Alex Arnold - Director of Football in China

"Being on the pitch from 09:00 – 17:00 every day, working with players from a variety of backgrounds, ages and experience levels allowed me time to practice. Every day was a chance to make mistakes and correct mistakes through testing new ideas and strategies".

Name, age, where you are based?

Alex Arnold, 34 years old, Beijing, China.

Current Role:

Director of Football for ClubFootball based predominantly in Beijing. My main roles are to enhance the player and the coach development pathway, design and implement coaching curricula and deliver methodologies, mentor the team of 18 full time coaches (predominantly from the UK), expand and deliver the clubs' country wide coach education programmes and represent the club in media publications.


I have the UEFA B license and I'am looking to undertake an A license in Asia either late this year or early next year. I completed the FA Youth Modules, American USSF C license and have coaching badges in Gymnastics, Athletics and SAQ. I am also a lead Premier Skills Coach Educator.

My degree was actually in Physical Education with a view to going down the teaching pathway. Despite choosing the coaching route post-graduation I am grateful for the foundations which my degree provided me, in terms of pedagogic understanding and how it helped to shape my developmental principles.

If I could give one piece of advice to anyone embarking on a degree, vocational pathway or coaching qualification it would be to remain open minded to whatever you are being taught. I believe that a good educator should be adapting and developing their principles every day so should approach every new idea (whether they perceive it to be a good or bad one) as a potential learning experience. Try not to settle on your ‘philosophies’ too early – I haven’t – we all have so much still to learn!

How did you get into coaching and what has your path been like?

As mentioned earlier, after retiring from Football at a young age due to injury, my idea was to go in to P.E. teaching. However I had the opportunity to go across and coach in California during the Summer break after my first year at University and this had a huge impact on my thought process with respect to my career path.

To digress slightly here; I think it’s quite important not to be too steadfast in your future career ‘plan’ or ‘pathway’. Just try to work as hard as you can and then weigh up each opportunity as it comes along and decide based on what you feel at that moment in time. Fine to have a plan as to where you want to go but important to remain open minded to new opportunities.

That approach eventually brought be to China which in all honesty wasn’t really my first choice in terms of where I wanted to live and work – more due to knowing very little about the place. However I decided to give it a go due to the job exciting me and haven’t regretted that decision since.

Coaching in America gave me two invaluable things. Firstly; time on the pitch. I was 20 or 21 at the time and in truth didn’t have the faintest idea how to coach (some would say I still don’t!). Being on the pitch from 09:00 – 17:00 every day, working with players from a variety of backgrounds, ages and experience levels allowed me time to practice. Every day was a chance to make mistakes and correct mistakes through testing new ideas and strategies.

The other thing that my first couple of stints in the US taught me was the importance of making strong relationships in and around your industry. This is an aspect of football that is often frowned upon or bemoaned as being a terrible thing which only occurs in football.

Sorry, but this happens in any and every industry you care to mention. There is nothing backhanded or untoward about presenting yourself in the most professional and personable way possible and enjoying the positive (mutually beneficial) relationships that you inevitably form as a result.

I returned to the States a couple of times after that Summer; firstly returning to work with SDSU (San Diego State University) and secondly on a trip to Hawaii with Liverpool Football Club.

After graduation I started working with Liverpool Football Club’s Academy and remained there for 7 years before making the move to my current role in China.

I feel incredibly fortunate to have benefited from the experiences I gained through my time at Liverpool. It shaped me to be the coach and the person I am today. During my time with Liverpool I worked in the community department, elite academy, ladies development centre and U18’s, soccer schools and finally worked as a head coach for the International department. It was the latter that gave me an insight in to the benefits of coaching abroad.

I met some wonderful people at Liverpool both on and off the pitch and to some I owe a debt of gratitude for how much they taught me. I also look back and think of how many mistakes I made which allowed me to learn and improve. Were it not be for being put in those uncomfortable and challenging situations at Liverpool I think it’s unlikely that I would be where I am now personally and professionally.

