The finest art

By: Elite Soccer

As you walk into the indoor training facility for the Welsh National rugby team, you are met by a Sun Tzu quote: ‘Every battle is won before it is ever fought’. Perhaps Wales had indeed beaten England in their famous victory of 2013 before they had stepped onto the pitch.

There is little doubt that the words of the famous general from ancient China resonate for many coaches, yet few would want to toil through his book finding what is relevant to their coaching. Luckily Allan Sands has done just that. Though not written specifically for any sport, it is obviously aimed at invasion games – rugby being one, soccer definitely another.

Sands has worked his way through the book contextualizing Sun Tzu into sporting terms. There is a danger that some of the metaphors become a little stretched. Death and total destruction are not necessarily easily translated into hard tackles or winning games, despite our desire to beat bitter rivals. However, the premise of the commentary is to make us think around the challenges of managing players and teams to win games. We simply have to remember to swap scoring points for spilling blood when we measure whether we have won or not.

This is definitely a reflective book. You can read it in chunks and then go away and think how it informs your coaching. It won’t tell you what move or play to use in the next match, but it might subtly change your approach to attack or defence.

Often it will simplify your thinking, and I believe it will make you feel like you are a wiser coach. Why? Because you will consider what you are doing, why and then have to justify it to yourself. As Sands says himself in the introduction, “you will see things different. These will be your discoveries.” In other words, it is not someone giving you exactly how you should run your team. It is you working out for yourself what works for you.

Ordinarily this would be hard work, but Sands has made the task easier by summarising Sun Tzu’s words in bite sized ideas to ponder. You can read either the general or Sands or both to gain greater insight into your own coaching.

The book is itself follows the thirteen chapters of the Art of War. Each section has a comment on how to apply what is said to your situation. Allan has kindly allowed us to reproduce some of the book here.

It might be worth point some of your more enlightened players to ‘The Art of Personal Competition’.

Introduction and welcome

War has been a subject of study by all civilisations throughout recorded history. In the modern era, one document has become required study by war colleges the world over. The Art of War by the ancient Chinese general Sun Tzu has become the premier guide to students of military operations and battlefield management.

His notations, warnings, solutions, and commentary have been studied by hundreds of thousands of people who work within organizations from the small to the most complex. His ideas and concepts have direct application to businesses, governments, and most directly in sports.

Waging war

It is only one who is thoroughly acquainted with the evils of war that can thoroughly understand the profitable way of carrying it on.

The best lessons learned occur when mistakes are made. The sum of a person’s wisdom can be tallied by the number of errors in judgment and failures they have experienced. This applies to coaching personnel as well as players. (This statement assumes that the people around you know and apply this fact. Don’t try to help a person who won’t learn from such experiences.)

Planning attacks

Thus the highest form of generalship is to baulk the enemy’s plans; the next best is to prevent the junction of the enemy’s forces; the next in order is to attack the enemy’s army in the field; and the worst policy of all is to besiege walled cities.

The best game approach uses designed offensive and defensive strategies tailored to your opponent’s strengths and weaknesses.

The next best is a straight-forward continuous denial of opportunities. Limiting movement and preventing scores give your players time to capitalize on opponent errors.

The worst approach is no planning, weak responses, and incorrect actions.


The clever combatant looks to the effect of combined energy, and does not require too much from individuals. Hence his ability to pick out the right men and to utilize combined energy. When he utilizes combined energy, his fighting men become as it were like unto rolling logs or stones. For it is the nature of a log or stone to remain motionless on level ground, and to move when on a slope; if four-cornered, to come to a standstill, but if round-shaped, to go rolling down. Thus the energy developed by good fighting men is as the momentum of a round stone rolled down a mountain thousands of feet in height. So much on the subject of energy.

It is important to not depend too much upon star players to achieve your goals. Constantly rotate through your roster giving everyone opportunities to shine. When circumstances do require special treatment, your top players are rested and very intent on doing their best.

To counter the opponent’s star players, assign specially trained individuals who can prevent or otherwise interrupt their activities.

Weakness and strength

Therefore the clever combatant imposes his will on the enemy, but does not allow the enemy’s will to be imposed on him.

The clever coach makes the opposing team react to his actions. If the opposing coach attempts to do the same, modify your activities. Use your play selections to keep him mentally off-balance.

By holding out advantages to him, he can cause the enemy to approach of his own accord; or, by inflicting damage, he can make it impossible for the enemy to draw near.

During the opening minutes of the game, provide tempting opportunities to the opponent. Observe their readiness to respond. This can also validate previously gathered intelligence.

Variation in tactics

The art of war teaches us to rely:

  • Not on the likelihood of the enemy’s not coming, but on our own readiness to receive him;
  • Not on the chance of his not attacking, but rather on the fact that we have made our position unassailable.

So the art of competition means that you:

  • Do not depend on your opponent being unprepared, but depend on your readiness to compete against him.
  • Do not depend on your opponent being weak, but depend on your abilities and cleverness to deny opportunities.
  • Do not depend on your opponent being unable to stop you, but depend on your ability to counter their efforts.

The Art of Team Coaching – How Sun Tzu would coach coaches, Allan P. Sands. Available on Amazon (Kindle).