Interview

Youth Football Coach, Jonathan Tam: “Some say there is no future in HK football but I see an abundance of hope and talent. I see a better generation”

Jonathan Tam (On the Left)

More and more people are pursuing their passions in life. For many, this means taking up sports coaching as a long-term career.

Coaching in Hong Kong is by no means an easy pursuit though it is possible and it takes sacrifices, hard work and a lot of patience and passion. Football is Hong Kong’s most popular sport and many youngsters and adults love playing, though where would they be without the sound words of advice from coaches to lead and guide them? All the greatest athletes in the world have coaches as even the best have to keep evolving and learning to stay at the top of the literal game.

One coach, who loves his football and decided to make a long-term career out of it, is Jonathan Tam. Like everyone, Tam had to start from somewhere and from learning the ropes at the HKFA, Tam is now part of the ESF Lions and coaches up to 200 students per week across Hong Kong. Like all passionate sports coaches, he has made many sacrifices and sometimes has to stand in the searing heat to lead sessions.

Tam could not imagine doing anything else and has followed his career goals and followed his dream of becoming a football coach; though how does a person become a football coach? More and more people are pursuing their interests in sport as a career. Coaching is so competitive so what qualities would make a good coach standout?

“It is almost a bread and butter question. I think number one, for a coach to be a coach, you need to be passionate about development.  I don’t think being a coach necessarily needs to be good with children, right away or right off the bat. I think coaches can train to work with children just like teachers can.”

Starting off at HKFA

The Right Attitude

Tam says passion, determination and not giving up can go a long way to help a coach develop their career.

“I will name three qualities right off the bat, I will say, passion in general and the human touch, so whenever you see a student, no matter what age they are, you want them to develop. You also need determination; I think as a coach, you really need to be very determined, sometimes, even more so than the players.  I think having that mental strength like having the willpower to get up in the morning and know that you’re going to be standing in 40 degree heat for six hours and having the thought of doing that the night before but still doing it.”

Coaching is a challenge and those who face the obstacles head on will thrive.

“The last quality I would say is, definitely having the heart to go for challenges, so when you see a challenge; you don’t avoid it. You get motivated when you see your students and you get excited about challenges. You actually thrive when a challenge or difficulty comes as this is another opportunity!”

Coaches ‘Fly’ the Plane 

Coaches have evolved and the old school style of management does not cut the mustard anymore and coaches can literally steer the futures of their players and their teams for better or worse. Tam believes all team coaches are vital to the effectiveness of any team.

          Photo: Kwok Ka Ming, Former HK Coach 

“I believe, as a coach, you will be the first one to tackle problems and to tackle challenges. Kwok Kai Ming, one of the more well-known coaches in Hong Kong, once mentioned that if you are a coach, you are a ‘pilot’ on your flight. If you lose control then everyone will suffer, including the ‘passengers’ onboard. In summary, I think the key qualities are determination and not to be afraid of challenges though number one is being passionate about development in all capacities.”

Video: Coaches ‘Fly’ the Plane and must communicate 

Some say everyone you meet and most situations are opportunities to learn and grow and Tam agrees with this.

“I am still quite young, so I see almost every step of my life and every person I meet or honestly, everything, as a lesson.  I take every experience as a ‘teacher’, so I would never say, ‘I’m a good coach’, or the best coach now but I am always learning.”

How Do You Start a Coaching Career? Do the Grunt Work!

It is all and well that someone wants to pursue a career as a coach though how does a young person set out to become a football (or any sports) coach. Tam says the best way is to just be proactive and volunteer where you can or just be incredibly keen to learn and be ready to do the grunt work for a few years. 

Tam is now at ESF Lions

“Now, a lot of people out there think to be a sports coach, you need a lot of high-level skills. You need a lot of experience in the competitive end of that certain sport. If any 18 year old came to me and asked me this question, I would say ‘Get out and try to seize any opportunity’, whether it is to be a youth leader group or simply volunteering.”

Newbie coaches should try and seize any opportunity that exists even if it is seemingly mundane.

“Basically, just get yourself out there into a football session at a training centre and if there’s an opportunity where a coach asks you to do things like tidy up things, set up equipment, talk to the students or players, then you should do it. Certainly get some one on one guidance as advice could be anything!”

Video: Be keen to learn and adapt to new environments  like Ted Lasso

Make Mistakes to Learn and Progress

Tam also stresses that it is imperative to make mistakes and not to be afraid to make mistakes as this is how a person can evolve as a coach and as a person. It is best to ‘fail forwards in your youth’ rather than crash and burn later on.

“Make mistakes and keep making mistakes! I can tell you, I’m turning 33 and I have made most of the coaching mistakes possible! That’s how I felt so comfortable with coaching and I’ll tell you why to this day, I still make mistakes, and I guarantee you all the coaches out there even the best coaches make mistakes.”

No person or organization can progress without learning from past mistakes otherwise there is little to no growth.

Video: The AC Milan and Rangers legend shows how to deal with the media 

“The best way to become a coach is to make mistakes but if you don’t put yourself out there inside the sessions and you don’t go out to the football then you won’t make mistakes and evolve. When you have a chance to volunteer yourself out, go out and help, otherwise you have missed out. You just need to get yourself out and don’t be afraid.”

Even the top-level coaches make mistakes and learn from them even for the whole world to judge and comment.

Video: Always communicate and get your point across

“For the professional coaches, they have a harder job because I feel like, for example, Jose Mourinho, they get misunderstood in a lot of senses in terms of the sort of decisions. They made a certain decision within the game though they have completely different variables and when they get into the press conference, they try to explain it. Every day, coaches make mistakes and that’s how coaches become better and better and better. So if you want to be a coach. First, get out there and make mistakes, go there and volunteer.”

