Tim Hankinson on Coaching Abroad

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…We had a game away in Kolkata against East Bengal. In the stadium there must have been 500 riot police with 5 foot shields, German Shepherds and rifles. In the 90th minute we tied the game and took a point. After the press conference we get on the bus and start to leave along the one road out of the stadium. On each side of the street for as far as you can see are the fans who had been at the game. The next thing we know softball-sized rocks come flying through the windows, shattering glass everywhere. We are all down on the floor of the bus hoping to get through it. About an hour later we heard from an opposing player who said that their bus went to the hospital because two of the players got badly injured. It turned out the fans were just warming up their arms throwing rocks at us… they were waiting to punish their team for giving up the last minute goal!

A lot of coaches have hesitations about coaching in foreign countries. What made you want to try it?

After I got my USSF A License I attended English FA, DFB [German] and Scottish FA courses and observed at Arsenal, Kaiserslautern, and Aberdeen. These experiences – the people I meet, club cultures, and training methods all made me want to join their ranks. US soccer was in its infancy at the time though. Opportunities for me to coach opened up as the US grew in world recognition in the game. As a first American to coach in some countries I was always being tested, but enjoyed the challenge of working to show that the USA is ready to lead clubs internationally, as we see with Bob Bradley now in Egypt and Norway.

My instructor in Scotland was Alex Ferguson, who was Aberdeen manager at the time. After the course I spent time with the club on their pre-season in Germany. Watching Sir Alex work with his players each day was insightful in learning how to handle personalities. Years later as coach of the Colorado Rapids we signed a player Gilles Grimandi from Arsenal. I spent two weeks over there watching the work of Arsène Wenger. After training, the coaches would have a meal together in the clubhouse and I would talk with him. Getting the chance to cross paths with coaching greats and observe how they handle certain moments provides a wealth of knowledge.

What about language barriers?

Every team I have coached at the professional level has included players who spoke different languages. For example, Carlos Valderama played for me in Tampa and it was crucial to have an interpreter. I had an outstanding administrator who had the trust of Carlos and assisted me in private meetings to create the understanding that would keep Carlos and me working closely together to achieve the same goals. After Miami Fusion folded, I drafted Pablo Mastroeni to play defensive midfield – a position he had not played before. Part of the decision was to use his aggressive defensive play and work rate behind Carlos, but the other was as a communicator for Carlos as Pablo spoke fluent Spanish. They became a great partnership and a few months later Pablo was selected for the US National Team playing in two World Cups. Communication is crucial for success!

Jose Mourinho started as an interpreter for Bobby Robson at Barcelona. The clubs I have worked with have always had a support coach to assist with language barriers.

Whenever you go to a new coaching position, how do you immerse yourself in their club culture and style?

Research before arrival is important to understand their history, expectations, club structure, rivalries, and present squad. In many cases the players have already been selected, so your job is to manage the group that has been signed for the club. Sometimes there are late additions but I’ve seen visa delays and fitness issues as they adapt to the new surroundings.

Understanding and appreciating the psychology of the people of the country is vital. My kit man in the MLS was from one of the countries I went to coach. He told me before I left that when his people played stronger opponents they were already resigned to defeat, while against an equal they were highly confident. In the pre-season I arranged friendlies against stronger opponents to help them break their belief, but losing those games our team lost confidence. As an American if we play Brazil we are excited, confident and ready to prove ourselves. Not every country in the world is the same and it is important to try to understand the emotional make-up of those you work with.

How different were the training regimes and intensities in the different countries?

The challenges were mostly pre-season where we saw great differences. In Iceland pre-season begins in late January when the grass fields are under 4 feet of snow and the gravel training fields are also frozen. On the coast we would train once a day on the black sand beach at the ocean. The beach was so frozen that sand was like concrete. Added to that, many players had jobs so a second session has its challenges. The freezing temperatures forced players to warm up inside and then only go with 100% effort outside to keep warm. There was one artificial surface that was heated that teams would rent, but that was a four hour drive away in Reykjavik – one field for a whole league of teams.

In India the pre-season begins in July during the monsoon rains, when the flooding means that there are no usable grass fields. A few cities have artificial fields to rent. The rains would pound on players for 15 minutes at a time, we would grab some cover, then train for another period before the rain hit us again. It’s felt like getting hit with a fire hose. Once monsoon season is over field conditions continued to be a challenge with poor surfaces and often-uncut grass. The Indian players were not used to working twice daily and usually trained at a slower tempo with the heat and humidity.

