Like Investec, you could never accuse Alex Sanderson of settling for ordinary. The former Saracens, Sale Sharks and England star does things differently. After injury ended his playing career at 26, he has been a management mould breaker.

“There are easier ways to earn a living, definitely,” he admits. “But I can't think of any that are more fulfilling.”

Lauded as an ‘out of the box’ thinker, he sets personal goals and values that he communicates clearly with his team. But he also gives players the freedom to adapt, develop and deliver to a collective purpose.

He left Saracens’ backroom staff to become Sale Shark’s Director of Rugby in 2021. His mantra is to constantly challenge yourself and the team who rely on you. “It starts with me in terms of the drive for continuous improvement,” he says.

Setting manageable goals

His goals-based leadership approach helps him tackle stress and overcome setbacks. “I set myself achievable daily and weekly goals,” he explains.

Journaling is something else he actively encourages. “It’s like a feedback loop to support your personal growth, recording both negatives and positives.”

Sale Sharks’ Director of Rugby Alex Sanderson during an interview
Alex Sanderson, Sale Sharks’ Director of Rugby

I tick some boxes early on in the day and week. It helps me get rid of some of that adrenal anxiety that you have at the start of the week.

Coach and mentor

Alex defines his role as a combination of coach, friend, mentor and peer. “We have players aged from 17 to 39, so you can’t treat them all in the same way. They are at different stages in their psychological development,” he says.

Mentoring is a management task Alex relishes. “Honestly, I think it’s the thing I get most excited about. It gives me the most energy,” he says.

“The game can sometimes feel monotonous in terms of tactics and strategies where there may not be a lot of change. But people are ever-changing. As they go through their development as a person, you grow with them.”

He describes mentoring as a “forever challenge”, adding: “I’m privileged to be able to influence players’ lives. For the better, I hope.”

Building rapport

As well as being a good listener and astute tactician, he values the rapport he has with his team. You’ll find plain-speaking communication in his management kitbag. In tense situations during a match or difficult post-match analysis, the right words can quickly diffuse tension and relieve stress.

There’s a psychological dimension at play here, too. “I encourage players to move away from saying something because they think someone else wants to hear it. Instead, we increase the level of psychological safety so they can say things because they actually mean them.”

For Alex, good management relies on maintaining that carefully built trust. “The truth sets you free,” he says. “If you say something that isn’t the truth then it will come back to bite you. Players will hang on to it and they’ll play it back to you. And then the trust is broken.

“You have to value honesty in all your communications. Even if it perhaps loses you friendships, you still keep the respect.”

Sale Sharks’ Director of Rugby Alex Sanderson standing outside training ground
Alex Sanderson, Sale Sharks’ Director of Rugby

I think rapport is probably one of the most crucial aspects in coaching. By that, I mean the relationships you have with players: trust, respect and your ability to communicate honestly.

Empowering decision-makers

All the hard work done in the run-up to a match can quickly unravel without empowering your team. Alex’s coaching style encourages this.

“Empowering the team is a multifaceted process. I bring together a leadership group and make sure they are aligned and can communicate the game plan with players. I want a group of leaders who click and drive the behaviours you want, not just the tactics.”

Stress testing

Those tactics are carefully worked out on the training ground. At Sale Sharks, you’ll find the most intense training sessions are usually the ones designed to fail. As Alex notes: “Stress can bring out the best – and worst – in people.”

In these scenarios, players must come up with their own solutions without coaching intervention. “If they fail and fix it, then progress is being made.”

Hard, cold KPIs

His management style for game analysis follows military and business doctrines. “First, we do a ‘hot debrief’ where individual or small group conversations look at how people feel it went. You can gauge how far away you are from reality – whether you’re fooling yourself about the causes of a setback.”

The in-depth appraisal that follows puts his approach firmly in business management territory. “Metrics help you to look back over a period to see where you’ve grown and if you’ve shrunk from the goals that you’ve set yourself.”

Analysis devoid of emotion balances the hot debrief input. “We have around 30 KPIs [Key Performance Indicators] from some 200 metrics that we measure. Within that, we have thresholds and a traffic-light code. By taking out the emotion you get good quantitative analysis,” says Alex.

Feet firmly on the ground

Looking at the bigger picture, Alex plans to create a lasting legacy at Sale Sharks as a northern powerhouse club. His view on winning bears out his broad outlook.

“It’s not just about winning a shiny cup. The other side of the coin is how you handle setbacks and your self-discovery.”

That said, as in business, success is also measured by results. The proof, as he says, is in the pudding. “Until we rubber stamp our approach with trophies, there are going to be people out there who are not convinced. I don’t blame them for that. Right now, I feel we are we are building the foundations and fortifications to create something lasting.”

Alex balances his hard-nosed leadership qualities with a clearly evident sense of humility. “It’s important having people around you who keep you humble – true friends, your family and kids. They’ll give you the honest truth – never letting you get too excited with the wins or discouraged by losses.”


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