01 Apr 2010


At the core of pre-season training is mental preparation, says Exeter’s Paul Tisdale. And, as he and Alan Smith have discovered, a little creative thinking can help get your message across.

“Managers don’t have time for gimmicks,” says Alan Smith. “As it’s best to avoid experimenting too much with your players, you have to be pretty confident that your methods will work. “However,” he adds, “there is a tendency in football to think inwards, so it’s good to step out of the bubble sometimes.”

As manager of Crystal Palace, Smith (left) found a novel way to get his message across – in particular, the importance of consistency. “I came up with the idea of taking the players to London’s West End after meeting the conductor for Joseph and his Technicolor Dreamcoat,” he recalls.

“I was amazed by her enthusiasm, despite playing the same music over and over, and her ability to get the same high standard out of herself and the orchestra every night.”

After one performance of the show, Smith introduced his players to the musicians. “In the theatre, performers have to deliver to the highest standard every time – something all football coaches want from their team,” says Smith. “I was keen to get across to the players the importance of delivering that consistency.” He is now using similar methods in his new role as football consultant at Middlesbrough football club.

Having played the female lead in West End hits such as Mamma Mia and My Fair Lady, Helen Hobson can attest to the high demands of work in the theatre. She sees clear parallels between performing on stage and on the pitch and found Smith’s idea to be very innovative:

“Before a performance, each team will warm up and receive a pep talk or director’s notes. And they are both physically demanding roles, requiring a high level of fitness.” She adds that, while there might be star performers, both are team games. “You rely on each other to deliver the final product,” says Hobson (above). “Sometimes you might feel below par, but you still have to go on and deliver a great show for your audience.” Despite playing the same role every night, she has never found it boring: “I take a pride in what I’m doing and each time I step onto the stage it feels different.”

No nonsense

While he is a staunch advocate of sticking to the norm when it comes to pre-season training, Exeter manager Paul Tisdale (below) has also used non-football examples to get his messages across. When he was head coach of the football side at Team Bath – Bath University’s sports brand – Tisdale took his players to the London offices of Ted Baker. As a friend of founder and chief executive Ray Kelvin, Tisdale saw an opportunity to give the players a unique window into another business. “I wanted to show them that, despite being very different types of business, many of the same rationales, such as structure and discipline, apply.”

If it wasn’t for the unfavourable logistics, Tisdale might repeat the exercise with his Exeter team. As it is, he regularly visits Ted Baker for inspiration and a fresh perspective on management.

The priority in pre-season training, says Tisdale, is mental preparation, rather than technical or physical work: “To achieve that, the most important things are creating the right culture and ensuring that management is structured, honest and rational. Once you have a stable, consistent environment, it becomes easier to deal with the people in it.”

When it comes to preparing players physically for the new season, Tisdale isn’t in favour of the archetypal three or four weeks of intensive physical work, nor training away from the normal environment. “Players need to know where they stand and their expectations should match up to the reality,” he says. “My preseason training regime differs little from during the season – in fact, it is probably less intensive. I prefer to start slowly and steadily, thereby minimising the risk of injury. Then I give the players every chance possible to train, from day one right through to the end of the season.”

Tisdale suspects his straightforward, logic-based approach stems partly from his apprenticeship at Team Bath. “My early management career was spent with elite-level professionals from a variety of sports, but not football,” he says. “I learnt many disciplines, from sports science to psychology, and saw the elements that underline good performance management in any business – common sense, structure and rationale. I’m not reinventing the wheel,” he adds. “If you get the environment and the processes right, the results will come.”