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Scots MLS boss: 'Keep learning, keep getting better'

Author: Jack Thomson

Vancouver Whitecaps head coach Martin Rennie talks exclusively to YFS about football, psychology and business.

rennie-martin 940-8colThe Scotsman has climbed the coaching ladder somewhat differently to the majority of aspiring Scottish coaches; opting for the less frequently travelled path in North America and counting Cascade Surge, Cleveland City Stars, Carolina Railhawks among his former clubs before making the step up to Major League Soccer with Canadian side Vancouver Whitecaps. 

A youth football career that spanned across school football and the Boys’ Brigade, also saw Rennie play for Brightons, a side that he represented at both under 18 and 21 level, reaching the Scottish Cup Semi-Final at under 18. Rennie cited, “The best team we played against was Hutchison Vale from Edinburgh, who had a lot of players that were already turned professional and a lot that went on to become professional.”, recognising Hutchison Vale’s success in continuing to be a force at Scottish grassroots, developing talent which forces its way into the professional game.

Rennie spoke candidly of the importance of youth football in shaping his career, “I think the biggest thing about whatever job you do is you’ve got to really enjoy it and I think when I played youth football I really enjoyed it; I met a lot of good people, learned things about the game and learned things about myself. I think all those things have helped me as I’ve become a manager.”

In order to achieve success, a common necessity at any level is sacrifice, something that Rennie learned from his youth coaches, “I learned that they obviously care a lot about the game and they obviously cared about the people they were coaching in order to give up their time and maybe even some of their money to help us have a team and help us compete against other teams.”

“One of the things I’ve learned from youth coaches, there has to be some sacrifice if you want to be a coach. If you want to be a good leader, you have to be willing to serve other people. Those youth coaches that I had definitely showed me that.”

In recent years, there has been substantial changes to the practice of coaching in Scotland at all youth levels in an attempt to produce more technically gifted players. Rennie emphasised the importance of attention to detail at grassroots, “I know there’s been a lot of work done on improving coach education, so there’s more qualified coaches and therefore, the hope I think would be that the players are getting more detailed instruction and hopefully they’re improving because of that.” 

“Definitely the development of players at youth level is crucial to the success that we have in the future and unless that’s done properly and unless we’re producing good players, it will always be hard for the national team to achieve what we all want it to achieve.”

Rennie’s experience of coaching across the Atlantic has taught him much with regards to both the physical and technical aspects of football, “One of the things that I’ve noticed is the level of athleticism that gets produced here over in North America; there are some incredible athletes. In Scotland we produce some very good players but they’re not necessarily as athletic as players over here. I think that international football now is so much to do with the power and athleticism of the players that so many of the players are really big, strong, powerful and fast. That is something we need to get right.”

“At the same time, in Scotland there’s been a habit of maybe not giving smaller players a chance because they’re not big enough and not powerful enough. If you look at certain players in the world now who are really successful, they are quite small players. Messi is an obvious example but even guys like Xavi and Iniesta, they’re not all big guys and so, Scotland just have to get the balance right of producing enough good athletes but giving technical players a chance even if they’re not the biggest.”

Rennie, throughout his coaching career, has shown himself to be an avid supporter of modern methods, seeking to analyse every possible avenue in order to gain a sporting advantage. Sports science and psychology have undoubtedly increased in prominence in the Scottish game over the last two or three decades but Rennie believes that we should not stop there, indicating that it may even be a deciding factor in whether a player fulfills their potential, “When I look at growing up, we would work on our technique and what we had to do in the games but there wasn’t any psychology or sports science. I’m assuming that’s changed quite a lot because if you do the right things from a sports science perspective and teach the right things from a psychological perspective then that can have a big influence on how a player develops. I have seen a lot of very talented players who didn’t have enough confidence or if they learned how their mind worked, they would have been able to develop they confidence needed to showcase their talent.”

rennieRennie commented on the stigma of negativity which has mired many aspects of Scottish sport for a long time, “Everybody’s got talent to some degree and everyone’s got physical potential but most people never fulfill their actual potential because they don’t have a strong enough psychology. Most of the time in Scotland when we’re getting coached a lot of what we don’t do well is pointed out; if we make mistakes that’s pointed out and a lot of time people get scared to make mistakes and they get worried about letting the team down. Instead of being built up and having more confidence, being taught what you’re doing well and being shown how good you are at things, and having people open up your mind to what your potential is, having people help your imagination to become something special, a lot of the time you’re being beaten down. It’s only the ones who are really strong that come through that but they aren’t always the most talented players, and so I think that the psychological aspect is absolutely huge but it’s undervalued in all walks of life including football.”

