Happy Wednesday sports enthusiasts, this week sees West Ham United Foundation’s Higher Education Lecturer Dominic Edwards chat with me about his sports career journey. Dominic was once like the most of you, a young university student wanting to take the football industry by storm. The former football coach has been humble enough to share his sports career story which touches in the transition from being a coach to a lecturer, using tough times to your advantage and the importance of continuous professional development (CPD).
Q1) Dom, thank you so much for joining me, let’s kick this off with understanding a bit more about your career journey. Where did the adventure start for you?
My sports career started at the age of 15. I played for a football team when I was back in Cornwall, but they got disbanded. So, I ended up coaching 11 and 12-year-olds at this time. Coaching was something that I enjoyed even at a young age. So, I ended up coaching in grassroots football quite a bit which led me to get employed by the Cornwall County Football Association. I got paid then to deliver a local grassroots development programme.
I then went to Liverpool John Moores University to study coaching development, which was a fantastic experience, considering I’m a lad from Cornwall moving to a vibrant city like Liverpool. Thankfully, I had the chance to access a placement throughout my University studies. So, I worked for Everton in the Community, which was a brilliant experience in Liverpool with a completely different set of players and personalities. After University I then joined The Football Association. I worked as an FA skills coach specialising with 5-11-year-olds. I went into schools to help upskill and train teachers with teaching PE in primary schools. I ran my development centres and mentoring support for grassroots communities. I did that for three and a half years, and then I went off to do my master’s degree. I decided that I wanted to continue my education, and I was lucky that during my time in the FA, I gained a place on the UEFA B license. So, when I went up to Loughborough, which got me a job at Leicester city’s youth academy because I had my FA Youth award and UEFA B license while studying my masters.
After I finished my masters, I joined the Tottenham Hotspur foundation as a higher education lecturer, where I taught on their football coaching and performance module. I left there last August and then joined the West Ham United Foundation as their higher education lecturer teaching the sports coaching and performance degree as well as coaching the under 16’s at the women’s academy.
Q2) You’ve had a purely football orientated career path. At what point did you realise that football is the industry you want to work in and why?
I think a lot of people when they’re young they don’t always know what they want to do. However, I was fortunate. Even from the age of 15-16, I did my FA level one, and I realised that this was something I truly enjoyed.
I always loved football, but I knew that I was never going to be good enough to make it as a player. I began to think about how I can make football my career away from the pitch. I believe when people are 15-16, and they tell their parents they’re interested in being a coach, they’d get encouraged to go down the route of being a teacher. Back then, I would’ve thought teaching wouldn’t be for me, but ironically, I’m now a teacher. Although I’m still working in football, so I’m fortunate in that respect.
Q3) Brilliant stuff. Were you influenced by family members or friends to pursue a passion for football at all?
I wouldn’t say friends overly influences me. However, my dad used to take me to Plymouth Argyle FC as we had a season ticket, so I was always passionate about football. But growing up in Cornwall, there aren’t any professional football teams. So there aren’t many avenues or options for people that if they want to play football, or for a coach who wants to work in football, so hence we have probably had to move away to follow that dream.
Q4) While making the transition as a coach to a lecturer, what transferable skills served you well when evolving your role in the football industry?
There’s always an interesting debate around coaching and teaching and how similar they are. To me, there are definite similarities. They’re both about developing people, both by putting the person first and finding out what their needs are and finding out how you as the educator, coach, teacher or the lecturer can help them improve. I also think they inform each other.
Regarding transferable skills, the simplistic skills involved in both arts include listening, empathy, being able to see the bigger picture, and that’s for students and players. You need to know that what you’re teaching them, links to where you want them to go. For example, what do you want them to look like when they get to the end, and it’s the same with students. If I’m going to be providing sessions to most students, what am I going to deliver that will support them once they graduate and have a career in sport. Therefore, learn what that bigger picture looks like.
In terms of the transition, if you haven’t coached, it makes it hard to be a lecturer of coaching. And I believe if you don’t continue to coach or you don’t continue to work with players or athletes, it’s still quite hard to create those transferable anecdotes, that you can bring into the classroom. From my perspective, you need both coaching and teaching skills to be a successful lecturer.