In terms of specific examples that resonate; I remember the first time I worked with Sammy Lee. Here was a man who had done pretty much everything in the game and I just remember being absolutely blown away by his unwavering enthusiasm towards everything he did.

There are times even now that I find myself approaching something with a slightly negative attitude and I think back to the example set by him and others (I’ll get hammered if I drop any more names here) around the Academy at that time – and give myself a kick !

What is your training focus with your current teams/players and what are your main duties in your role?

I tend not to get too involved in the day to day planning and delivery side of things now. We have a great team of senior coaches and coaching mentors who are more hands on with that side. We also believe in the importance of allowing the coaches some autonomy in terms of what they plan and how they wish to deliver it. Of course we have our developmental principles which must be adhered to as well as a set framework from which coaches are expected to work but the way that they interpret the set of topics, learning objectives and outcomes should be up to the coach to have a bit of creative freedom with.

To give a very brief overview of our main principles (and these are adapting and evolving every day), we believe passionately about development over results, we try to create a balance between game related and technical practices (depending on the needs and developmental phase of the players), we look to ensure that we set an environment where the children feel confident enough to try new things without fear of failure and we believe in giving ALL children the same opportunities to succeed!

I very often get asked what my coaching philosophy is and find it tough to answer. I was always hesitant in answering this question because I felt to be overly specific about how to deal with a world as sporadic and unpredictable as football was a mistake. I was always very wary of coaches who were absolutely adamant about ‘the way to do things’ and who fervently rebuffed anyone who might have a different approach or idea.

I see two issues with this attitude, one being, if you think you have already ‘completed football’ by the time you are 25 or even 35 then I am convinced that at some stage you will be in for a very rude awakening! Would a 25 year old newly qualified doctor waltz around the operating theater confident in the belief that he wasn’t going to learn anything for the next 50 years of his career (wouldn’t fancy that fella doing surgery on me)? The second issue here is that you are closing yourself off from new learning opportunities.

I was recently having a conversation with Cliff Olsen who is an FA coach Educator and senior lecturer at UCLan in the UK. He wrote the majority of the FA Youth Modules and is a very well respected coach. He is also (how can I put this politely) more senior in years than me. It was unbelievably refreshing to hear him respond to the ‘what is your philosophy’ question with – ‘it depends’.

Quite a lot of my work now is on the business development and media side of the industry but my passion is still centered around developing players and more prominently over the last few years; developing coaches. My thoughts behind this are always evolving too but as it stands these are the most important aspects which we try to encourage our coaching team to consider.

- Adaptability.

It is vital to be flexible in your approach to coaching. Having the ability to adapt your trusted methodology to suit a constantly changing landscape is a skill which few possess but those who do will invariably enjoy success. This is even more prevalent when living and working in a new country such as China.

- Responsibility.

Accepting responsibility for mistakes, taking on the responsibility to improve yourself every day, trusting those around you to take on responsibility and understanding the responsibility you have to offer each and every child the best possible footballing experience that you can.

- Positivity.

One of my favorite quotes is ‘never underestimate the power of your passion’. I spend pretty much every day with members of our coaching team and their unwavering enthusiasm for the work that they do never ceases to impress me. They approach their work with a positive mentality – which helps them improve themselves and those around them. Mistakes should be seen as an opportunity to improve – that way – every day brings about new opportunities to develop and to learn.

What’s the environment like for living and what are the main things that take some getting used to?

It’s quite shocking how many horror stories I hear from coaches who have been out to work abroad and have had negative experiences. These stories almost always follow the same path. I was promised this that and the other and none of it happened, I was dumped in a school in the middle of nowhere, I was the only foreigner, I was given no support on or off the pitch, no developmental support, I didn’t get paid etc. The list is quite frightening.

The main piece of advice I could give anyone coming out to a new