Tavern Interview: Wae In Sports

Photo Courtesy of Wae In Sports.

We’re back with a special interview that is extremely close to my heart. This is a special one that has been coming back since when I was a young lad working out in Korea as an English teacher. Yours truly was in his early 20s, first job in Korea, and needed a weekend outlet.

So what was a football fanatic to do but join a Sunday league at Seoul World Cup Futsal courts! I am and always will be only a crap footballer who wishes he could be a winger with the speed of Theo Walcott (and probably the crap finishing of Theo as well). I’m a better golfer if you ever need to know if I am good at sports. Anyway, on that team there was a lad named Tom who was by far the best player on our team. He was a box to box midfielder who was all action, full of vision, and the best player to have on the pitch. I knew there was a coach in him because he was always pushing us to play better, giving the right directions and encouragements when needed. I have nothing but praise for Tom putting up with how crap I was and still encouraging me to try things on the pitch and believe I could improve. It’s no wonder that he’s now running a company dedicated to youth development and teaching coaching in Korea. It’s called Wae In Sports and I want to share the interview that we had recently. I’ll stop talking and let the team’s expertise speak for itself.

  1. Can you give a brief introduction of the Wae-in Sports crew? How did you all meet? When did Wae-in Sports start?

Wae-In Sports was founded in 2014 to bridge the gap between Europe’s long-established sports development infrastructure and one of it’s most active fanbases, in South Korea. Over time, however, it has evolved to become so much more than that. We spent the next couple of years creating, destroying and scribbling ideas until we had the core identity and culture we see in our services today.  As founder [Tom] my initial role was quite simple; surround myself with people better than I am. Our CFO [Vanja] was the obvious first point of contact; an astute economist and the brightest person I’ve ever met. Although he still doesn’t have a driving licence he has no problem in challenging what direction we are going in every day, a Spock to my Kirk if you will. 

While interviewing for one of our summer football camps I had the pleasure of meeting our now Head of Coaching [Dan], who possesses interpersonal skills Vanja and I could only dream of. He’s not just a pretty face fortunately as he completes our triforce of collision and collaboration with boundless energy and an eye for detail.

Our 4th member of the Wae-In family [Jong-won] is truly World-class. He was introduced to me by a friend at Hong-Myung Bo’s Academy and within minutes of sitting down with him in a pub in north London I could tell he was motivated. Since that first meeting he has worked as a Performance Analyst at several clubs before being picked up by Crystal Palace FC. He offers an expert eye as our Technical Advisor and we’re lucky to have him.

  1. Talk about a moment in your sports career that inspired you to get into the field? In Korea, what made you decide that Wae-In Sports was the path that you wanted to pursue?

For me [Tom] I can remember that moment exactly. I was in the process of doing my UEFA badges, emailing every club in Scotland for an internship. I was the only privateer doing the course and felt very much the outsider among the group of Scottish club coaches. So after several months of failing to hear back from clubs I packed up my bicycle and decided to take a month for reflection. About halfway along my journey from Portugal to Austria I came across the Sampdoria Youth Team undergoing a rigorous pre-season training session. The players were responding to their coaches’ animated, vocal style; dancing between challenges and taking the odd dive when the opportunity arose. Soon enough emotions spilled over and a fight predictably broke out between players. The coach kept his distance, applauding both players for their passion and desire to win. It struck a nerve with me. Players were simply emulating their role models on the field; doing anything to win an advantage and earn their coaches favour. It was a stark contrast from the rugby values I identified with growing up. It seemed the coach was micro-managing his players to win games the only way he knew how – wanting it more.
I spent the second 1500 km of my journey contemplating what players get from football and how they can apply that throughout their life; not winning a game but winning the day.

Fast forward six-weeks and I was having my first interview [entirely through international sign-language] for a coaching position in South Korea. My VISA situation prevented me from earning a salary so it was a tough 3-month internship financially (rice and charitable kimchi every night); but the challenge and experience was invaluable. I left with a promise from Hong Myung-Bo himself that I had a contract and VISA awaiting my return from the UK.
Feeling out of sorts back in rural Scotland I remember getting the auto-translated email at about five o’clock in the morning: “Our heart is broken……impossible…..cannot come back Korea.” I was devastated but it was an epiphany moment for me. I knew that this was what I wanted to do and decided to challenge it. I spent the next three months camped at the Korean embassy in London, gathering letters of recommendation from Hong Myung-Bo, the Scottish Football Association, the Olympic Committee, anybody. The staff must have been glad to see the back of me when they finally granted me the first H-1 VISA for a Football Coach.

I learned more in that year than I had in my four at university. What became apparent in Korea early on was the relationships between coach and player; teacher and student; older and younger. There seemed to be a weight of expectation even at the most amateur level. Being witness to this ‘confucianism’ among players and coaches was what started me thinking about Wae-In in the first place.

  • Can you introduce the different ways Wae-in Sports is involved with the footballing scene in Korea?

