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Interview – Blaine McKenna: A coaching odyssey

Blaine McKenna is not your average coach. In the modern game one must strive harder than ever to stand out, and the Northern Irishman has succeeded with a bold and forward-thinking approach. In a career that has already spanned 11 countries on five continents, McKenna has already accumulated considerable experience. He sat down with Heart of Football to discuss the importance of psychology & sport science, venturing abroad, being approachable and expanding horizons.

At what age did you start your coaching career, and what inspired it?

I started coaching when I was 16 as we had the opportunity, as part of our sports course at school, to coach at a primary school on a weekly basis. I’ve always been kicking balloons or balls from as young as I could walk, so football has always been a big part of my life.

At 16 I didn’t realise coaching was a real career but when I spent the summer, after my first year at University, coaching in the United States, that’s when I realised it’s a real job and could be a good career for me moving forward.

 Describe your career path so far, and what prompted each change.

 My first role abroad was with Arsenal Soccer School in Kuwait and since then I’ve coached for a range of grassroots, semi-professional and professional clubs in Asia, Africa and New Zealand. The best experience would probably be Thailand where I was Academy Director of a professional topflight club. It was great for my development having complete control of a professional academy and a great life experience living in the Thai countryside.

I look back fondly on my time there, what we were able to achieve and the legacy we left behind. Unfortunately, the club had big financial problems after relegation which meant we had to move on. They kept my translator on as Academy Director to continue the good work we had done.

Blaine McKenna’s first post abroad was at the Arsenal Soccer School in Kuwait

Your coaching journey has taken you across the globe to some far-flung places: why did you set yourself goals that took you to so many different footballing cultures, and do you feel you completed your goals?

As I got older I developed a love for travelling which may have been sparked by the summer I spent in the United States, having not travelled much before then. I had pictures of different countries I’d like to visit on the wall in my study, where I spent most days during my two degrees. This provided the motivation which saw me through a lot of tough days when I was doubting myself or having to work so hard to keep up, as education didn’t come easy for me.

Once I finally took the big step to sign a long-term contract abroad, I guess travelling became an addiction after that. I saw what the world had to offer and how fortunate I am that football is a global game which has opened up opportunities for me around the world. My goal in the wall of my study said to coach in five countries and I’m currently on 11 and have just had offers from two South East Asian countries I’ve never coached in before.

I’ve achieved my 10 year plan with my sport science degree, my masters in sport psychology, I’ve coached in 5 countries, I’ve been academy director at a professional club abroad and I got my UEFA A licence this year. I have absolutely no regrets which was my main aim at the outset as I’ve achieved more than I could ever have imagined in terms of the life experiences and friendships during my time abroad.

How important do you feel your education in psychology and sport science have been in your development as a coach? Are they obligatory components to earning UEFA licenses, and if not should they be?

They’ve been massive for me. My degree taught me to critically analyse all information which is presented to you as even top academics have biases or shortcomings in their methodology. We should always analyse everything we come across and learn from the good and bad around us. It highlighted the importance of having evidence to support your approach and helped structure my thoughts on a range of key coaching topics.

It also helped me in terms of getting visas and work permits in different countries as one country required the highest work pass which required a degree & led to working in a wonderful country on a good package. I’m so glad I chose to do my masters in sports psychology after deliberating over a range of topics.

Off the back of this work I was able to work with a range of international football players and gymnasts which has been brilliant for my professional practice and methodology. It also transcends across different industries so I can do work with business and at all levels of the game in sport. 

McKenna working as Academy Director at Ubon UMT United in Thailand

You have always come across as very open and approachable on social media to other coaches and football people. How much has social media helped in you finding opportunities? What pitfalls have you come across using social media? Why do you make yourself so available?

 I owe Twitter a lot as it’s where I found my first long-term role abroad. I get messages all the time from people asking for advice, wanting to collaborate or for me to join their team. It’s opened up a whole world of opportunities. I receive abuse messages via DM at times but I don’t give those people oxygen, I just ignore them.

I like to help people and I’m very fortunate to have the platform to do so. A physio asked me to help with his A licence coursework which I did to the best of my ability. One year later and the first team staff at his club in Thailand needed an Academy Director so he called me and the rest is history.

Helping others gives me a nice feeling but it’s also an investment in your future as you never know when that person may return the favour years down the line.

In your journey, what has been the most satisfying moment for you as a coach?

One of the most satisfying feelings is definitely when a player you coach(ed) earns their first professional contract. Achieving such success is all down to them but it’s nice to play a small role in helping people fulfill their dreams. Also when you see players continuing to play, coach or remained involved in the game until adulthood. It’s nice sparking a love for the game which results in lifelong involvement which benefits individuals and the game.

