Coaching abroad by Blaine Mckenna – Who is the author behind the book motivating coaches globally to seek new challenges abroad
Blaine Mckenna is a coach ahead of his time. Whilst most coaches question coaching outside their post code region, Blaine was a trailblazer who thrived on learning and experiencing new cultures both on and off the pitch.
Having coached in Europe, Africa, North America and Asia, is there a better person to share his own knowledge and the knowledge of coaches within his network to the world ? Blaine is perfectly placed and Jobs4football were delighted to catch up with him in a Q+A format to learn more about his new book ‘Coaching Abroad’ (Buy via Amazon here: https://amzn.to/3HC8rOf) and to delve into the unrivalled experiences that the Northern Irish coach has had.
Q: Can you tell us about your background and how you became a football coach abroad?
A: I’ve loved football my whole life but knew I wouldn’t make it at a high level as a player. That led to the decision to focus on coaching from a young age. I did a sports science degree and at the end of the first year they advertised a summer coaching role in the US and Canada. That was the first time I believed coaching could be a real career for me as there weren’t many full-time coaching jobs or coaching role models where I lived.
I came back from North America energised, having seen a lot of European coaches in full-time roles there and set the goal of working in five countries and becoming academy director of a professional club abroad. After completing my UEFA B and a masters degree in sports psychology I moved abroad full-time to work for Arsenal Soccer Schools in Kuwait. From there doors opened up and I’ve gone on to get my UEFA A and coach in 11 countries on 5 continents.
Q:What inspired you to write the book “Coaching Abroad”? How long did it take and what was the main purpose of writing?
A: Coaching abroad has changed my life and I wanted to share how other coaches could do the same. I’ve spoken to so many coaches who are frustrated at the lack of opportunities they’re getting at home. Football can take you anywhere on earth and there’s a world full of opportunities out there.
I wanted to write a book that shared the experiences of how eight coaches got jobs in 28 countries around the world and their advice for getting jobs, adapting, and succeeding in different environments. The book took 18 months, countless hours and a lot of doubts and fears. What kept me going was thinking if it helps just one coach turn their ambitions into reality then it has all been worth it!
Q: In your book, you discuss the positives and negatives of coaching football abroad. Can you give us an example of a positive experience you had while coaching abroad?
A: Coaching with Ascent Soccer in Malawi was an unbelievable experience. The World Bank had declared it one of the poorest countries on earth but the people seemed to be so happy with their regular singing and dancing. It really put the problems we face into perspective.
It showed the true power of football. Players were scouted from around the country and were brought in housed and given education, food, character development and football training. You could see some players had changed the age on their birth documents (many didn’t have birth certificates) to appear younger and increase their chances of being selected. We asked the trialists how they felt and they said they felt heavy as they’d never been so well fed before playing, had never played in football boots or on grass and had never left their hometowns before. They would do whatever it took to succeed as this was a life changing opportunity for them. Seeing some of the players have now progressed on to earn scholarships in America and transform their lives is amazing!
Q: How do you think coaching football abroad differs from coaching in one’s home country?
A: Copying and pasting what you did at home doesn’t work as every environment presents different challenges. You have to adapt how you work to fit the setting because if you can’t get the best from local people, you can’t succeed. You need to understand and know how to navigate the local culture to get people onside and to drive the project you’re there to build. They need to buy into you as a person and that you’re there for the right reasons before they’ll buy into your ideas.
You also need to understand the football landscape and the way the game works in that country as it can be very different from what you’re used to at home. Many coaches fail because they utter the words, “We do it like this in Italy, Spain or Brazil.” You need to be opened minded and humble enough to learn about the culture and add the best bits of what’s already there and sprinkle your ideas on top to create a winning formula in that environment.
Q: Can you discuss a challenge you faced while coaching abroad and how you overcame it?
A: I got hired as a quick fix by a topflight club in Thailand. The President’s son sacked the U17 Head Coach and a lot of the 16 and 17 year old players left. They decided to move the 14 and 15 year olds in the U15 team up to play in the U17 Thai Youth League team. They played a few games and were suffering heavy defeats and the parents weren’t happy the coach got sacked. So they decided to bring me in to fix things which I had no idea of when I agreed to join.
It was the biggest challenge of my life as the season was a few games in and the registration window had closed. The first game we played Buriram United who held trials around the country with thousands of players turning up and they picked the best ones to house, educate and train together in Buriram. They had the best 16 and 17 year olds in the country whereas we had the best 14 and 15 year olds from our region as we didn’t have residential facilities at that stage.
It took 8 months to fix things as we got the players into the right age groups which improved results immediately and saw our approach coming together. I only survived as the President’s son was raised in New Zealand so he understood what I was trying to do, which was different from what previous Thai coaches had been doing. If he had only been raised within the Thai culture I may have not been able to see the project through. Being given the time to change things and bring the right staff in helped us drive the programme forward and exceed the objectives set.
