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Business, Culture Edition Peter de Roo

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By: Peter de Roo •  4 years ago •  

I started playing as a young kid at 6 in Holland. I signed my first professional contract when I was 18/19 and I played the majority of my career with a club called Cambuur, which is in the higher division in Holland. While I wouldn’t say they struggled, it’s hard for a club with a low stadium capacity and low budget to compete with the larger clubs at the highest level, although they have been pretty successful in the last couple of years. I was a decent player, and even though I never made the Dutch national team, you can imagine that in Holland it is a bit harder to do than in Australia due to the level of competition. I played at the highest level with all the international players, unlike today, where many of the young players leave Holland early. When I was there, they stayed until 25-27, but now you don’t see the same calibre of players in that level of competition.

I played there for 6 years and I was forced retire early in contract as I got injured and couldn’t continue. When I couldn’t play any longer but was still under contract, I rolled into a coaching position at the club. I ultimately stayed at the club for over 12 years – 6 years as a player, a couple of years as a coach (Assistant Coach for the first team) and then as Technical Director for 3 years. The funny thing is that towards the end my career, at 28/29, I did not want to be a coach. My reaction was: “You won’t see me again in football.”

I was really thinking that working with 25 spoilt professional players sounded like hard work. As soon as my career was over, I was done, I’d do something else. It’s a really cutthroat business. You see people changing as they become more important, particularly their behaviour, and I thought, “I don’t want to change who I am just because of the environment I work in.”

Then something funny happened: after a game when I was 28, one of my teammates came up to me and said, “You should become a coach. During half-time, our coach said a few things, and I was thinking ‘What the hell is he talking about’, then you stood up and started talking, and all of a sudden I understood what this game was all about.”

I still thought coaching wasn’t for me, but after a third operation and retiring early, I became an assistant for the reserve team. I worked with young players, doing courses, and actually started enjoying it. Now twenty years later I am still 24/7 involved in football!

The transition from player to coach was difficult. I saw a lot of former players coaching who were very bad, and thought I would do things differently. Then when I did become a coach, I remember going to a course, then coming back to my players realising that I really knew absolutely nothing. I didn’t have a vision on how I wanted them to play. I didn’t know how to coach twenty players in one direction! I had a lot to learn. There are more talented players than talented coaches and a great player is not necessarily a great coach. Now you see former players doing coach training before they step into a role. For example, Kevin Muscat, coach of Melbourne Victory and former Socceroos player, realised that he wasn’t ready when first asked to take on the top job. He waited until after being mentored by Ange Postecoglou. It’s a profession that needs to be learned, even if you have a natural talent for it. A lot of former players think they can coach without education but you really need to learn from the best to become the best.

I am attracted to coaches that are forward thinkers. Football, and maybe sport in general, can be a conservative world. There are a lot of people who have had a long life in sport and don’t see the changes over time. Just because something worked in the past, doesn’t mean it will be successful now or in the future. I follow coaches who are constantly questioning and working to develop strategies that will be successful in the future. The most successful coaches, even the Alex Fergusons of this world, don’t have a mentality that they know it all. If you want to be and stay successful, that can’t be the way you think. In Australia, I am very impressed with Ange Postecoglou, who I work with closely now. I have a lot of respect for his approach, always questioning what is going to work in the future.

The opportunity to coach in Australia was actually a massive coincidence. I was Technical Director in Cambuur, Holland, and at a dinner with Han Berger, a former coach of mine who was a technical director in the same league. He was talking about working with a club in Japan and asked about my year of travels all over the world, including Australia. Two months later, he was approached by Football Federation Australia (FFA) to become their National Technical Director. First thing, he called me and asked if I wanted to help. So he appointed me as the Technical Director of Football Queensland. After almost 3 years there, he asked me to take charge of the national team U16 and U17 program in Canberra at the AIS.

I arrived in Australia in 2009 for a contract with Football Queensland, and then started in Canberra at the AIS. So I have been in Australia for 7 years now. I love it. U16 and U17 players are a very rewarding age group as you have to prepare them for a professional career. I know from personal experience how good it can be to make your work out of a hobby. Even after your career, you can get so much out of the sport. We have an impact on their lives. Seeing players on TV who just came from us making their debuts for the Socceroos or A-League clubs – it’s a great reward. I always feel proud when I see that as it’s the greatest satisfaction.

