Coaching in Korea: 'Missile launches are part of life'

Dan Harris has been with Seoul E-Land since 2014

Dan Harris has been with Seoul E-Land since 2014

DAN HARRIS is the former Head of Sports Science at Celtic, West Brom and Birmingham, once described as ‘the loudest man in the world’ by Steve Bruce. In 2014 he made the transition into coaching, becoming assistant manager of Seoul E-Land in Korea’s K-League. The North Londoner told us about the footballing culture in his new homeland - as well as the challenges of working next to one of the most heavily armed borders on the planet.

Why Korea?

DH: Of course you need to pay the bills, you’ve got to support your family, but I want to look back on my career when I’m 85 years of age in my rocking chair and think I squeezed the juice out of every last day and did things for the right reasons.

If you go to Korea for a two-week holiday, you’ll go away having had a really great time. You think you understand the culture very quickly. The perception is of people here being very friendly and welcoming to guys from the outside – and that is what I’ve found, no doubt.

But when you live in a country and scratch beneath the surface you get a better understanding of what underpins the culture and the challenges you face.

Korea is no better or worse than England or the UK, it’s just different. Human instinct is to compare where we are and what we’ve known, but that isn’t necessarily helpful when you come to a completely different culture though.Obviously the style of football is very different to the UK. That's been the biggest adjustment for me professionally - the way they train and play. There's no point me coming across here and trying to create little England or Scotland though. I can take the best bits from European football and hopefully try and knit that into what happens here in Korea.

We have to be respectful of, and adhere to, the Korean way of doing things. It's my job to hopefully improve things step by step. The old saying, ‘if you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, you go together,’ holds water here. Taking people on a journey with you is important and that's something I’ve picked up. I made mistakes over the course of the first few years and certainly hope to be better moving forward.

From ‘butting heads’ to avoiding conflict:

Football in the UK is a ‘big boy’ sport. On a regular basis you'll be butting heads with coaches, players, guys in the front office and you’ve got to have tough skin. You know you can have that ability to go and stand your corner and fight for what it is you need to be successful when you develop those kind of survival skills. The advantage is that yes, you might have a tear up with someone, you might have a little head to head, but my experience in the UK is that you can have that flare up, but it gets resolved and you crack on and it's gone.

In Korea, the need is to try to avoid that conflict as much as possible. What I’ve found out over here is that the importance of people not losing face is very significant.

You know the idea of somebody being embarrassed or humiliated or admitting a mistake is very very alien and that's not something you'd ever want to do. So the way you give feedback on performance for example is very key.

Whereas in the UK you might do a video session with boys and be very frank in highlighting who was at fault for a particular situation or who needs to improve next time around, here I've learned to do that in an individual setting with just the player and me sat quietly away from other people. If I were to do it in a public setting, you know they’d be mortified and that humiliation would take away from the message.

We use video as a positive reinforcement tool. So often around the world I've seen videos of meetings when it's a horror show, showing players every single mistake they’ve made in a game. The powerful impact guys have of publicly seeing their good performances on the screen, so their team-mates and colleagues can see them doing something well and the message that sends out, is really important. That is a useful tool in terms of reinforcing the things you're looking for as well as highlighting the things you want to improve.

Style of play:

The style of play in Korea is different from that in the UK. The UK has a more explosive style and players are encouraged to take opponents on by trying to run past them quickly. There is also a higher game volume in the UK, which increases the risk of injuries. In the K-League it is more of a patient style and the injuries tend to be more over-use injuries, a lot of knee and ankle injuries. You don’t get those extreme sprints as much. The Korean footballer is a well-conditioned athlete. A lot come from a Taekwondo background and have a fantastic range of movement. Some players back home would struggle to touch their toes. Actually some would struggle to touch their knees!

Language issues:

Communication has obviously been a real challenge. It's really reinforced the power of making every single word count. Like a lot of coaches, I get excited when I talk. You instinctively want to get a lot of information across and you want it to be really positive and bubbly. But the reality is that over here is that you've got to make every word count because you're communicating through a translator. You want to make sure you're making his or her job as easy as possible. You have to make sure you choose your words very carefully, because sometimes the words get translated but the message doesn't.

One of the things we do is a morning activation session and the players go on the spinning bikes in the gym facing a ‘learning wall’. This contains a series of key phrases or key terminology. It’s important for everyone, including the foreign players, to understand these in Korean.

In the split second of a game the Korean players aren’t going to have time to process in English - they're going to shout in Korean. We also want the Korean players to upgrade their English a little bit, from a life skills point of view as much as anything else.

My Korean is still very basic. It's a very complicated language for those who don't know it. You have to learn the language twice, because you learn the alphabet first, then you have to learn the symbols and Hangul and the written form of Korean. It's certainly a long-winded process, but I am able to give instructions and coach in Korean now.

What I'm not able to do, by any means, is to have the kind of rich, deep conversations you really need at a strategic level with chief executives and managers and agents and other stakeholders. Now, that's a challenge at the moment, so I'm fortunate there are some good people in the club that have got some decent English that can help me. If my contract extends and I stay longer that's certainly an area I'll have to upgrade.

