Canadian Coach Mike MacKay discusses what should go in a players manual


Operation Manual


When travelling, the hours spent in airplanes and airports, affords you the time to do a lot of reading. This summer with my trips to New Zealand, Kamloops, Hawaii, London and Summerside I had plenty of time to read. I have just completed two excellent books that both deal with the same topic. The first is called The Winners Manual: For the Game of Life by Jim Tressel. This was recommended to me by Nathan Schellenberger from Saskatchewan. I picked it up in a book store on Waikiki Beach and finished it on the flight home. Jim Tressel, head coach of the Ohio state Buckeyes, gives you the basic outline of his player handbook. It describes what goes into the manual that he gives to each player in the program at Ohio state. The second book is called Winning!, by Clive Woodward was recommended by Adrian Flynn from Scotland. It is one of the best books I have read on building a winning program. The attention to detail is amazing. Clive was the head coach of England’s National rugby team that won the World Cup in 2003. It is really an operation manual on how you build a winning program. One of the main ingredients is the handbook that he gave to each administrator, player and coach in the program.

As I progressed as a coach, I became convince of the importance of a player’s manual. The first one I created was for my Provincial Junior team in 1988. When you brought players/coaches into a program from diverse backgrounds you needed a way to communicate certain things in a clear concise way. When messages were delivered in an oral form only, you were never sure who heard the message and how that message was interpreted. It was very easy for people to put their own spin on the words. Too often someone would say; “But I thought you meant…” In other situations it allowed for a hijacking. This is when you have a flight plan laid in, but someone changes the plan once you are in midflight. It could be a coach, player, administrator or parent. Very often someone associated with the team would say; “I didn’t agree with that so I let the players …” This is a hijacking! The written operational manual provides the opportunity for those details to be flushed out ahead of time. The time for buy in is upon reading the manual not when the plane has left the ground. The written word allowed me to be explicit in my thoughts and also allowed players/coaches to read it at their leisure. This created a starting point for discussions on various topics. It also became our legacy document. Each year we could go back and review what worked and what did not. We did not have to reinvent the wheel each year. It was very helpful for coaches and players who joined the team. They quickly could grasp the team culture.

With the success of my first player’s manual I adopted the idea with my high school football and basketball teams. I never ran a team without giving the players/coaches an operational manual. Some were quite detailed; others may just contain a page with a brief philosophy and code of conduct. With teams involving younger players (FUNdamentals and Learn to Train stages of development) I would give the parents a copy of a simplified manual since they were making most of the decisions for their children. I would still give certain things to the children, but it was stage appropriate. You have to be careful that you do not take it too far. If the manual is too detailed and large, no one will read it. I prefer a ring binder or duo tang so things can be added and deleted.

Operational manuals can also be for associations. I remember writing one for the Nova Scotia provincial teams. Basketball Nova Scotia wanted to ensure that there was consistency in their code of conduct and philosophy of development. In my years of evaluating coaches at National Championships, I have always felt that the provinces needed to have a manual that could be passed on to each new coach. So often the lessons learned from past experiences were never passed on to the next generation of coaches. An association can very often be mislead by the lack of knowledge of the incoming coach. This is not done on purpose by the coach; it is just that the coach may never have coached in that context before. What works at one context does not always transfer to another. This very often happens in club basketball. If a coach moves from the one stage to the next he/she may not realize that certain things now become an issue at that next stage. Ask a coach of who is used to dealing with university aged players about taking a group of 13 year olds on an overnight trip! A little shared wisdom can be a big help.


What goes in a player’s manual?

  • Philosophy – This is a statement about the purpose or values of the program. Is it an active for life team (fun and participation), competitive recreational (play lots of games), developmental (focus on individual player development), winning (out to win championships)? A statements dealing with playing time is also appropriate.
  • Code of conduct – I have always found it better to engage the players in building this section. We would do a team building session on how we wanted to work together and be represented in public. It always included such topics as; respect for others, being on time, defining what ‘work’ looked like, commitment, communication, dress code, use of cell phones, computers, alcohol, smoking drugs, roles and responsibilities. Sometimes we would ask people to sign off on these. With younger players it may be the parents who signed off.
  • Schedule – practice and competition
  • Procedures
  • Expectations for practice
    Pre – what time to arrive, who helps with set up, procedure for treatment, pre practice routines. During – how we work, I-intensity C-concentration E-enthusiasm. Post – debrief and recovery, treatment for injuries
  • Expectations or games
    Pre – what time to arrive, treatment, individual warm up, team warm up, use of head phones. During – procedures for time outs, subs, ½ time etc. Post – debrief and recovery, treatment for
  • Expectations for individual training
    Strength, Mental, Skills
  • Terms – I always included a glossary of terms that may be new to the players /coaches. This improved our communication. I never wanted to assume that the players knew, especially when we needed to communicate in stressful situations. Does everyone know what it means to “chug a screen”?
  • Systems of play – this would include the concepts of your offensive and defensive schemes. It could be very detailed or broader in nature.
  • Motivational material – I always liked to include a quote or poem that helped emphasis the culture we were trying to develop on the team. Often we would come up with a slogan or theme for the year. One year our theme was ‘play for the moment’.
  • Diary –I wanted the players to keep a training diary. The players learned to debrief their performance. I have always liked the one minute debrief. What is one thing you did well? And Why? What is one thing you can improve/ And Now? What did you learn that you can apply to the future? Over time I learned that writing everyday was too much for some athletes. Often I would do it orally or have them partner up with a team mate to discuss their play.

I strongly believe that journaling is an important step in creating mentally tough performers. It forces players to replay in their mind what has just occurred. They learn to see pictures in their mind. By writing they need to put the detail to the pictures. At first young athletes will struggle. A good warm up activity suggested by Julie Bell in her book Performance Intelligence at Work: The Five Essentials of Achieving the Mind of a Champion is to ask players to remember when … players recall a scene from their favourite movie, what they did on vacation, describe the action from a recently watched game. They are learning to play with the pictures in their mind. As a coach be sure to be an empathic listener. Ask questions and paraphrase to help with clarity. These work best in informal settings. I would often pick a number of players before each practice to have a conversation with in this manner. Over the course of the week I would eventually talk with every player. Another technique is to have the players describe what their bedroom (locker, basement) looks like. Ask them to put detail into it. By asking them to move an object in the room they are learning to visualize. Jumping directly to a sport performance may be difficult. Start with things they know. The more they do it the better they get at creating positive pictures. By asking them to see the pictures in the future you are starting to teach them how to visualize.

For an association I suggest the following topics:

  • Philosophy – it is important that the association make a clear statement about what their programs are about. This is probably where the most hijackings occur; unclear philosophical differences between an association, its coaches and or parents.
  • Roles and responsibilities and the levels of authorities. Who is allowed to do what within the organization? What are the procedures for decision making and implementation?
  • Player selection – What is the selection criterion?
  • Code of conduct
  • Financial and administrative responsibilities
  • Contact lists