Another would be when you work one-to-one with a player. I set a programme for a Thai League player, which included open communication with the head coach about a change of position. The head coach listened and the player scored against Buriram United in the next game. The President’s son and I had never celebrated a goal with such enthusiasm.

Thailand was definitely my most satisfying role as we provided boots for a few players, gave scholarships for education, brought a range of national coach education opportunities to coaches in Ubon, provided coaching in schools for local kids, gave kids their first taste of professional football by providing them with the opportunity to attend Thai League games for free and renovated our truck to give a safe way to get to the pitch after three players ended up in hospital in one week.

Winning games & trophies is great but we can make such a difference in people’s lives through sport, which is arguably more important, but being in a position to do both is the golden ticket.

Communication and psychology have underpinned McKenna’s philosophy

Why did you take the step back from professional coaching to grassroots coaching? Was it not a big risk to your career prospects? 

The main reason was I wanted more stability. Everything was great at our club in Thailand as we finished 10th in the top flight but our budget dried up overnight the next season, which shows there’s no stability in the professional game.

You can’t always pick & choose where you live so I thought living in a beautiful country like Singapore and always receiving my salary on time and never worrying about the sack would be just what I needed. It also enabled me to save which was very important for me.

I also had ambitions of pushing my life skills programme which emanated from my masters degree and believed Singapore would be the perfect market for it. I made the move with view to helping me kick-start my own performance consultancy business long-term.

In the past year I’ve developed a lot of resources for this and in 2020 my life skills programme will be piloted in two countries with a UEFA Pro licence coach and a coach who wants to help kids in 22 schools.

You tweeted in July that you had written a book on coaching abroad – have you found a publisher? What do you hope to achieve from publishing it, other than the broader aim of inspiring others? [if it is ready, please let me know where/how to get hold of copies, and we would be delighted to promote it in our own small way]

I had a publisher but I recommended him to someone else and the publisher took their book idea and successfully published it. In the process the publisher seemed to forget about me but I will probably end up self-publishing it, hopefully in 2020.

I wasn’t aiming for a bestseller when I wrote the book but rather as a memory for myself. I also hope it will inspire young people who love football and don’t know what they want to do with their careers. I want to help people see that coaching is a real career and it can provide a good life.

When looking into new possibilities, what do you look for first: the culture of the country, the freedom to implement your own ideas and philosophies, or the opportunity to advance your career?

There’s a lot to consider. Before I would have gone anywhere but now I’m a lot more selective. You’ve got to factor in the balance between career progression and the package you’ll receive. The role has to be a springboard towards where you want to be in the future and the package has to enable you to live comfortably and save.

Outside of that you’ve got to look at the environment of where you’re living, what’s the air quality like, is traffic bad, what languages are commonly spoken, how does the culture compare with what you’ve experienced before. Then you’ve got to look at the club, do coaches stay long there, what are their ambitions, how is it managing up within the organisation, what resources will you have available, what’s the set up of the club and the current player pool.

There’s a lot to factor in and unfortunately everything isn’t always as it seems during your Skype interview, so best to ask for unbiased opinions from people who have worked in the country or club before.

There are a myriad of factors that coaches must take into account when searching for job opportunities according to McKenna

What further aims do you have in your career? Where do you see yourself working, and in what capacity, in the future?

I’m in talks with a well-known club at the moment so I hope to end up there next season and we’ll see where that leads in the professional football industry. Long term I want to develop my consultancy work further by working with more athletes online, having more coaches implementing my life skills programme around the world and seeing where that leads.

Ultimately I just want to be content and happy in the place I live. Before I’d chase career progression above all else but that left me living in a place where they air quality was so bad I ended up in hospital. These experiences helped me realise that health and happiness is what’s most important in life.  

Has a career in coaching changed the way you look at the sport as a whole? Do you feel disconnected from top-level football as a fan of the game, or as a professional? 

Seeing how football operates in different countries has been a real eye opener. Things aren’t always as they seem when you’re a naïve youngster watching your heroes on TV. I don’t watch as much football as I did when I was younger, which may be down to time difference and wanting to switch off away from football.

What advice would you give anyone curious about approaching a career in coaching, or in football in general? 

Have a think where you’d like to be years down the line and then develop a plan to get there. Reach out to people in the industry to hear their insight, learn and to network. Football is all about who you know, the best roles don’t always get advertised. People would much rather hire those they’re familiar with than take a jump into the unknown with a complete stranger.

Also have a think about the country and where you’d like to live. I’ve written a blog on coaching abroad and have done a number of media interviews which can be found on my website for further reference.

When I was 12, my letter to United We Stand fanzine was published, and I will never forget the euphoric thrill of seeing my words in print. Two decades later I work as the Russian Premier League website's official English-language version from my home in Tyumen, Siberia. I have had my work published by When Saturday Comes, Four Four Two, These Football Times, The Guardian, The Football Pink, Futbolgrad and Russian Football News.

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