The Scotsman was full of praise, however, for the positive changes performance director Mark Wotte and the SFA are incurring throughout youth football, including the implementation of performance schools, “That’s a very good idea because I think again there are quite a lot of studies that show that if you get the best advice, you play against the best competition then you’ve got the most chance to develop as a player in any sport. Young players if they get the right information and teaching, then I would hope that they get more of the other things that we talked about; how to prepare psychologically, how to deal with setbacks, how to use their imagination to help them become a top player or fulfill their potential, more time in the gym, more time on their running technique. If it is to that level of detail then it can have a massive influence on the development of players.” 

Rennie also spoke positively of the concept behind Positive Coaching Scotland, an SFA adaptation of the American structure ‘Positive Coaching Alliance’. The vision of which is a football culture in Scotland where young players are developed in a positive, safe environment, where they learn to win through effort and where valuable life lessons are developed.

That is creating an environment where people can be themselves, where they can strive and come on. Not creating an environment, where people feel scared to speak up or worried about making mistakes or nervous about letting people down. If that is the case then that is a really good move, and in my opinion that is one of the biggest things I’ve learned from coaching in North America.  Most people are wired up to succeed when they have encouragement and I think the way that it has been looked at in Scotland is that the only way that people get better are if we are really hard on them and knock them down all the time. There are obviously some people that do improve by that method but in general I think you can get more out of people by giving them encouragement and good feedback.”

“Creating a positive environment which has the culture of respect, which isn’t constantly just cutting each other down or stabbing each other in the back, for me that has a massive impact on success. I think that’s a very hard thing to develop but it’s usually worthwhile and valuable if you can make it happen.”

With reference to the actual management side of football, Rennie acknowledged the depth of success Scotland has had in producing coaches, “I don’t think there’s any doubt that Scotland has a great track record in developing managers and coaches and I think that around the world people really do recognise that. Some of the top coaches around the world have done their qualifications in Scotland and many others still continue to do that.” 

The Scot confessed the need to be willing to learn as a footballing nation, “ At the same time, I think we still have to pick up ideas from other countries so that we keep developing. If you study a little bit about Sir Alex Ferguson, it sounds like one of the reasons he was so successful is because he adapted to the time and changed with time. He was still fundamentally the same person but he did that adaptation to culture, time and generation. I think that we need to keep doing that in Scotland in terms of our coach education programme. You have to say up until this point it has been a very successful programme and continues to be.”

Having managed a number of Scottish players at his respective clubs, most recently the likes of Barry Robson and Kenny Miller (pictured, below right), Rennie noted the attributes that are consistent in Scottish football, “The players I’ve worked with have certainly shown that, they know how hard they have to work to win games and to be a professional player. They also know what it means to be part of a team and to build a team spirit, to support one another.”

renniemillerMartin’s advice to young players centered on the essentiality of three factors; environment, fundamental technique and teamwork. He stated, “First of all for players, you want to be in an environment where you can fulfill your potential; where you’re not scared to make mistakes, and you’re not worried about what people are saying or thinking about you but you’re learning to become confident and positive while you have fun. That way, you’ve got the chance to make the most of whatever talent you’ve got.”

“I think also looking at players, one of the fundamentally most important things is to master the basics. Not be trying all sort of fancy things but consistently do the basic things really really well and have a foundation that you can build from so that any time you’re having a bad game or a bad day, you can always come back to those basic techniques which are going to consistently take you through.”

“If you can be a good teammate then that’s going to help you in any part of your life because if you know how to help other people improve and how to encourage other people and get the best out of them then you’re going to be a valuable asset to any kind of team. It is important to become that rather than someone who tears people down and shows people up, and points out all the negative things they do.”

Unlike most professional football managers, Rennie did not play professionally himself. Often we see many top level footballers step into management at the end of their playing careers with an expectation to succeed because they know the game and have worked under a host of different managers who have previously taken the same route. While, it would seem obvious that retired professionals would have an advantage, Rennie suggested that his own path has allowed himself a personal advantage. In that regard his advice to coaches focused on education, whether in sport or in a completely different field such as business, “One of the things that has helped me a lot is reading not just coaching books but also books on leadership or books on business. Do that all the time. I’ve learned a lot from disciplines outside of football and that has then helped me figure out how to run a team or how to communicate more effectively, or how to set goals for players, or how to build confidence in someone who’s struggling, or how to impart proper discipline in players who are not disciplined. A lot of those ideas came from studying or learning from other people.”

“I just think if you want to be a good coach you have to always be learning more and you to always be open to new ideas because none of us know everything and we can pick ideas up from courses we go on and from any other different areas. If we keep learning then we’ll keep getting better.”

It seems as simple as that, “If we keep learning then we’ll keep getting better.”