Video: Work hard! Even harder than the players!

Age is Not a Barrier

Young coaches are much more tech-savvy and age is no barrier these days as seen by coaches like Ryan Mason (Spurs), Andre Villas-Boas and Julian Nagelsmann (Bayern) in the Bundesliga.

“I think young coaches; genuinely have a more diverse skill set as they are more susceptible to work on a computer and try different technology applications. We are in a different era where information is a lot more available. Coaches can pick up information right away from the others and share materials right away. Yeah, so yes, I think there’s a reason why across the board, young coaches are getting more successful. There are more opportunities as football is a growth sport and has more opportunities. I think, as a young coach myself, I would consider myself a little bit more adaptable and flexible and pragmatic.”

Tam has worked with some very experienced coaches and learnt from their time together.

“Some coaches definitely have a mentality or philosophy that they hold; they have such a strong philosophy, for example, I worked with Ernie Merrick the HK senior men’s team head coach from 2012-2014 before Coach Kim took his spot and I also worked directly under the HKFA technical director Steve O’Connor who was in charge of the AIS (Australian Institute of Sports) high-performance sports programmes for 25 years; all we talked about and worked on was possession and playing out from the back!!!”

Young coaches can also find mentors and role models to follow and follow their advice and words of wisdom.

“So these guys have a template of success; they have the success and they’ve gained success as they have a template, whereas the young coaches are trying something new, which is exploring. We are employing different ideas; different people and the magic can happen if you have the right chemistry and right setup and infrastructure.”

Video: Ask for advice from experienced coaches 

Professional coaches are becoming younger as seen in the German league where some coaches are in their 30s.

“For example, in German clubs, they are always forward thinking and this shows why young coaches are more successful. I’m just saying that there are currently more opportunities for young coaches to try out different things, much like the ESF lions program we have now.”

Video: Football for All 

How To Be A Student-Athlete 

Tam also stressed that it is possible to be a student-athlete or a student coach and pursue both academically as he studied both Sports Science and chemistry while at university and when he wasn’t blowing up experiments in the lab then he was pursuing his love of sports.

Video: Tam had to select between chemistry and football and went for his passion..

‘”I studied sports science and chemistry so I spent a lot of time in the lab. My parents thought sports was something that was not going to be a fruitful career or an odd fulfilling career. They were so concerned about my future that I had to slap on a chemistry degree next to my sports science course!”

Sports or ‘Work” As a Career?

In some nations, sports is seen as a legitimate career and a way for a better future whilst in Hong Kong, a sports career is seen by some to offer little to no realistic long-term career prospects. Tam says there are opportunities though you have to work hard for them and cites coaches like Kenneth Kwok as great examples of those who never gave up in pursuing their dreams.  

 

Hope for the Future 

Tam made the point that some parents have a pessimistic view of sports as a career though he sees a different stance after working with his students.

“I recently spoke to my parents about the same thing and there is a buzzword, almost like a trendy word, where there’s ‘no future’ or ‘I feel sorry for the younger kids’ and ‘What does the future hold for these children?’  I coach about 200 to 300 children constantly both physically and practically. I’m there every day and I don’t see the same.”

Tam said that children have a lot more knowledge about the world around them and can use this for their own advantage to better themselves.

“I see an abundance of hope. I see an abundance of talent. I see a better generation. I know from looking what they do and what they achieve and how fast, how adaptable they are, how smart and how conscious they are in terms of the decision making and training. You compare yourself and I’ve been a kid myself, and you compare yourself at that age as a six year old and where was I?”

Practice Makes Perfect

Tam also cites the fact that kids are now more self-aware of the opportunities in front of them and more conscious and knowledgeable about health and how to train properly.

“When I was five years old, what was I doing? Look at what the current generation are achieving! Looking at these kids makes me feel like the future is full of hope as some of these kids are so ever so talented with an abundance of talent. Sometimes I see a child can literally ‘glow’ because they are so talented and they are so conscious and so smart. I can see a kid who has no knowledge and no motor skills to kicking a football accurately and consistently within two hours. It is absurd how smart these children are!”

Tam says football has become more professional in some aspects in Hong Kong.

“HK football though not perfect has at least tried to aim for higher professional standards with the HKPL and now players also have a union to assist them through tougher times especially when they eventually retire; some can adjust to everyday life immediately while others struggle to adjust.”

Tam says there needs to be a shift in mindset.

“We just need to shape the environment to learn and create opportunities for them to learn. Parents need to change their mind-set regarding their kid’s futures and the sports industry.  People say there’s no future in Hong Kong football but we have the HK Premier League which we never used to have because of Project Phoenix and now we have a professional setup and we have our player’s union to help players both when they are playing and after they retire.”

What is the best way to improve as a player?

“Play as much as you can in all sorts of weather. The best players in the world right now and in the past did not have the best shoes or the finest pitches, they played on all sorts of surfaces and often they did not even have a ball.”

Video: Just play anywhere…

Honestly, just keep playing come rain or shine.

“I played five days a week as a kid and I played until I struggled to walk home because I was   passionate. Kids just need to start playing and we need to give opportunities for children to play and not to stop there because it is too sunny and it is raining; just let him play. You don’t need to organize or have a professional set up to play football. Let the kids join a group and have the open mind and play no matter your skin colour, how old you are, your gender or your background. At the moment, we create a lot of barriers and for what I don’t understand. Honestly, you and I can go play now! (We didn’t but maybe we will!)”

All around the world, there are millions of coaches who love sports and influencing youth to achieve their goals and it is possible and achievable to do this in Hong Kong and across the Asia Pacific.

 

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