Mark, thank you so much for taking the time to allow us to conduct this interview – to start, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I'm currently the Tsawwassen Soccer Club Technical Director. I do some local soccer media work for TSN with a weekly football show called “Footy Soldiers” which airs each Saturday morning on TSN 1040 and TSN 1410. Also, I am a TSN radio analyst for pre and post Whitecaps games and a colour commentator for Whitecaps 2 matches.
Can you expand a bit on your playing and coaching background?
I spent 8 seasons in England playing 7 with Wycombe Wanderers and 1 with Stevenage. At Wycombe we qualified for the FA Cup semi final in 2001 eventually losing 2-1 to Liverpool. I spent a number of years playing for the Canadian National Team representing them at the 2002 Gold Cup placing third. On retirement from playing I have worked with the UBC men and women, BC provincial team programs, with the Canadian men’s national team and most importantly with my hometown youth club in Tsawwassen.
What clubs in here in Canada did you play for leading up to your pro career – I assume Tsawwassen and UBC were two – any others?
Tsawwassen and then Delta Metro (when the metro league formed in the mid eighties) at youth. I began playing mens at 15 with Delta United. That helped a lot with my development. Not necessarily by coaching or design, but by survival of the fittest. I had to keep up. I played for UBC and while I was there, I spent one season playing with Burnaby Canadians in the VMSL.
You played for Holger Osieck at the MNT – what was that like?
Holger was easy to work with. He was an old school no nonsense type manager which is exactly the type of manager I had at the time in England with Lawrie Sanchez. If anything Holger was quite a bit nicer than Lawrie! At that time we had some success at Gold Cup winning and placing third. We still did not have a big base of professionals to draw upon. Holger did a good job of setting us up and making sure we were all on the same page. He made us very tough to play against.
How did you get into coaching – what was the defining moment that made you realise this is what you wanted to do?
On retirement in 2006 myself and Mark Watson assisted my old UBC coach Mike Mosher with the UBC men’s team. We won the National Championship and it was a fun experience. It was around that time that I began to be interested in coaching.
Who was / is your biggest influence?
I have always had a good relationship with Mike Mosher. He was my coach at UBC, then became a friend and mentor for my coaching career.
There seems to be a bit of a misconception on what a Technical Director actually does – can you shed some light on what your typical day is like when you have your TD hat on?
I can’t really comment on what other technical directors do. Too often the titles of Technical Director and Head Coach are intermingled when really they are very different jobs. For me a Technical Director guides the philosophy of the club which should fall in line with our National plan. The director should then implement programming to achieve targets within the plan and philosophy. The Technical Director should be responsible for managing a staff of qualified coaches and then oversee the education of the clubs players. The direct education of the players should be the job of a Head Coach and the head coach should be managed by the Technical Director. The Technical Director should either conduct coach education (and sometimes certification) for both their volunteer and paid coaches or manage someone responsible for coach education. Scheduling should also fall under a TD’s jurisdiction as it is impossible to run a program without proper periodization. There are very busy times of the year and slower times. The beginning of the school year through until June is very busy for our club. During the day it is the regular administration and communication that is required to manage a large group of players, volunteer coaches, paid coaches and implementation of programming. Because we are a small club, I also have the opportunity to do a lot of coaching which means being on the pitch each evening as well. Maintenance of our academy equipment (pumping balls, washing pinnies etc) is also part of the job.
Equipment maintenance but no boot shining? You must have done plenty of that at Wycombe, no? Seriously though, there must be days where you need to be mentally strong and push through the admin stuff which leads into this question: is enough attention being made towards the mental side of the game? We can have all the technically gifted young athletes in the world but if they don’t have situational awareness or the willingness to face adversity head on, have we missed the boat with our players?