Q5) You’ve coached men and women’s teams throughout your career. Talk to me more about the experiences and lessons you learnt about both target groups. Such as, did different styles of practice work better on one compared to the other?
I was asked this in an interview a few years ago, so it’s an interesting question. At the time, I said, that it’s precisely the same to coach male or females, this was the wrong answer as I didn’t get the job!
Now I think there are some glaring differences. If you’re working within the men’s game, there are performance programs for a men and boys academy. The aim of the boy’s academy entails on making it their career to be a player.
In the women’s game, the focus is slightly different as they’re more single-minded, and that is their key focus. But there’s still a lot more that goes on around them. For example, if you’re working with 15-16-year-olds who are taking GCSEs, you are dealing with a target group that have two focuses, their education and playing career. As the coach, you have to be quite aware of those external variables as well and how they can impact people coming into the system.
There are some physiological differences in the women’s game. For example, if I’ve got a 14-year-old girl who’s a right-back, I can’t be asking her to switch play and hit the ball across the pitch to the left-back. For both genders, there are different practices, tactics and adaptations that you’ll need to learn when picking up the game.
More often than not, whether you’re coaching boys or girls, there will be similar interventions.
Boys are more likely to have had more contact hours by the time they turn 16, especially if they’ve been part of an academy or performance program. Whereas girls wouldn’t as their program is still relatively new. Therefore, they won’t have had as many contact hours.
Q6) While working at the West Ham United Foundation for 11 months, what challenges have you experienced and how have they made you a better lecturer?
It’s the same when you enter any new work environment; it does take time to embed yourself and to adapt to the way that things work. I’ve been at the foundation for nearly a year and what’s really exciting is that you start to build a connection around building your own ideas in terms of how things can grow and adapt. You then start to become more embedded, which is a positive thing. Regarding becoming a better lecturer, it’s about being given opportunities to work with a more diverse population.
I always say to my students that working in Academy football was excellent; it’s an exciting environment, however, what makes you a better coach or a better educator, at times, could be putting you in a small school hall with the children who don’t like football. This incentive will cause you to learn behaviour management skills, being creative and how to engage people differently. I believe there are parallels with that in terms of working at a larger university. You’ve got a lot of more diverse people there. I’ve come from a background of working primarily in football, and now it’s football and other sports as well, which is exciting.
Q7) As a lecturer, I can imagine it’s a gratifying experience seeing your students prosper and achieve their dreams. Could you share what this feels like from your perspective?
Yes, it’s brilliant when I think about some of my students in my previous role who have gone on to work. There’s some at Crystal Palace, Millwall and several other clubs across the Premier League and the Football League. It’s just brilliant to know that you’ve helped those people achieve their dreams because I know what it was like when I started. I did a placement during university, which then helped me gain additional roles. Experience is so important, and that’s what I try and provide for those students to secure positions in a highly competitive industry of sport.
It’s also lovely when students want to keep in touch and ask how I’m doing. Plus, it’s brilliant when students come back to share their knowledge from the industry. I think that’s really powerful.
Q8) How has COVID19 impacted your role currently, and how have you responded?
The academic year was coming to an end, so there wasn’t a lot left that we needed to wrap up. We managed to support the students fine in terms of presenting over video calls or submitting in different means.
The only thing it did stop was offering placements and allowing students to embed themselves in those placements. For example, we had international trips lined up, which couldn’t go ahead, this was a shame, but hopefully, we can do that next year.
In terms of supporting the students, we arranged bi-monthly catch up sessions for students just to touch base and find out how they’re getting on. I’ve just been trying to engage my students in CPD because, at the moment, it would be outside of the academic year. When students first come to university, most of them don’t know what CPD is. For example, I’d pick out a documentary on Netflix which resonates with a student’s interests and ask them to have a watch. Once they’ve seen it, I’ll ask them to feedback to me about what they learnt and found interesting. I also forward links with webinars and podcasts to listen to, to enhance their development. I believe the way that you have to engage students in CPD is through future learning and making it enjoyable. The great thing about webinars is that they’re really accessible. Plus, because of COVID, the majority of them are free.
Q9) From the pandemic, have you taken away any influential learnings?
