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U.K to Thailand via China, New Zealand & Malawi - with Blaine McKenna

Another British Football Coach who set out for foreign shores, landing a professional role at a Thai 1st Division club . Blaine McKenna previously coached in Northern Ireland before moving abroad, where he started at Arsenal Soccer Schools in Kuwait. This eventually led him to roles in China, New Zealand, Malawi and now Thailand where he works Academy Director.

Name: Blaine McKenna

Location: Ubon Ratchathani, Thailand

Club: Ubon UMT United

Role: Academy Director

What opportunities and experiences has coaching abroad offered you?

At this stage of my career, I’d have no chance of getting a job like this at a professional club in the UK. At such a club there would be more than 10 people fulfilling the many responsibilities I have here, and while it keeps me busy, it’s also priceless for my professional development.

You face different issues in different countries. In Malawi our academy trialists faced a few difficulties; they complained their feet felt really heavy as they had never played in boots before, their bodies felt heavy as they weren’t used to being well fed before games (50% of children suffer from stunted growth due to malnutrition), they had never played on grass, and it was the first time they had ever left their home town. Age cheating is also rife, as parents want their kids to appear younger to increase their chances of being recruited by Chigoli Academy – it would be life changing for them. You could clearly see where the date on their documents had been altered to make them appear younger, a common occurrence there. Added to this, many kids don’t even have birth certificates! It just shows how Malawi and Africa as a whole, have a unique set of constraints which are unfortunately blocking a number of very talented children from making a life changing career in the game.

In Thailand, our location makes things more difficult as it’s harder to get coaches to leave the city. In addition, there isn’t as much disposable income in Ubon which makes it hard to generate funds for our academy. Another big issue is language barriers, as only one coach and one player in the academy speak English. I once told a staff member, in Thai, that I was going for lunch at 2pm and he thought I meant there was a session at 2pm. When I got back they were all setting up and I was like, “what’s going on?!” With the players we use trigger words which stem from our playing model. The translator explains the words to the players to ensure they know what’s required when I use it. This month I’ve been able to get hold of a full-time assistant who can translate for me around the office and the pitch, making life a bit easier. There aren’t many foreigners in Ubon so I often have people staring at me, taking pictures and a number of people have followed me and turned up at places they know I regularly go.

Many cultures look much different from the outside due to the influence of media. A lot of people feared for my safety and one actually pleaded with me not to go to Kuwait, after a mosque was blown up in the city a month before I was due to arrive. When I arrived there, it was nothing like people thought and I actually felt safer there than I have anywhere in the world. The greatest thing about living abroad is gaining a deeper understanding and inside perspective of different cultures, one which is free from biased influences outside. Until we travel and experience different cultures we’ll never realise the true impact it holds over our lives.

Have you come across any perceptions of British coaches, while abroad?

British coaches have always been accepted wherever I’ve been. I believe this could be down to the appreciation and respect, shown to a higher level of players being developed across Europe. Despite this, you can initially face resistance as our approach can differ to what the majority believe is the best approach in their given nation. With this in mind, convincing others that our approach can be of benefit is one of the toughest tasks while working abroad - guiding people away from something they have followed or believed in for most of their lives is no easy feat. It’s possible, but you also have to respect their beliefs and realise the process takes time to educate and get that buy in. There are some instances you must accept that it’s not going to happen, and you must manage the situation in the best way you can. This opinion may differ in the biggest league’s in the world which don’t typically have many British coaches, even within the English Premier League, but I’m not privy at that level so I can’t comment.

How does working abroad support your personal and professional development, could anything else be done?

To have UEFA courses available somewhere in Asia would be brilliant. It can be hard to keep professional development updated and we’re faced with the decision of doing AFC licences, or spending a lot more money to fly home on top of what the course already costs.

There’s a huge range of opportunities abroad and the chance to travel the world while enhancing your career at the same time, for me, is the perfect mix. It’s been fascinating to see the role culture plays in football development, and to witness the approach of different coaches, clubs, football associations and governments which has provoked a lot of thought. I would advise any young coaches to do their coaching badges, do a sports degree to help with getting visas abroad and to further their knowledge. Look to find a good coach who can mentor you, get experience on the grass, and then most importantly contact and network with as many people as you can. Football is all about who you know. I’ve got my latest jobs through ‘knowing people’, so networking and growing a strong social media network can help too.

I’d choose carefully which countries would suit you to work in. Some are easy to work in and not too much of a shock like America, but then others such as China can be a complete shock to the system. It’s important to do your research about what potential roles entail and what level/age the players will be. I’d recommend joining the ‘British Football Coaches Network’ to find out about the latest job offers and insights for aspiring coaches. If your ultimate aim is to work at a professional club abroad, moving to a country to work at a soccer school or grassroots club can be a good place to start, as you can build an understanding of the culture and build contacts. Four of our coaches in China went from a grassroots club to a professional club in the space of two years in Asia.

I’ve written about coaching abroad (which can be found on my blog) and I’m often answering questions regarding it on my various social media platforms.

What’s next?

That’s a great question and something I maybe need to revisit. I’ve had quite a turbulent year which went from starting a PhD to becoming an academy director at a professional club. Ultimately, I thought this kind of role would be my final destination but now I realise this is only the start of the journey. Coaching in the senior game at the top level, had never really appealed to me - I love developing young people, but being up close with the professional game in Asia has made me rethink this.

I’ve always had a passion for coach education which is why I moved to China originally, so that’s definitely something I’ll look at in the future. I’ve also got unfinished business with my psychology work as I previously had 121 people subscribe to my life skills programme across the world. I’m very excited about what the future holds for me wherever that may be.

Anything that inspires you?

I find inspiration from reading research which helps me gain clarity on certain topics. I’ve recently moved office at the club to be surrounded by two English speakers. They work just as hard as I do and it’s highlighted the importance of being surrounded by the right people. Before I was either alone or surrounded by people who can’t speak English which was tough going. Talking to other coaches and listening to coaching podcasts are also useful for inspiration.

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