Brazil was a different class… Why is the well so deep with talent? In the school yard the game of Futsal fuels skill. At the professional level most clubs have a dormitory and they identify and select players starting at age 14 to move from home and live with the club. They are fed well, strength trained, and most weeks train Monday to Friday twice a day, a game Saturday and free to visit family Sunday. Players have 10 sessions a week to perfect the skill set and develop their professionalism – compared to most US clubs practicing 2-3 times a week. I hate to admit it but we are getting outworked!

How about their expectations and motivations for playing the game?

Motivation to play in Guatemala, India and Brazil starts with families being poor – the game may give them a way to climb the economic ladder. For the Brazilian, the chance to go on loan to Europe or Asia means financial success. More recently they have started to select taller 14 year olds over there because they are more likely to appeal to the European market where they like taller, stronger athletes.

Iceland is different: players go to university or have a job on the side, but they all want to play for a top local club and hope to qualify for the UEFA Cup. Once qualified they know they will have a chance to play a higher profile European club and, with a good performance, possibly get signed to a higher level team.

How much of a factor is the environment in determining the style of soccer your teams would play?

The heat, cold, altitude, and field surface are all important factors. As are whether we are playing home or away, the passion for a style of game, skill and the physical attributes of players. In the MLS, the Colorado Rapids have altitude to their advantage. In pre-season I always had to consider training in a country with similar elevation like Guadalajara, Mexico and playing clubs like Chivas, Atlas and Tecos.

In India the people love the British Premier League and always want to replicate their systems and style. The physical build of the Indian players makes it difficult to replicate though – in particular the physical nature and the aerial game. They are naturally more suited to quick counters, combination passing and a solid consistent possession game that can help a team survive the Indian heat.

In Iceland we had a game where the wind and snow were in our faces so strongly that we couldn’t get the ball out of our half. Before the half was over I told our striker to go stand on the opponent’s goal line and he put his arms up to question what I was doing. Finally we played a ball forward into the penalty area and the referee called him offside. Then they had to have a free kick from their goal line, which was the only time we got close to it for those 45 minutes. The referee had a laugh and said he wasn’t calling it again.

Is it difficult being so far from friends and family and initially not knowing anyone?

Without doubt, leaving one’s family for months at a time has its downside. But daily Skype becomes a highlight of each day. Communication becomes something you never take for granted. In Guatemala my young son Matthew visited during the rainy season… He walked out of the airport up to his knees in street water! Later that week we climbed an active volcano. My older son spent two weeks in India learning to barter prices. When he returned he tried to offer a lower price for an item at Wal-Mart! The Elephant ride together is a memory of a lifetime.

Overall, would you say you learn more from them or they learn more from you when you go to an entirely new culture like that?

In most clubs the learning curve works both ways. Often they bring a coach in to make improvements and bring modern thinking but more often clubs do not adapt well to changes. My approach is always to see what ideas they are receptive to. Everything is a collaboration working for the common goal – to win! The club members share their ways of doing things like travel, menu, training times, etc. and then you as coach express ways to influence change. Some countries are convinced there is only one system of play and every team in the country plays it. For example, when I was in Iceland they all played 3-5-2 without fail. Suggesting a different way can be very difficult, so I would start with small corrections and hope for a bit of luck in getting them to be receptive to it. Getting my Indian club to change the typical menu for pre-game was quite the challenge. Guatemala was more a case of not having enough protein in their diet to build muscle – chips and a Coke were considered a full meal!

Do you notice a significant difference between the technical and tactical levels of players in the US compared to other countries you coached in?

In most countries technical skills are developed by age 13. In comparison, our US players are usually still working on individual skills in their late teens. The increased foreign awareness prior to receiving the ball allows players to make early decisions and this increases their speed of play. US players too often receive the ball and then try to figure what their options are. Similarly, the awareness of where pressure will come from and having the skill to turn away from it to escape or beat pressure is stronger in foreign players. US players dislike pressure on their backs whereas foreign players invite the pressure in order to know where their defender is and what side they are defending. In the game we struggle with crossing. Very few US players strike quality and consistent crosses, which is one of the most frequently used skills in creating a chance on goal.

Tactically, opening up a defensive back four is weaker is here. We lack playmakers who can see and understand that ‘victory lies behind the defenders!’ US players mostly view the defenders in front of them rather than visualizing the spaces between or behind them. Added to this the football communication is a more limited in our players – they do not talk the game within the game. Good communication between players corrects and solves issues before they end up in the back of the net.

