Game Theory

To heck with tactics.

Tim Sherwood, the new manager of the Tottenham Hotspur soccer team of the English Premier League, thinks tactics are overrated and overused. In the end, the game is simple: “It’s about passing the ball to your own teammates,” he recently told Joshua Robinson of The Wall Street Journal.

Robinson noted: “Sherwood’s predecessor at Tottenham, André Villas-Boas… was famous for his meticulous, even obsessive approach to tactics.” But critics found the result to be a team that was “reliable in defense, boring in attack and frozen by rigid game plans.”

Photo credit: Drew Mackie
Photo credit: Drew Mackie

Sherwood, moreover, is skeptical of the ability of managers to communicate elaborate tactics, feeling that players can easily be weighed down by too much information. So he keeps his meetings succinct and simple. “I ask them—especially the foreign lads—if they totally understand,” Sherwood told the Journal. “Because the last thing you want to do is go onto the pitch and not understand what the manager wants. They all nod and say, ‘Yeah,’ and we just wait till the kickoff to see if they actually do.”

Peter Drucker would have waited to see what sort of results Sherwood generated over the longer term to decide if his approach to coaching is effective. But he would have surely agreed with Sherwood’s fundamental understandings of procedure and communications.

As we’ve noted before, Drucker viewed rigidity in planning as a great danger, one that ironically tends to result from a desire to minimize risk. Related to this was the necessity for managers to focus more on the big picture—that is, strategy—rather than on tactics.

Tactics have their place, Drucker wrote in The Practice of Management, but what’s more important for managers is “a framework of basic strategic decisions.”

Drucker also warned at length about gaps in understanding when people try to communicate with one another. Unloading a detailed tactical plan onto a team is, indeed, likely to overburden people with information. “More and better information does not solve the communications problem, does not bridge the communications gap,” Drucker wrote in Technology, Management, and Society. On the contrary, “the more information… the greater is the communication gap likely to be.”

What do you think? When it comes to coaching, when is less more?