There were quite a few cultural differences coming to Australia. When I arrived, I spoke to a lot of coaches and heard that the Australian players are ball watchers, which means they are very reactive. They don’t communicate in the field with each other, they don’t coach each other. It was definitely different from what I saw in Europe.

But I believe that the problem was not with the players, but with the coaches. They were over-coaching rather than guiding the players, so they didn’t become problem solvers or independent thinkers. The players were always looking over their shoulder for the coach. It was a coaching culture issue because we failed to explain to the players why they should be doing things, even if they understood what. They had no ownership. That last 10-15% of effort comes from people knowing the why rather than the how of a job. Problems then become a joint issue and can be solved together. I think this is underestimated across sport and business.

I always compare it to something that happened to me in Brisbane. Because I was new, whenever I drove in Brisbane, I used the GPS and it gave me advance warning of the driving directions. One day, when I had an appointment, the GPS failed. And even though I had driven hundreds of times in Brisbane, I was lost. I had relied too heavily on the GPS. If we explain to the players too much, we become their GPS, and then we don’t give them the chance to solve problems themselves. In a high-pressure situation, when they’re out on the field and can’t hear you, if they’ve never understood the ‘why’ of things, then there is nothing to guide them.

We are too afraid to let players make mistakes and this has been a problem. We shouldn’t be afraid to let them stuff up because then they can learn from it. Once I pointed this out, the coaches understood what I was saying, but building this into a coaching program took time. In the short term, being more directive in approach may get you better results, but in the long term, being less directive is much more effective. In Australia, often winning is seen to be everything. I think, in youth programs, winning should be not get in the way of development. That doesn’t mean that winning is not important. It is all about winning but never at the cost of development!

When changing countries, the most important thing is to learn about the culture. Don’t be an elephant in a porcelain cupboard! First observe before trying to make changes, learn about the culture, understand why things are different because there may be a good reason. Sometimes you have to change your vision a bit, depending on the culture of a country.

For example, I like proactive players. In Australia, you have to make a few changes to playing style, but ultimately it is not really a problem. You can teach it. Now take the same philosophy to South Korea. It is completely different, the society is very hierarchical, and you will never turn those players into proactive players. You can influence, maybe, a small group of people, but you cannot change the culture. You may have to be more directive and not expect too much initiative. You have to make a choice: are you going to change these players, or are you going to adjust your style? These are definitely things to think about in advance. Culture in a country has a massive impact on the decisions you make.

The biggest, and most frustrating, difference for me is that any football decision in Holland, regardless of level, is made by football people. In Australia, sometimes these decisions are made by non-football administrators. When decisions are made by non-football administrators, even when they have come from another sport, they don’t have the expertise needed. They ignore their hired expertise – the coaches. This doesn’t seem to happen in other businesses such as mechanics or law. I don’t tell the mechanic how to fix my car! Even in Holland there is still this temptation but it is harder for the CEO to make decisions. In Cambuur, the coaches and myself could make decisions about signing new players without consulting the CEO except on budget, but here it is almost the opposite. Ultimately the coach is, or should be, responsible. It is definitely getting better though.

It can be a challenge to build a team when players come back to Australia for their two-year preparation for the World Cup. We have a certain culture within the program that is not exactly rules, just common sense. There is not a lot of one-way traffic. When we talk to players, we make sure that we listen as well. We explain the ‘why’ of everything we do, because in two years’ time, against Germany in front of 80,000 people, they can’t look over their shoulder to us. We can prepare them as much as we can, and put forward the playing style and the expectations of their position. Usually within the first couple of months we see a quick reaction and they start to understand and to talk to each other more and more. They take ownership rather than being reactive. We set them up to be ready for life and the professional environment after this program. Go to Europe, Liverpool, Manchester United, any dressing room with 40-odd senior players – it’s a jungle. You want to develop young men who are ready for that environment.

I’m not too sure where my career will go from here. I’ve never been much of a planner or a dreamer. This will be my last World Cup cycle for 2017 – I have to be careful about being branded a technical director or youth coach because I don’t want to rule out coaching an A-League club again. While this job is rewarding, I want to be challenged as a coach and stay 100% fresh, to still be energised by what I do. I do like challenges and working in different cultures. After 6 years with the FFA, I miss the pressure on a weekly basis, not just at World Cups and qualifiers. I didn’t like it at the end when I was working at Cambuur, but now the funny thing is, I miss it again.

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