'...later in the session two youths would appear at my session and act suspicious, I later found out they had just attempted a drive-by shooting and were hiding amongst my team to avoid being arrested'.
Name, age, where are you based?
Jonathan Hooper, 31, Belmopan – Belize.
Current and past Roles:
Head of Coach Education, Head Coach U17 National team (male), Ast Coach U19 & U20 National team (male)
FA Level 2, CONCACAF B (pending)
Academic – LLB, PGCE, MA (Education)
How did you get into coaching and what has your path been like?
I got into coaching as part of working in a Secondary School. In my first teaching job, I was a regular teacher of ICT & Computer Science who moonlighted as a ‘wannabe PE teacher’. Having a good relationship with some colleagues in the PE department led to then asking me if I had time to take a team, something I had never considered. At this point I was a fan but had no experience coaching or playing. I quickly set about to fix both of these and using the only knowledge I had (academia) I set out as a keen student of the game.
From there, I truly developed a love for the sport and was enlightened into the possibilities of how team sport can have a huge positive impact on child development and social development of young people.
Since then I have always ensured I coach throughout my teaching career, moving into the female game at my last teaching job and running a regional women’s team at the weekend. Both posed two completely different and exciting challenges with the former focusing entirely on development both on and off the pitch and the latter around team development and competition.
With the women’s team we were able to lift a Hampshire cup in our first season and came runners up in our league with performances consistently improving throughout my own coaching development. In this season I also sat on the board for the club who managed 30+ teams across all ages and got a glimpse behind the scenes of how a club operates and how to manage a relatively large volunteer-led organisation.
From there I have moved to Belize where I have quickly shot through the ranks and find myself working almost entirely at National level within the youth game.
Any more background or achievements you would like to highlight?
My roles in Belize are completely voluntary and I chose to move here as it is a developing country which is English speaking with a very low population. Having moved with no concrete plan as to what I could offer or in what ways I would be involved in football, it is safe to say that I have ended up much more deeply involved than I first anticipated.
In the first two weeks of living here in Belize, I was still staying in the Federation dorm room with both the Federation and I trying to work out what I was going to do here, when the Technical Director asked to speak with me. He had never seen me coach at this point but we had spent a lot of time discussing things and observing training together.
He told me that the Federation had qualified for a U17 Central America tournament hosted by UNCAF in Honduras that was scheduled for 8 weeks time. He was not convinced that the coaches who were currently working with the team would be able to train the team to display the ‘new’ National Team playing style, and asked if I would be able to take on the role as Head Coach for the training period and tournament. Unsure whether I was nervous or excited I agreed to take on the challenge and set about that afternoon to meet the team.
Coaching in Belize City served as a major wake up call with a coach having to collect me from the bus stop and transport me to the field for safety reasons, later in the session two youths would appear at my session and act suspicious, I later found out they had just attempted a drive-by shooting and were hiding amongst my team to avoid being arrested.
Unfortunately for us, weather was not on our side and we only managed around 10 sessions before arriving to the tournament and did not get quite to where I had hoped in our training plan. The outcome of the tournament was very positive with the matches being livestreamed for all to see, whilst the results did not go our way, the performances far exceeded expectations and from that, I was assigned to the National Team infrastructure.
Why Belize? How’s life been and how’s the environment there in terms of both living and football?
Belize is an odd one. Two years ago when I was constructing this plan I had never even heard of the country which for the past year, I have called home. My initial search was for a country which I would be able to utilize my professional skills in a meaningful voluntary way. I had some criteria for my search such as population size and language spoken and Belize ticked all the boxes.
Life has been really good here so far, I was able to find a nice place in a safe area to rent and I did all my budgeting prior to making my plans so there was no real shocks there. The environment is hot which can be quite challenging when planning and preparing training for young people of school age. Facilities are really limited with balls being gold dust and bibs are a rare sight. There are grassy areas around but a flat surface without rocks and with goals are hard to come by.
One major thing which I hadn’t anticipated was how much I miss convenience of shopping, having to go to markets on set days and having to pay exceptionally high cost of food due to import taxes makes shopping a real inconvenience. Belize is a country without any major brands or chains so a McDonalds fix is one which will remain unsatisfied for a long time!
Now finding yourself thrown into National Team football, what have been the biggest challenges and what adaptions or flexibility are needed within your roles?
I love being a part of the National team set up, but it does come with a major set of challenges. Each coach involved with the National teams are tasked with embedding a new set playing style which has been developed in partnership with an external consultant. The appropriateness of this playing style is very much a topic of debate, but ultimately it provides a platform which was not previously there for coaches to build a team and philosophy around.
Flexibility is granted to an extent and as Head Coach, you have the freedom to select players, train through your own mediums and be creative and innovative in spaces which have not yet been explored, however, the common goal is shared across all teams. Generally I have found coaches who I have worked with have been really kind and receptive to any ‘new’ or ‘different’ approaches I have shown and there has been a lot of mutually learning and benefit throughout.
