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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 country (and this is especially prevalent in China) would be DO YOUR RESEARCH. Our club has been around since 2001. It is the longest serving grassroots football club in China as well as the biggest in terms of player numbers. We have an experienced management team and mentoring network, we have staff designated to supporting new coaches off the pitch when they arrive and we have a clear pathway for good coaches to develop and progress.

Aside from this, we are in Beijing. Beijing is no different to living in London (slightly busier – just the 25 million people here!). There is everything you need here from your home comforts, places to have a beer and watch the match, wonderful food (both western and Chinese), live music, two super league clubs to go to watch each weekend and whatever else you care to think of. Add to that the wonderful juxtaposition of old and new, the chance to immerse yourself in a new culture, to travel Asia and to learn a new language; making it a place I would highly recommend.

I’ve been really lucky to have coached in a huge number of countries; from the UK and Ireland to all around Europe and Scandinavia and as far afield as Africa, America and more recently across Asia and I can honestly say that Beijing is extremely high up on my list of places to visit.

How’s the footballing culture there and how is it being developed?

Football is at the forefront of everyone’s imagination here at the moment. China’s president XI Jin Ping is a massive football fan and he is desperate to see the countries fortunes improve. In recent years we have seen investment in grassroots football, schools football and the more widely publicised spending at super league level. We have also seen increased interest from parents and children and increased exposure to football on TV / media channels.

All of this is positive, to an extent. The next step for China is to knit all of this together in a more functional and cohesive way.

At the minute, the government isn’t really driving the principles of football here. They put out policy saying they want to improve football in this, this, this, and this area but it doesn’t cascade downwards. It doesn’t go from government to Ministry of Education to local football association to local clubs. There’s no plan of responsibility at each level. They have just said, ‘football please’ so every man and his dog is rushing around trying to achieve this. The lack of a distinct thorough, top to bottom plan is the main barrier to football here at the moment but we are seeing signs of improvement.

What I believe we are doing, is independently creating a blueprint for how to develop a football pyramid here in China. We have programmes from grassroots to advanced players, for 3 year olds to 18 year olds, we have football programmes for players of all levels and experiences, we have built leagues for players to compete, we have a coach development and mentoring system, we have coach education programmes to develop local and national coaches and we have developed a football culture / family feel which I think you might struggle to find anywhere else here. Of course there are countless things we can do to improve which is why we are always looking to recruit good coaches with the right attitude and mentality.

What differences are apparent in terms of coaching or working in the country compared to your home nation?

I feel that it is slightly harsh to make a comparison. In England I was working for a professional club which has existed for over 100 years. The super league club here in Beijing has existed for about 20. In truth, football is still rather in its infancy here which actually makes it quite an exciting place to be. If you come in with the right approach you can make an impact – which surely is what all coaches are striving to do!

In terms of China specific considerations; as we spoke about earlier, adaptability is so important in coaching. We have not come to China and said ‘okay we are doing it our way and you must follow’, far from it. The club has been here for 20 years now. I have been here for over 5. Each day we will see or hear something which forces us to reconsider different aspects of what we do. I believe that has given us a curriculum, a methodology and a team of coaches who are delivering something wonderfully balanced and suited to all.

A couple of examples of this; we bring in a huge amount of social challenges, decision making, creativity and freedom of thought in to our skills course sessions as we believe that these are the areas from which the young children will benefit most. Perhaps they have had limited social interaction before coming to our courses so we encourage them to explore aspects of cooperation, communication and teamwork. Perhaps they aren’t entrusted with many of their own decisions at school so we empower the children to take charge of the learning process.

Perhaps the children have never played a sport which requires such a level of creativity so we provide them with opportunities to develop this too. It really is about developing the whole person – not just the player.

The development that they receive with us, we hope, will help them in any and all walks of life. It goes far beyond football.

More generally there are obviously subtle differences in whichever country you go to. People have different attitudes, different upbringing and a different footballing education. One thing however ALWAYS remains consistent irrespective of where you coach and that is the kids love for football.

Football truly is a global game and no matter where you go in the world; if you get a good coach in front of a group of players you will see the players transform. The smiles on their faces make the job worthwhile.

How is your role helping to shape the club and culture…have you made any significant changes?

Since I arrived 5 years ago we have gone from having 4 full time coaches to a team of 18+ now so we have grown significantly. We have grown the number of programmes we offer, the number of coaching hours per child and I believe we have significantly improved the quality of coaching we offer the children.

This has been brought about in a number of ways but to try to identify a couple I would say setting high standards myself and hoping to be an example to those around me as well as encouraging each and every member of staff to do same would be one area and recruitment of (and subsequently trusting) good people would be the other.

Our assistant Director, Rob, often bangs on about Aristotle’s ‘excellence is habit’ quote (knowing Rob it was more likely to be Benito Carbone) but I reckon that’s a pretty decent mantra to consider when going about your work.

Would you recommend coaches to coach abroad any advice for them?

I certainly would. It is a great chance to get coaching hours under your belt, develop on and off the pitch, meet new people, learn a language and progress your career. Get yourself out of your comfort zone, immerse yourself in a challenging environment and with people (and yourself) who push, challenge and drive you to improve every day.

So often coaches (people in general I suppose) seem to be so keen to mask or hide mistakes / areas for improvement but they are so vital for your development. How can you improve if you never make a mistake? We try to engender an atmosphere amongst the coaching team where they are brave enough to seek out help and support where they need it.

Whether that be from management or fellow colleagues we try to ensure that this isn’t seen as an admission that they are ‘not a good coach’ but more as an indication that they want to improve. What the coaches here are also fortunate enough to have are those all-important practice hours I mentioned earlier. They are out on the pitch 20 hours a week on average, which is a nice balance – plenty of practice hours but not so much as to wear them out and reduce delivery quality.

What’s been the best thing for your personal development thus far?

Along with learning from those around me I would say it’s probably learning from my own mistakes and misjudgments.

What things have been challenging in your current or past roles?

Unfulfilled potential. I would sooner employ a coach who perhaps still has a lot to learn but is desperate to improve rather than a coach who might be ‘better’ at that stage but isn’t willing to listen, learn or develop.

Has anything developed you more than if you were working in UK?

In reality, had I stayed in the UK, I wouldn’t be Director of Football at Liverpool right now – nor would I want to be (they seem to be doing a fairly decent job without me). So I would say the main thing that moving abroad has given me is the opportunity to progress quickly.

As mentioned, I have also been heavily involved in coach education here which I have found extremely valuable. I was involved in the Premier Skills Project; delivering courses on behalf of the English Premier League throughout China as well as delivering our own courses up and down the country.

More recently I have been working with UCLan delivering education programmes in China too. These experiences have given me the opportunity to learn how people learn and to adapt my methodology to suit different people who will be coaching in vastly different circumstances. On top of this I had a kick about with my new best mate Prince William when delivering a Premier Skills course in Shanghai (picture for the mantelpiece that one).

The future - what’s next for you?

Hopefully watch Liverpool win the league this season. Aside from that all things pale in significance.

Where do you get your inspiration from?

It’s all about your mindset. Inspiration can come from literally anywhere if we have an open and positive mindset. We all go through periods where we are not great at this but I believe the best coaches are those with this approach. I read a lot which helps me consider new ideas but my main priority these days is to see our team of coaches develop and flourish.

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