I think it’s just hard to sit idly by and watch.
Managersticulations are a beautiful interpretive dance, which only the most talented of managerial communicators can master. Oh sure, even the inexperienced new kid on the block can show flashes of non-verbal brilliance through his (relatively) youthful exuberance, but it takes the ravaging, callousing effects of time and disappointment to get the perfect blend of anger, desperation and hope in your jabs.
Not surprisingly, the most eloquent of managersticulators are usually the tacticians. José Mourinho and Pep Guardiola in the height of their rivalry were ridiculously expressive on the sidelines, almost as if they were each beating back the pressure that was rapidly closing in on them with each prod and poke. Former Mourinho underlings André Villas-Boas and Brendan Rodgers are equally capable of putting on a show of inverted digits and hand sweeps, as are football chess players Roberto Martinez and Roberto Mancini.
Conversely, Sir Alex Ferguson was what I would describe as a macro-tactician. It often seemed as though he focused on the big-picture tactics of philosophy and intent without getting bogged down too much in the tactical minutiae. Consequently he seemed to spend more time harassing and pressuring the fourth official, pointing at his watch and shouting the kind of instructions at his players that didn’t require the fingers-denoting-players-style moves that his nemesis Rafa Benítez often favoured.
Here’s a few examples of managersticulations: