Football on the Orient Express

I am now in my third year of visiting China working in schools, soccer camps, coach mentoring and professional football clubs. So what have I learnt and what is the future for football in China?

Well we are all now aware of the Chinese Super League and the amount of money being invested in these clubs. Teams like Shanghai, Evergrande and Guangzhou are becoming household names and known throughout the world. Top names in the game are being lured over to play for big sums of money and its not longer just the older players on their way down to pick up their pension money.

Being involved with newly formed Chinese 4th tier club Shantou Lions brings exciting times to the players, coaching staff and the city with a population of just over 5 million people. Watching them play and train you begin to realize that the football culture and history is a million miles away of what one is used to in the English game. Football in schools, clubs and throughout the communities has been regenerated to help improve the standards of ability of the up and coming footballers. Player and coach development has been introduced to cultivate a footballing strategy to improve the players technical, physical, psychological and social ability. It will be interesting to follow the course of what has been created over the years to see how it develops and hopefully blossoms.

With a population of around 1.4 billion, the chances of China being a dominant footballing nation should be high if the infrastructure is implemented correctly. I often get asked the question of whether or not China will ever win the World Cup. Some experts in the game predict they will win it within the next 6 to 10 years! Whether or not there will be a correlation between the successful Chinese Super League and that of the Chinese national team I wait with great anticipation.  I think I would not be alone in saying that the success of the English Premier League has not resulted  in having a successful national team. Although the Chinese F.A. ruling of only allowing to field 3 overseas players in the team to allow local players to develop is a great idea for players to develop alongside top players. This learning experience and giving players opportunities  to play at the highest level can only be for the good of Chinese football and who knows this experience may result in them winning the world cup!

It has been reported that China wants to be a world football superpower by 2050 and aims to win the World Cup with the national team. President Xi Jinping, a football enthusiast, wants the country to have at least 20,000 football training centres and 70,000 pitches in place by 2020. In order for there not to be a boom then bust syndrome, sustainability must be in place for the longevity of the games development that is currently ruled by a Communist party that allows a capitalist economy. Whether or not political interference will change the shape in how this growing footballing nation will develop remains to be seen. At the moment it is actively encouraging the sport and for sustainability is encouraging football in schools and for clubs to develop their youth system. I have seen many basketball courts and concrete playgrounds being replaced with football goal posts and artificial football pitches during my time in China.

From my own experience in China I am seeing young children improve their football skills and technically will soon be as good as what I witness on a regular basis back in the UK. I think though the improvement of the team game will take much longer to materialize. China is learning a great deal from the outside world about the game and football teams and coaches have been enthusiastic in helping the football revolution in China. In a country though where individual sports are dominant, it will take a generation to learn how team sports operate. The most popular sports of table tennis (ping pong), badminton, martial arts, diving, fencing and other Olympic individual sports far outweighs the emerging western teams games of football, basketball and volleyball. In football terms learning how to play as a team, communicate, team tactics, movement off the ball for each other and other team game skills are still lacking and will take longer for coaches to see an improvement than the individual technical skills.

Cultural differences will play a part in how China develops compared to other footballing nations and to see a third world country flourish in football would be great for the country and world sport. Although in modern day definitions I use the term third world loosely as economically one would argue this. The social hierarchical structure is more rigid in China than western countries and informal coaching methods will take time to understand. The way cultures see confrontation and conflict; honour and reputation;  the role of self and morals; celebrating success; respect and punctuality differs enormously. Therefore coaching methods and strategies require modifying to allow for this but at the same time lay down the DNA blueprint in how successful teams operate. It is hard to coach in a way that is the opposite to the way that you have been socialized in your country and its long historical culture. Therefore foreign western coaches in China may flourish as they have been brought up in a society with those footballing philosophies.

As I witnessed at the Soccerex Conference in China recently, football really is a global football business and the eagerness for success is massive. I just hope the desire for instant gratification does not put off the enthusiastic crowds that have started to emerge and the love of the beautiful game does not dwindle and patience is given to all those that are involved in putting down football foundations in China. Only time will tell.

What makes a good football coach?

My stance on this question has changed over the last 30 years in coaching football to boys and girls, men and ladies, elite and development players, from the young beginner to the experienced pro.

The simplest and most purest answer is – the end result in working with the group of players or individual coached. Not just in the short term after one session or from week to week, but in the long term over a season or over a career of the player. But there has to be a means to an end!

So how do you judge success to gauge whether or not the end result in working with your players. Well after one session a coach can see for oneself if a player has improved from the start of the session to the end by demonstrating and showing an understanding of the coaching points you have put across during the session. This can be monitored from session to session and from match to match over the course of the season to evaluate performance progress.  To track the coaching for player and coaching development I recommend using football management software to monitor progress.  So if the individual players have improved from point A to point B then that is success ! If the team has improved from the beginning of the season to the end or from one season to the next then that is success ! If the players you coach go on to play a higher standard than the league you are in then that is success ! If you are coaching young players and they go on to play senior football into adulthood whether it be local Sunday league or plays as a professional then that is success as you have given them the enjoyment of continuing playing the game and maintain a healthy and social active lifestyle.

So if you are able to produce all or some of the above then you are a good football coach! My memories of coaches whilst I was a young player have stayed with me forever so they make a lasting impression. Some of the coaches taught me great technical ability and were recognized professional coaches with lots of coaching qualifications whilst others were just unqualified dads that ensured you had a good time and had fun. Both equally has important as each other looking back as I went on to play the game until my legs went and maintained my love of the game in coaching and managing football at many levels. Therefore the coaches that have taught me over the years must have been good coaches ! Well they definitely game me the love for the game and I appreciate the good ones as equally I can remember some awful ones as well that made you feel you want to quit the game and resort you to tears. For some players though its just in your blood, but the nature – nurture debate is another story.

The football coach and the culture has changed over time and now you cannot coach a under 7’s team without a level 1 coaching certificate. I think this as weeded out many coaches that think they are above taking a qualification and have fallen away. At the same time though the culture has produced coaches that think just because they have their coaching badge they know it all and are only doing it to feed their own ego and failed playing career rather than the development of the team and the individuals. This normally coincides with the win at all costs attitude and thinking winning 16-0 makes them a good coach!

So going back to the original question – What makes a good football coach? From my experience as a player and as a coach here are my key ingredients that come to mind. They are not in order of importance, but all play an integral part of the make up of a good coach.

  • Can recognize the strengths and weaknesses of a player/team and coaches them to maximize their strengths and improve on their weaknesses.
  • Creates a fun learning environment whilst installing discipline and good long lasting habits.
  • Can adapt the practice to the needs of the group and can differentiate players within the group.
  • Use their own style of coaching that has derived from their own personality, learnt from coaching courses, observed from other good coaches and knowledge from their own playing experiences.
  • Can recognize when they need to adapt and refine their coaching and takes on board advise from other coaches and feedback from the players.
  • A good coach is always learning and looking at ways to better themselves through watching others coach, CPD events and online courses, and reflecting on their own sessions for improvement.
  • A good understanding of subject knowledge is required and a appreciation of  technical ability, psychological, physical and social attributes of the game.
  • For coaches working with younger players, gauges success on player development rather than results or league positions. Unfortunately coaches in the pro game will not be in a job for too long if results and the league position is poor!
  • Embraces modern technology to improve player performance and uses this information to back up their coaching strategies.
  • Can communicate in a way that inspires learning and encourages creative thinking.
  • Combines a mixture of coaching styles to suit the needs of the individual and blends old and new methods of delivery, although you cannot reinvent the wheel.

I hope this has been useful and has made you think about your own coaching or coaches that you know of at your club ! If you feel I have missed anything out and wish to contribute to the debate then please get in contact and leave a message.

For young players and coaches that want to get involved in a football club go to  Kettering Town Youth FC for more information.

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