No boot shining at Wycombe! Thankfully I was a professional and as such was too old for those jobs. Those jobs were left to the YTS (youth apprentices). The mental aspect is a difficult challenge for us in Canada. Comparatively to other nations, our players have very comfortable lives. Rarely will they have that kind of daily adversity to overcome. From a soccer standpoint, we undervalue the mental strength requirement in a professional player. When identifying talent we must make sure that they have a deep desire to succeed and do well. These are the players who will have good daily habits which will propel them beyond the rest when it matters at about 18 years old. Regarding awareness, too many coaches focus on technique out of context. Once the young player has developed a decent first touch and range of passing, they have to develop an awareness of where to take their first touch in a game context. This comes by forcing them to look before they receive. Over time, the player will do it naturally thereby creating good pictures of what is going on around them in a game and then making better decisions based on these pictures.
It appears that we are identifying players at younger ages nowadays but what about those that develop at a later stage – late teens – are they missing out?
I was definitely one of those players. Physically a very late bloomer who decided to go to an open tryout in his third year of University. I am glad I did! We do not have the oversight or system to legislate for responsible oversight and management of our player base. Players fall through the cracks all of the time. Often they have quit or moved onto another sport because the unwritten message is “you aren’t very good” when the people assessing them aren’t qualified to understand the full picture on a players development. Also, we simply do not have the system or the resources in this country to legislate for the late bloomer.
What about coaches? Are there enough opportunities in Canada to become a professional coach?
There are more and more opportunities to become a professional coach in Canada. Expectations are much higher regarding the soccer education for our children. For those aspiring to be coaches, get educated and certified!
In your experience, what are the biggest challenges Technical Directors face today?
There are a number of challenges.
- Lack of oversight and guidance from our governing bodies.
I'll expand upon this in my third point below.
- Education of parents.
It is a win at all cost culture with our younger players. They are asked to compete when they are not competent. This becomes a perception battle for a TD. In equipping a young player with the necessary skill to succeed at the game when it matters, there needs to be a period of development of love of the game first and education second. Our country bypasses those two keys steps and heads straight to arrangement of 6 year olds on a playing board like they are game board pieces with the intent to win tournaments. As you know, winning with a 6 year old and winning with a 16 year old requires a completely different set of skills. The same skills that are not obtained because we have not technically educated them first.
- Getting buy in from a volunteer board.
Our volunteer youth boards are filled with very well meaning parents. They often are coaching a team themselves and put their hand up for extra volunteer hours in their already busy lives which is commendable. Without a mandate from our governing bodies, the TD’s are left to do all of the educating of why and how to run programming to their boards. For example, if they do not agree with the philosophies of the TD (which should be in line with the National curriculum and plan) and decide to either terminate the programming in favour of a win at all cost model or not fully support the vision of the TD, the TD is left exposed. The TD knows they will not get any support from their governing bodies for the implementation of their national plans. All too often what happens is that the TD abandons the plan because they feel threatened and do not want to lose employment. I am very fortunate. I grew up in Tsawwassen and have the backing of a very supportive board that is active in helping my staff implement programming. As an ex coach and player for our countries national team, I fear that without this oversight you will be left with pockets or islands of development. Of course in a country where soccer is not number one and where we are competing against countries where it is, we have to maximize and unify the development of our young players.
The LTPD document has been out for quite a while now. It was being put together while I was at BC Soccer 9 years ago! That is a lifetime in soccer. There are many who have not adopted the document. These clubs need some oversight from our governing body. The others who have adopted the document and its philosophy have moved on. They have evolved their programming based on LTPD as a starting point and improved upon it based on on-field experience.
Thanks again Mark for your time and great answers! One last thing. Fantasy moment: You are in charge of overseeing player development throughout the country and money is no object – what is the one thing you would do/change to improve the system in place now?
Place all of our money, attention and resources into our grassroots. It has become a race to the bottom in our country where little boys and girls are being set up like little playing pieces on a board to satisfy adult ambition. Competing is a natural byproduct of play, take the win at all cost out of it and focus on engagement of children through fun. Once they love it they will be more than willing to be educated. Ask them to win once they understand the game and are equipped with the tools to succeed.