Our culture in the US is to bring the soccer backpack to for three practices each week. The other days the ball never leaves the bag. The rest of the world, whether there is an organized practice or not, play seven days a week! Finally, competitive culture needs to improve. As Americans we consider ourselves VERY COMPETATIVE, but in our youth development few players learn to compete because of the requirement that everyone plays equally. Our players must be submerged into a more competitive atmosphere both at training and in match selection.

What are the biggest differences between coaching college and professional players?

Both experiences as a coach have great rewards. In college there is more teaching and coaching basics in the game. The regional ranking system means that there is less room for error. Discipline leaves a coach with few options but to bench a player, which can hurt the team’s overall opportunity for a positive result. In college you play a three month season with 20 matches and then you are restricted during the off-season.

For the players: confidence must be handled with more understanding, as these are still young men. Coaches have to prioritize academic graduation rates and be concerned about NCAA regulations too. After graduating a player frequently returns for alumni day and the relationship between former players and coaches brings hugs and appreciation for the time they had together.

In the professional game there is more management of personalities and getting experienced players to buy in to one direction. Discipline usually is handled with financial fines to shape the behavior of the player. Not starting a game the player may lose a bonus and with the depth chart of a professional club it is much easier to not affect the result with this action. The season is 60 matches over 11 months for players and 11½ for coaches, which seems to never end! The priority is on winning above all else.

When you meet former players later in life there is a good chance you cut or traded them, asked them to take a pay cut or ended their career! The relationship is not always as warm as a former collegiate player, though some of my strongest ties are with former professional players. These players have wives and children that you grow to know during your time together also.

For the majority of coaches, professional positions appear to be pretty short term. When a job ends, do you take responsibility, or is it just part of the cycle?

You have a great deal of introspection, whether you are fired or not rehired. At the end of every season, as a coach you’re going to scour your brain to analyze all of the issues of the season – the good, the bad, what you could have done better, and so on. It’s a natural part of the process. In some countries, like Brazil, you might have five different coaches in a single season. The thinking there is that a new coach will go on a run of collecting points, but when it ends you need get rid of him and find someone else. That same guy might be hired to help another club the same day – it is just a process that they go by there. As a result there is less judgment placed on coaches in Brazil.

In the United States there is a tremendous amount of judgment put on coaches – even at the national level. For example, a guy takes the U17 National Team to the World Cup, doesn’t get past the group stage and that guy never coaches a national team again. Instead of thinking now we have a coach who has been through that process, who has been to the mountaintop, and let’s recycle him. Maybe he would do it better the next time, with experience. Judging coaches on failures can be very damaging and some never rebound.

Resiliency is a very important word for a coach. You are going to get knocked down a lot – over results, the media, angry fans, angry parents – everybody is second-guessing you all of the time and if you’re not resilient you will never get through that. You will always take the majority of responsibility when you are fired, but there are usually also things that were out of your control.

Coaching a university, high school or club tends to have a higher level of security for a coach. Professional coaches live by their last and next result – always feeling the pressure to win and make the playoffs. Regardless of winning or losing, the professional coach experiences changes in management, attendance, public opinion, player/team contentment, and potential relegation – all of these can reduce your chances of keeping the job. It is important to have a deep belief in oneself and the job you do, and be confident that what you bring to players, ownership and the fans will always be recognized and another door will open.

What kind of personality do you need to have to survive and enjoy being a professional coach?

A coach’s personality at a professional level must be strong and resilient enough to think clearly when in front of 61,000 of your home fans, you are 0-2 down on July 4th after your president expressed that the game is a must win! Luckily for me we came back to win that night 3-2.

It takes philosophical conviction but also the flexibility to read a moment, player, or situation and adjust as needed. Psychologically it takes knowing when and how to dig at your best players while having a soft approach to keep others at ease. Most of all it takes creating a culture of mutual respect, a sense of pride and to always be passionate about all you do with your team.

Tim Hankinson has worked with professional teams on four continents, including being head coach of the Tampa Bay Mutiny and Colorado Rapids in the MLS, as well as the San Antonio Scorpions and Charleston Battery. While abroad, he has coached for Salgaocar SC in the Indian I-League, Figueirense FC in Brazil, the Guatemalan National U17 team, and UMF Tindastóll in Iceland’s first division. Tim also had a stint as head coach for Nike’s Project 40 (now Generation Adidas) – identifying potential future US National Team players. Outside of the professional game, Tim has coached several college teams, including Fort Lewis, Alabama A&M, Syracuse and DePaul. Finally, he has been a youth club technical director rounding off a broad and fascinating range of coaching experiences. 

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