How do you go about developing the game at every level and what areas are in need of being improved the most?
Upon arrival I was asked to give a presentation to the Executive board of the Federation and outline to them who I was and what I was going to do. Having only been in the country for a matter of days at that point, this was quite a tricky task. One thing which was clear to me, was that the age which Belize starts football (U12 in most cases) was probably the biggest barrier to long term success.
Since arriving here I have pioneered a new initiative which we originally called the “Soccer School” though I believe we are going to change this to the “Grassroots Academy”. The idea is that every Saturday morning in every region of the country there will be free coaching for all children ages 5-10. This initiative has been piloted by myself here in Belmopan prior to COVID and has just had the funding approved to roll out across the 9 remaining regions in 2021.
I believe this project has the potential the make the biggest stride forward in long-term football development in the country and I am incredibly proud to have been a part of this process. As a result of this, not only will there be new opportunities for all the young people, but I have embedded into the new Coach Education programme, to allow for hundreds more coaches to become Grassroots qualified with a target age on 16-20 for these coaches, something which is currently a shortage.
What are the expectations of the country and how is this transferred and filtered down to the players?
Like all national teams, the country can be divided into two categories: Doubters and Believers and as a Liverpool fan, this resonates. Belize feels like a Caribbean country stuck on land and neighboring CONCACAF giants Mexico & Honduras, doesn’t help manage people’s expectations.
Personally, I am never surprised to see the rankings as they depend on the results and other countries have taken major efforts in attempting to gain players from Europe based on ancestral heritage, which in these competitions a sprinkling of star quality can add a lot to a side.
Belize has not yet taken that approach and has looked to ask its people to ‘Believe in the process’. Hopefully this is something which becomes clearer as it goes on as it still needs a bit more work on what defines that process.
The general expectation behind the scenes is that players need to play better and that they need to get tactically up to speed with the National Playing Style (a 4-3-3 possession style). The choice of style is a gift and a curse, it has a very easy to teach methodology and it allows for consistency across all youth and a national team, however, it requires two major components in matches. 1) Possession, 2) Technical ability – the two major things you will struggle to see a Belize side demonstrate on the International stage.
Have any previous experiences in teaching been useful for your current role and its responsibilities?
One of the greatest discoveries I have found in developing as a coach and as a teacher in the classroom, has been drawing the connection between the two. I am unable to differentiate between myself as a coach and as a teacher and I do this, by placing the development of the individual at the heart of everything I do. The coaching tools and the teaching tools are all just accessories which can be used to help the transfer and building of knowledge and being confident in my ability to make the transfer, has allowed me to grow in confidence in this new role.
I have been fortunate to work with similar age groups to that which I am used to in the classroom and it has been a lot of fun learning different teaching methodologies for adult-learning, when developing the coaching curriculum and courses which we are now delivering in country.
What’s been best for your career development so far and what do you do to keep upskilled?
I think that the best thing for my career development has been the lack of risk. By not being on a contract and not having a salary or wage I am able to connect to the projects, with the work which I am doing in accordance with my own values. When you put that at the heart of what you do, you are able to work whole-heartedly. That being said, I have had to do a lot of upskilling, not just in terms of knowledge but also culturally.
Whilst the main language is English, the Creole tongue is something which requires some time to understand. I have also utilised the lockdown period to engage in various MOOCs, exploring a lot of child development, mentorship and sports science. I engage regularly in reading of technical documentation and I am in regular contact with various federations across the CONCACAF region exploring new ideas, sharing best practice and looking to strengthen football through capacity building within the wider footballing region.
How’s the future looking for football in the country and for yourself?
Ultimately Belize is not going to be grabbing any headlines in the next few years, there are a lot of barriers in place which need to be overcome before they will truly see the light at the end of the tunnel. What is exciting and what is important here in Belize is that for the first time, people are taking the time to build something. The end is no longer the starting point, this time the foundation is being built.
Already from what I have been able to see, the process has become the topic of discussion. There are no shortcuts on the road which Belize are on and injections of cash from FIFA will not improve results overnight, it takes dedicated people working together to meet the common goal. These are now becoming measurable objectives and the technical team is slowly growing to help widen the opportunities and possibilities within football here.
For myself, I will be spending at least another 12 months here. I budgeted myself to be fine until at least December 2021 and I have a list of personal objectives I hope to achieve. I want to ensure that there are enough people trained and that the right people are in place to allow for the Nationwide Grassroots Academy initiative to be sustainable long-term.
I would also like to improve coaching capacity through an Education programme to allow Coach Educators to be available within every region, this is something which I have been working on a lot over lockdown and there are now plans in place to take Coach Educator numbers from 8 – 38 within the next 6 months, adding in our first set of female educators into that number.
I am not sure where or what opportunities lie ahead for me in Football, but I have loved the journey so far and hope it continues into the future to see where it takes me.