Q: Can you talk about the cultural differences you encountered while coaching abroad and how you navigated them?
A: The way people are raised and the education system in the Asian countries I’ve worked in are very different which meant I had to adapt massively. At home I was able to ask questions, have group discussions and give ownership to players but in Asia students aren’t used to this approach. They typically sit in the classroom and it’s a one way process with the teacher leading and they don’t have to answer questions in front of the class or work in groups.
Initially you need to take more of a command approach in Asia as if you ask questions you’ll be met with silence which wastes training time and the players won’t benefit. They’re not used to it and they don’t want to lose face (a huge cultural factor in Asia) in front of the group by getting the question wrong. They will also wonder why you’re being indecisive as their idea of great coaching is someone who has all the answers and is the dominant voice. Over time you can begin to change this by outlining the importance of a more autonomous approach and making them feel safe speaking up but it doesn’t happen overnight.
Q: Can you speak to the impact that coaching football abroad has had on your personal and professional development?
A: I had the opportunity to become Academy Director of a professional topflight club. That would never have happened back home. I had complete control of academy operations which was the best experience of my life. It was invaluable in what it taught me about language, managing people in foreign countries and how to adapt and get the best from people using the local culture. It also helped me to become more patient, culturally aware and helped me develop a wider skillset. Travelling the world coaching football opens your mind to different ways of doing things and is the best life experience you can get!
Q: How do you think the experiences and insights shared in your book can benefit aspiring football coaches looking to coach abroad?
A: It outlines exactly how eight coaches without high profile playing careers got jobs in 28 countries in Europe, Asia, Africa, Oceania and North America. It also shares their stories and what they’ve experienced working abroad. The coaches advise how to get jobs, the qualifications and experience you need, key factors for adapting to the culture, working with a translator, the key reasons coaches fail abroad and how to ensure you make a success of your career abroad.
Three of the coaches share how they got into the position to earn five figure salaries (USD), managed million dollar budgets and played in front of 100,000 fans. They also tell stories of working with and playing against the likes of Clarence Seedorf, Fabio Cannavaro and Marcello Lippi. Their journeys provide inspiration, unique insights and realistic pathways that will help coaches carve a career in the professional game worldwide.
Q: Can you discuss any notable successes or achievements you have had while coaching abroad?
A: In Thailand we brought the first national coaching course to Ubon Ratchathani and created coach education opportunities for over 100 coaches in our region. We also created school and community football programmes which benefitted over 300 local children.
In the academy we started four new age group teams to create a pathway to the first-team and a B team was created which played in the fourth division and saw players progressing into the first-team and signing professional contracts. We took a huge stride forward by starting the academy’s first residential programme which saw players living, going to school and training together. This meant we could attract players from around the country and we held trials which 548 players attended and we recruited 71 players. The importance of education was huge for us and we offered scholarships for students to study at the local university. We were very fortunate that the club had a lot of influence in the region which meant we were able to implement a lot of initiatives to benefit our club and the wider community.
Three of our academy players ended up in hospital in one week after motorbike accidents so we renovated our truck to give them a safer way to get to training, held road safety workshops, and banned any players who weren’t adhering to road safety protocols. Ideally, we would have banned them from riding motorbikes altogether but that wasn’t possible in the Thai countryside due to the public transport network and socioeconomic factors.
Our Head Coach Mixu Paatelainen allowed me to work with a foreign first-team player. He had only scored once in six games and he wasn’t happy with how things were going. He wanted to earn a new contract and a recall to the national team so we made a plan to make it happen. After starting the programme he went on to score four goals in the next six games and made two assists. This form saw a bigger club buy him and he got recalled to the national team. It was all down to his quality but he highlighted the role of the programme which involved a blend of visualisation and open communication. His recommendation led to me working with one of his international team mates and his former head coach.
Q: What advice would you give to someone considering coaching football abroad in the future?
A: Research a country you’d like to work in online. Search for local clubs and type them into LinkedIn to connect with staff who have worked there. Ask for their advice on the country and what the club is like to work for. After picking a country book a flight there. Doors open when you land as people are much less likely to take it seriously receiving an email from someone in a foreign land. Only once your feet are on the ground and you’ve shown who you are as a person and the quality of your work will they take you seriously.
Five coaches in my book saw Chinese football was booming years ago so they all moved there to work in grassroots. Understanding the culture, finding a way of working, developing a network and showing their work earned moves into professional clubs in Asia, including the Chinese Super League. This would have been impossible from homelands as getting their feet on the ground was the key for progressing their career.
This book is a fantastic read for any coach thinking of taking the step outside their native country. Jobs4football fully endorse the “Coaching Abroad” book which is delivered superbly by its author.
Get your copy of the book via Amazon here: https://amzn.to/3HC8rOf