Wae-in Sports in Korea is different to Wae-in Sports in the U.K. or anywhere else. It would have been easy for us to import the English FA curriculum or footballing philosophies of Belgium, for example. In order for us to have a sincere and lasting impact we needed to leave our biases and badges at the border, shut up and start listening. We started with [pre-K] Kindergarten; observing children at play, discussing the expectations of parent groups and the mindset of the ‘coaches’. After a couple of months, we would proceed to the next age-group and repeat the process – listening to considerations; observing styles, methods – recording outcomes. After eighteen months we had collected sufficient data to identify in what ways we could support football development specific to Korea and its culture.

The first of our three product pathways is our ‘player pathway’ – a bespoke curriculum specifically designed to focus on growth as opposed to winning. We host annual camps and initiatives alongside K1, K2 and K3 teams to promote skills that players can take with them everywhere, not just on the pitch.

Our ‘coaching pathway’ is another great way we interact with key influencers in the Korean football scene. We never wanted to licence a foreign federations philosophy in Korea; we wanted to augment all that is great about the roots of Korean cultural identity with the best the footballing world has to offer. We looked at the most successful groups, businesses, schools, teams and educational models – trying to break down what it is that makes them perform consistently beyond expectations. The result of which is another bespoke, multi-level curriculum for professional development [for anyone over the age of sixteen]. Our entry level course is a twenty-hour interactive look at who our prospective coaches are and who they want to be. As a mentor it’s a real challenge to ask the right questions and keep the emphasis on them. I think most [prospective coaches] expected to show up, as individuals and be lectured from A to B; but by the final day it was brilliant to see them feeling empowered, collaborating and delivering on their own session ideas. We had our first Level 1 graduates in March of this year and we’re excited to announce more courses coming throughout 2019.

The Wae-in YDM [Youth Development Model] is how we interact with national federations, football associations and professional clubs on how they perform with respect to Youth Development. Although we can’t talk in detail about our involvement within the Korean system, this is our most exciting piece of work to date and something we look forward to sharing more on in the near future.

  • Talk about how different youth sports are in Korea compared to where you grew up? Can you see positives and negatives to the Korean approach?

First of all I [Tom] grew up about fifty miles from the nearest club with a youth team, which was about thirty miles further than where I went to school. By contrast Seoul alone has thousands of academies [‘hakwon’] dedicated to every conceivable niche discipline in sports and academics – each classroom brimming with hopes and ‘potential’. Children as young as six years old are spending their entire days indoors; being shuttled from school, to taekwondo, to english academies, to tutors. It’s an educational model fueled by an intrinsically bestowed competitive desire for improvement. This idol culture fuelled by grades, rankings and stature are how you become measured over time. 

Living rurally I had an immense amount of freedom; spending the majority of my time outdoors, exploring, building, breaking [bones mostly]. With few mentors to guide me I learned from my own mistakes and experiences; the many failures became part of successful process. Whereas from my experience observing a cross-section of Korean coaches they have learned directly from observing a mentor and with it assumed this fixed mindset of success vs failure.

What struck me most, however, when I first came to Korea was the innate respect for authority students have. I felt completely taken aback when I coached my first session in Suwon and the youth players formed a perfect circle around me, standing to attention and bowing in unison – I hadn’t even spoken a word up to that point. The down side to this, however, is rarely does somebody feel entitled to question that seniority; especially those in a position of authority such as a football coach.

Korea has all the raw materials and infrastructure to support a competitive domestic league competition, the challenge is going to be protecting a long standing, Confucian culture while incentivising coaches to challenge their mindset to focus on long term growth and development – as supposed to results in the short term.

I was never encouraged to ask “why?”, but “why not?”

  • Specifically to Korean football, what do you see as specific areas that are in need of improvement (e.g tactics, training, coaching)?

[Dan Stepney, Head Coach] Again, it’s important we first observe practices and consider the roots of Korean culture before we can begin benchmarking. What you notice immediately with Korean footballers is their drive to self improve. They are immensely well drilled, technically very proficient and will spend hours of their own time on researching tape online specific to their position and role on the pitch. Korean youth training sessions tend to follow a common plan of: stretching, ball-juggling, technical skill drills, passing practices, culminating with high intensity games – dispersed occasionally with the odd lecture. Coaches rely on their experience and intuition as players themselves to manage expectations and condition their players to respond to their instructions.

All of this looks fine enough until you come to a game scenario. Coaches find themselves physically micro-managing players in an effort to win; players’ focus becomes split between the information coming to them on the pitch and from the sidelines – not to mention that information being further diluted by the many, supportive parents – and the games appear devoid of cognition.

Due to the style of training and coaching [in Korea] players are given limited to no opportunity to develop their cognitive skills. Players are conditioned to play a certain way through phrases like: “you should” and “unlucky.” Drills are conducted from A to B, cone to cone and side to side; it’s functional and fun at times, but not reminiscent of a fluid game of football.