For me, it gives you those skills of being able to manage your own time a little bit better, such as cataloguing your day a bit stronger. For example, in the morning, I’m going to achieve 5 major tasks.
I’m better at time management, better than before! If anything, you probably become slightly more productive. When you’re at home, you create those to-do lists, and then you manage to tick those off. Other than that, it feels great. Time management and productivity have been the key learnings so far. Hopefully, this changes things moving forward, and employers in the future will be more open to staff working from home.
Q10) Reviewing your whole career to this point, what have been the main synergies and contrasts you’ve noticed working for a club foundation, The FA, football club and The Premier League?
Each organisation is very professional. When I left University, I went straight to a full-time role in the FA, which was a fantastic experience and it taught me what it was like to work for a people facing organisation, if that makes sense. So, not often do the general public or people in schools meet others wearing the FA badge on their chest, this comes with some pressure to act professionally. However, I say to my students not to always put too much respect on the badge. Growing up, I saw a lot of people wearing a Plymouth Argyle badge, and they were always idolised and thought of as top coaches, whereas anyone could wear the kit. Therefore, focus more on what that coach does and then make a judgement on whether you like it or not. The key is to practice being more critical and analytical.
The essential value for me has been not only professionalism but the ever-changing environment of sport. When I was 15, academy football would look very, very different from how it looks now. This is because of policies that are embedded, such as the EPPP and other changes. From my broad experiences at an academy level, each academy has different ways of operating. This is because they’ve got their academy philosophy, syllabus, and values. For example, the role of Head of Coaching at one club might look very different from the role at another club. For those interested to work in sport, understand what roles you’re interested in and learn what they require and what the environment looks like. For instance, if you want a role at the FA, focus on what that role precisely requires. Once you build a detailed insight, this will become very powerful as you’ll be able to work towards that goal effectively.
Q11) I’m aware you’ve come across multiple personality types and characters working in football. Could you share some insights around how you adapted from moving from one environment to another?
When I left the FA I went for an interview somewhere, and the organisation said to me,” oh, you’re very ‘FA’ aren’t you?”. I couldn’t understand what they meant by that. Was it something positive? In due time, I realised they didn’t mean it positively.
I believe the way you adapt is through experience and trying to embed yourself in the values that the environment has. Plus, try to understand what that organisation is about. As previously mentioned, each organisation has different philosophies, values, and priorities. If you know the preferences of the organisation, it makes it easier to adapt. So if you’re going to enter an environment and you’re thinking, “this club environment is all about developing players for the first team, and they’re not overly bothered about holistic player development” this can be very different to your philosophy and your values. Therefore, also try to identify the organisations you want to work for and align them with your values as well.
Q12) From the perspective of a higher education lecturer, what would be your essential tips to pursuing a career in football?
Tip one, there are thousands of graduates each year who’ve studied sport. Think about how you can make yourself unique and why should you be employed as many people expect to come out of university and walk into a role. Unfortunately, the sports industry doesn’t work like that.
Secondly, gain vocational and additional qualifications which you might need. For example, if you want to work in academy football where you need at least a UEFA B license, getting a degree or master’s degree will help you. If you’re going to be a sports psychologist, having a BPS or similar accreditation will help you. Therefore, understand the field you want to go into and gain those additional qualifications.
Thirdly, start to build your professional network. This is essential in all careers, especially football. Therefore, think about volunteering which will be great to build your network. Give up your time for free; you can do this by contacting people on LinkedIn and finding opportunities to meet and share information. Or even getting in touch with people who host a webinar you’re passionate about. Also, ask additional questions to build those relationships truly.
Back to the first point about being unique, things have changed from the days where you would just be a coach. Now, you need to have robust and tactical knowledge. You’d also need to have that understanding of performance with sports science as well. If you don’t have those things, then someone else would be more likely to get the role if they do have the understanding.
The key questions are, why should you be employed? How are you different from other people? How do you stand out?
I’m not sure about you, but I was left speechless after absorbing this discussion with Dominic. He’s right, in every situation you should practice critical thinking which has been vital learning from my university experience. Plus, uncertain times like COVID19 don’t always have to be a setback; it comes down to your perspective of weighing the yin with the yang. On the subject of outlook, when pursuing your sports career dream, put yourself in the shoes of that person who should hire you!