As English speaking guys, we get a little bit lazy. We’re used to people around the world being able to speak English. That means we’re a little bit lazy lazy mentally and we do need to learn languages more. I want to shake it up a little bit and really show I'm able to grasp the complete language as best I can.

In any coaching environment, even if you're coaching in your native language, demos are really important.

I've had to upgrade my own demos on and off the field, to make it clear what I'm looking for. Video has been crucial from a strategic, tactical point of view, getting players actively involved in their learning development and analyzing their own performances and breaking their performances down, rather than us always doing it for them.

Drinking with team-mates:

I love football, I love coaching, but football is what I do, not who I am. When I get home I want to see my family in the evenings. I spend most of my life away from them as it is and I'm keen to get home and see my wife and family.

Delineating work and home is important for my own well-being and to make sure I can be a decent husband and father. The idea of going out socialising and drinking at night with colleagues and coaches was one I couldn't get my head round. I was very very clear and upfront with the guys at the start that I'd be working my socks off for the club and pouring my heart and soul into helping them become better, but that when my working day was finished I'd be going home.

Not being a native Korean has made it easier for me to draw that line in the sand. It's much harder for the young Korean coaches to do it because of this very clear, strong age-based hierarchy. I do feel for the young coaches a bit.

Getting young players to take responsibility:

The idea of being in a hierarchy, the idea of being respectful, is a fantastic thing. It's underpinned the cultural society here in terms of the very rapid growth of this country over the last 60 years. In a football context, we have to know that on a Saturday at when those 11 men cross the white line to go into battle, every single one of those guys has to contribute. It can't be left just to the senior guys. Everyone has to contribute.

Harris on the pitch with his family last season

To some of the younger guys out here, there's a little bit of the sense that says there are older guys in the team and when I get to their age I'll take responsibility then.

But take the AC Milan goalkeeper Donnarumma - he made his first team debut in Serie A aged 16 and is still playing now at 19 years old. The idea of a 16-year-old making his debut in a professional team in Korea was unheard of.

Here a player is seen as being young at 22, 23, even 24, whereas in Europe a player would be seen as being young 17 or 18. That's a big difference. In Korea you have mandatory military service, where every person has to do two years before the age of 28.

If you're seen as being a young player at 24 and have to do military service before the age of 28, that’s a very small window to actually play. What we try to do is say if you make a mistake, don't beat yourself up about it. Don't live in fear of making a mistake. Actually, if you make a mistake and it goes wrong, try try again.

That underpins what we're trying to do with the young guys here - not being afraid to fail.

It’s that old idea of "I'd rather choke on greatness than nibble on mediocrity." That sense of trying things, expressing yourself, rather than falling into the lazy mindset of signing foreign players to score goals or create for us. There is no reason why a Korean player can't score 20 goals a season. There's no reason why a Korean player can't be fantastic at dribbling one-on-one. We’ve just got to create a situation where players feel sage enough to do it.


Our Academy is very new and we’ve got great people working there. I haven't had the opportunity to spend much time with those guys because they’re on a separate site from us, but what they do is incredibly important.

For those guys working at academy level around the world, don't underestimate the importance of the role you have. People are often desperately striving to get out the Academy football into senior football, but the foundation those guys are laying is crucial.

From sports science to coaching:

I felt this was an important transition to make as I looked at the changing landscape of football. I believe there is a growing disconnect between various stakeholders within the game and particularly between coaches and sports scientists.

While both groups have made mistakes, the root of this has been practitioners in the sports science/performance domain not understanding the complexities of the game well enough and not being able to communicate their ideas effectively enough in a football context.

If I'm being completely honest, I'd have to say that sports science has let football down over the last few years. Regarding my own personal transition, I simply believe there is merit in coaches being better equipped to interpret the use of data within the game as an integrated part of the daily workings of a coaching staff - not as a bolt-on that can sometimes be viewed as an irritant.

North Korea and the threat of war:

Mass media in the UK and US have made a lot of the tensions here in Korea - partly as a distraction from serious domestic issues - but life for us has remained unchanged over the last three years. This is an active war zone and has been for a long time. Apache gun-ships circle the city every day, we have regular air raid siren practices and there is a visible military presence across the country.

Our training ground is actually just a few kilometers from one of the most heavily armed borders on the planet. We have seen and heard missile launches during our time here but this has become just part of the normal ebb and flow of life here for South Koreans.

Without getting overly political, it is in everyone's interest for the status quo to be maintained. Likewise, Russia & China - who are the biggest player here, not the US - do not want US troops on their borders. So while the escalation looks dramatic, the reality is that there are enough intelligent people working behind the scenes on all sides for things not to get out of hand.

The only unknown is President Trump who, as we have seen, has a habit of tweeting first and thinking later. It’s unhelpful and frustrating for Koreans who can do without him antagonising their neighbours in a region he has little direct experience of.

Listen to the full interview on the Football Autobiography Showavailable on iTunes.

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