When I took over as the head coach of Shanghai Shenxin F.C. in June, the club sat second from the bottom of China League One, the country’s second-tier professional football league. Relegation from the division was a real possibility. I had inherited a team that had racked up a mere 10 points from their first dozen games of the season, scored an average of less than one goal per game, and conceded goals at an alarming rate. We seemed trapped in a vicious cycle of negativity.
Searching for a way to inspire the team, I spent a lot of personal time creating close relationships with players and staff away from the training base. As the only head coach in China to hail from Britain — a nation that hardly enjoys a reputation for exporting top football managers — it was essential to understand my players’ motivations, ambitions, hopes, and fears before I could communicate my ideas to them and lift the fog of demoralization hanging over the squad.
I have been a professional football coach for 18 years and have worked with both domestic and international sides in Asia and North America, all of which were playing well below their potential when I first arrived. Experience has taught me that the most consistently successful teams create cultures that transcend the game of football itself. My job as a manager is to present players, fans, and backroom staff with a bigger picture that they can buy into.
The paradox is that great teams are successful precisely because they do not simply focus on kicking a ball around a patch of grass. Unique club cultures thrive in environments in which everyone affiliated with a particular team grounds themselves in shared ideas of community and identity. This was one of the key factors that had led to Shenxin’s collapse in form: Nobody really knew what the club stood for anymore.
Prior to joining Shenxin, I managed the national team of Guam, an American territory in the western Pacific Ocean. Its national football association is the smallest in Asia, and the country lacked a long-established football tradition. During my four years there, my staff and I made a real effort to position football as an outlet for the island’s historical warrior culture.
We adopted the nickname “Matao,” a term of respect referring to the tribal chief among the island’s indigenous Chamorro population. We started performing the inifresi, a ritual pledge to the island of Guam, alongside the national anthem before each match. We supplemented our intensive analysis of domestic players with a drive to bring home Guamanian players working abroad. Before long, people who had never bothered to follow the national team were coming to express their national identity at every home international. We had given them something to take pride in, with the result that Guam’s FIFA ranking rose over 51 places during my time there.
The Shenxin squad is mostly Chinese, apart from a couple of Brazilians and one Nigerian player. Hoping to find out what made everyone tick, I asked each player the same question: “Who is the most important person in your life?” Practically every Chinese player gave the same answer: “My mother.” The foreign players? “My girlfriend.”
I found it interesting that a majority of the players were so expressly family-oriented, and I decided to recast my managerial role in more paternal terms. To achieve this, however, I first had to do away with the existing club culture. At Shenxin, there were sharp divisions between the first team and the reserve squad, between the Chinese and foreign players, and between the youth setup and our professional playing staff. Distinct, exclusive groups had emerged and needed to be broken down before a more inclusive, familial team dynamic could be put in place.
So I brought reserve team players into first-team training. I ensured that the attacking, possession-based brand of football I wanted us to play filtered all the way down the coaching pyramid, so that our kids’ teams would have every chance of slotting into the professional lineup later on. Finally, I took each of the players out for tea, listened to what they hoped to achieve personally and professionally, and reflected on how Shenxin could help them reach those goals.
I also initiated outreach schemes to connect Shenxin with the local community in Jinshan, the suburb of Shanghai where the club is based. Changing the psychology of the team meant making it a deeper and more positive presence in local people’s lives and inviting people to come and support our unique community at football matches.
I even locked the whole team in a dressing room with a few sets of boxing gloves and told them not to come out until they’d reconciled their differences between the foreign players — who were accused of being overpaid, single-minded, and aloof — and the core Chinese squad. After 15 minutes or so, they emerged, thankfully without having touched the gloves.
For most of my players, the feeling of belonging to a collective effort, which rewards self-sacrifice with support and stability, was key to their ambitions. This might seem intuitive, but in China it is not an approach that most managers take. Coaches here, particularly those parachuted in from abroad, are more likely to impose a foreign managerial model on their respective teams. This plays out, for example, in the way they focus tactics around their more technically skilled foreign players, or in the way they fail to put enough money into local grassroots football, which holds them back from achieving long-term success.
The decision to bring Chinese family culture into Shenxin’s team ethos was the moment we gave our players the opportunity to think beyond football. It was the moment they realized that they represented an identity much bigger and more important than themselves as individuals. This conviction, in turn, enabled us to turn our season around. Instead of the doom and gloom of our early season form, my statisticians now talk favorably about the 19 points we took from our final 10 games, landing us a comfortable mid-table finish and the biggest home and away wins in the club’s 13-year history.
Collectivity was a major theme of my motivational speeches to the players over the course of the season. One humid night in August sticks out in my mind. We had traveled to Hubei province in central China, where we were pitted against Wuhan Zall F.C. in a tough away match. We’d been playing well in recent weeks, but our form had remained inconsistent; if we were going to stay up, we had to start winning games week in, week out.
Before the boys ran out onto the pitch, I asked my staff to prepare a video for them. We had each player’s mum and dad look into the camera and tell their son how much they loved him, how proud they were of him, and how much they hoped Shenxin would win that night. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room by the end, but it allowed many players to revisit my earlier conversations with them and remember the two families they each belonged to — their own family, and the Shenxin family. They went out that night and battered Wuhan 3-1. More important than the victory, however, was the fact we had become a real team.
As told to Sixth Tone’s Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: Gary White (R) leads a training session at Shanghai Shenxin F.C. in Shanghai, Oct. 19, 2016. Johannes Eisele/AFP/VCG)