England Under-21 manager Gareth Southgate attended UK Sport’s 2013 World Class Performance Conference (WCPC13) in Manchester alongside coaches, performance directors and support staff from GB’s Olympic and Paralympic sports.
We asked the former England international how useful he found the experience, his thoughts on the England coaching set up and what he thinks Rio has in store for the nation’s footballers and athletes at the World Cup in 2014 and the Rio 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
What did you learn from interacting with Olympic and Paralympic coaches at the WCPC13?
We have truly world-leading coaches in those sports. In football we’re constantly looking to learn and improve and we’re doing a lot of very good things and we feel that certainly within the changes we’re making in the FA with the way we work with our international junior teams, there’s a lot we can improve upon and we’ve got a very clear vision and it’s the responsibility of us as coaches to help to develop players who can go into the England senior team and be successful. They are coaches who are doing that at the highest levels of other sports and it’s great to be able to interact with them in this way.
UK Sport run several coach development programmes. Are there any similar schemes in professional football?
We’ve always had our own coaching licenses, as every sport would, but I think within football we’ve not valued the importance of coach development because of the culture in the business of sacking coaches so easily. I think we take away from the importance of learning and years of dedication to learning and improving – the importance of that in developing top players. If we can start to get involved in those sorts of schemes, it’s all about filtering that information back through our coach education programmes in football. One or two individuals can be developed through the course, but it’s important that they spread the word.
What do you think Olympic and Paralympic sport can learn from football?
I think within football one of the interesting dynamics is we have to perform a little bit like some of the performing arts people in at least once a week. We’re not trying to peak for one performance for the World or European Championship, or to get a season’s best, we have to try and deliver at our very best 40, 50 times a season and that has its own challenges.
Of course there’s also the profile and pressure that the crowd in our sport plays. For a lot of the sports the crowd is a very positive environment for all of the athletes or swimmers, where in our sport there can be a lot of negativity in grounds. There are many similar challenges in football, but there are different obstacles for coaches to overcome with players. I’m sure everybody in our sport would be open to sharing ideas and experiences with coaches of other sports.
How difficult is it to manage relationships with players you only see intermittently with the U21 squad?
We effectively borrow the players form their clubs and their development lies predominantly with those clubs, but I’m hoping over time we can make the international experience part of their individual development and that should help to improve the players for their clubs.
It’s an interesting dynamic because maintaining that relationship with the players is difficult. We had three camps in ten days in September, October and November but I’ll only see the players for another three days before May. So it’s finding other ways to interact, stay in touch and keep the messages flowing. That’s going to need a modern way of working, via email; or whatever that may be. The players in my own squad are probably with 18 or 19 different clubs so physically it’s going to be difficult to get to all of those too often.
You played a big role in developing plans for the national training base at St George's Park. How important is a central training base for English football?
I think it’s a massive step forward for us because when I was an England player, we’d meet in a hotel in the middle of nowhere and train at once of the local clubs facilities perhaps. There was no identity really to where we stayed and trained which made you feel like an England player, other than your training kit and going to the matches. Now we’ve got a home with everything around it that represents England and the history of playing for England. More importantly, our junior teams – who would have stayed in a different part of the country to the seniors – are now on the same site.
For example with my Under-21s, Roy Hodgson might ask for three or four of them to train with him one morning or he’ll see them wandering around. The Under-16s go in and they feel when they first arrive that they’re part of the England football set-up. We’ve called it Club England for a while now and now that is starting to be created because players feel part of something bigger and can see the pathway through to the senior team. I think that alone, one central venue, is a really important step. There are many more things we have to implement but that is a starting point for us.
One of the programmes UK Sport launched at the conference was the Athlete to Coach Programme. How important is it to keep former players/athletes in the sport to share knowledge?
I think if you can combine knowledge of competing at the highest level with an understanding of coaching and the way that people learn then you’ve got a perfect storm. What’s perfect is that people want to take the coaching seriously and not just thinking that because they were a top performer therefore they’ll be a top coach, there’s a completely different set of skills to learn. It doesn’t work that way – I went through a very painful process working in the Premier League to find that out. It wasn’t an ideal route and one that I’m better for, albeit could have been career-ending, but clearly the ideal pathway is to learn perhaps working with younger athletes and building your knowledge of coaching to be able to pass on your experiences and great knowledge you have as a performer in a way that can be totally beneficial to your athletes.
Were there any ex-professionals in particular you drew on for advice and inspiration when you started on the path to becoming a coach and manager?
I was fortunate to speak to lots of managers – there is a strong managers association in football now so you get to mix with managers and go to training grounds if you want to, people are very approachable. There’s a bit of camaraderie to those out of work. People are more open than the perception would be, but I think you just continually try to learn, read, watch people work, watch matches and players and tactics. There is no encounter that you have which you don’t learn something. It’s that continual desire to learn and improve which is what you want from your athletes or players and it should be the same for a coach.
What challenges have you faced in making that transition?
I think what you have within football is that because of the profile, opposed to perhaps where a coach in another sport has the questions posed by their athletes – you challenge each other, within football you get the external challenge of the media and supporters questioning your decisions. Stuart Lancaster and the England cricket team will get that, but it’s rare that the analysis is that in-depth with club or county sides.
I think that’s one of the key differences within football because every support knows they can’t get on the field and play, but every supporter thinks they can pick a team and know it’s a simplistic operation to put a team together to win a match without all of the complexities of managing at team for a week or a month. I think that’s the biggest thing I learned from my experiences at Middlesbrough is that every coach faces similar problems and you think their unique to you but even the most experienced coaches go through the same doubt and questions in our sport.
I met Arsene Wenger at the start of the season and he said that he’d managed nearly 1,000 games at Arsenal but when he makes a substitution people stand up and shout that he doesn’t know what he’s doing! Of course, now eight weeks down the line they’re top of the league and he’s back to being popular again. You’ve got to maintain that even approach and people might think you come across as being detached or cool or not as enthusiastic, but you’re always conscious that you’ve got to stay grounded and you never switch off when you’re talking to the media or your players.
What do you think Olympic and Paralympic sport can learn from England competing in Rio two years before Rio 2016?
Hopefully we’ll be able to pass on some knowledge from our training and base camps in Rio. I went out there 18 months ago before Roy [Hodgson] was appointed and we were sourcing training grounds. I saw what will be some brilliant venues for the Olympics – especially the rowing lake, by Flamenco’s training ground. It will be a spectacular carnival for both the World Cup and the Olympic and Paralympics. It’s such a hugely enthusiastic sporting country. It’s going to be a different challenge from performing at home – I experienced that in 1996, for better or worse – and the enormous energy that you get in front of your own fans is a massive advantage and that’s something we won’t have in Rio. The medals there will be harder to achieve than the ones in London, I should think.