In order to effect the output on the pitch we have to incentivise coaches to adapt their mindset. As coaches how do we support players to make their own decisions, to learn from their mistakes and take ownership of their learning. 

The most simple recommendation we make to coaches who spend most of their time dictating is to turn the emphasis on to their players. By asking for the information from your players rather than giving it to them you engage them as a group and by giving them options in training they feel their decisions have weight on the pitch. We have to support the whole player in Korea. That means not just their technical, tactical and physical abilities but their socio-psychological ones as well. After all, football is what these people do; it’s not who they are.

  • A reader brought this up recently on our site and I wanted to get your thoughts. Do you think that all Korean young players wish to become strikers/attacking players? Do you believe that European coaches are more willing to encourage players to find the position that best suits them? This was related to the dearth of Korean defenders that become good enough to transfer to Europe for context. 

There is a ridiculous common misconception here that Koreans cannot score goals. Unfortunately you only have to look as far as the K-League 1 to appreciate the biases of recruitment among clubs. As I’m sure your readers will know, each club can register a maximum of three ‘foreign’ [non-Asian Federation] players including one Asian Federation player each season. These normally come in the form of two creative, Brazilian wing-forwards, one no-nonsense Eastern European centre-back and a reliable Japanese central midfielder. That sends a message from on top to younger players and may pigeon-hole them into midfield or wide-roles. Certainly as coaches we have observed players playing out of position in order to gain a starting birth in a team.

Most modern FA curriculums stipulate rotating players at youth level to make sure all players get a chance to experience the responsibilities across roles. However, with the exception of Son Heung-min there are still very few Korean players plying their trade in versatile or creative roles on the European stage.

It could be argued that the obligation of two years military-service is a turn off for most clubs, but that hasn’t stopped clubs taking players like Ki, Koo Ja-cheol, Kwon Chang-hoon or more recently, Lee Kang-in as long term options.

[Dan, playing devil’s advocate] Kim Shin-wook started life as a central defender before being moved to centre forward target man.

[Tom] It just isn’t sexy to be a defender so long as Son Heung-min is ripping them apart. He plays into this idol culture perfectly. It’s easy for people to be in awe of someone’s ability in Korea. In Europe I feel young people see it as more of a challenge; but until we have more ‘Van Dijks’ I won’t see many Korean players sticking their hands up to put the number 4 bib on in training.

  • What are some of your long-term goals for the development of Wae-In Sports?

I [Vanja] would love to see Wae-In Sports have an established role at supporting youth development in any capacity we can, wherever we can. Football not only serves as a means for people to potentially have a career, but football (and team sports in general) can serve as a vessel for learning vital life skills and can even provide important psychological support pillars in their lives. We want to see more kids reap the benefits of participating and playing, whether as a hobby or professionally. 

East Asia is a particularly interesting place to start growing as a young company because there is such determination and eagerness among kids and young adults to experiment and explore the boundaries of their culture and environment. 

[Dan] Ultimately I would like Wae-In to be known as a name that provides quality sports education – on both the coaching and player pathways. We want to challenge how academies are run and how we can best serve the players who enter them and who exit them, equally.

  • What are you most proud of thus far with Wae-In Sports?

[Vanja] I like to think that we live what we preach. We try to explore the boundaries of our own cultural biases, our education and our upbringing in order to push our educational methodologies beyond what we’ve seen done in Europe or the US. While most youth development programmes of pro teams or colleges are driven to produce the next generation of superstars, 99.97% of players that don’t make it big end up sidelined and suffer a big loss in their lives. I believe that football can still remain a healthy support in their lives. I’m proud that we try to facilitate that through our educational philosophy.

  • Who is a Korean player, currently playing in the K League or another Asian league, that has caught your eye and why? I definitely want to continue to broaden our readers’ knowledge of Korean players in Asia (the origin of our site was primarily about following the Korean national team matches and players in Europe and I’m hoping to get people more interested in the K League during the European offseason).

For me as a coach [Tom] when identifying talent I’m really only looking for a player to show one thing, attitude. You can be the most technically gifted player in the world; if you don’t have the right attitude and desire to improve, I’m not interested.

Having said that I believe Korea has a proportionally higher percentage of players who possess that characteristic. ‘Daegu FC’ for instance have some very exciting young players breaking into their first team. However, among them one man stands head and shoulders above the rest in my opinion, and that’s Park Han-bin. A combative, selfless, central midfielder with all the technical ability and passing range of a Ki Seung-yung, combined with the desire and positivity of an N’golo Kante. He’s a dream for any coach; direct, alert, humble. But most importantly he tries things, he takes risks.

I personally hope to see him given the chance to challenge himself in Europe in the next couple of seasons. 

That’s all from Wae In Sports for now. Leave any questions or comments below and we’ll have them answer when they have time. Also, follow their work on Instagram on the handle @wae_in_sports.

About Michael Welch 89 Articles
That Halfie Korean-American who loves football (I mean, soccer).

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