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SIPG’s Mads Davidsen – Cultural intelligence for foreign coaches in China, working under Sven, and brown rice v white rice

Former Wild East Football contributor Mads Davidsen is now technical director at Shanghai SIPG, having previously been the team’s U-23 team coach, head of recruitment and reserve coach. He was an assistant under legendary coach Sven Goran Eriksson at Guangzhou R&F Football Club and followed the Swede to Shanghai. Before heading to Asia, Mads coached the U-19 team at leading Danish club Brøndby IF, and has recently branched out into book writing, co-authoring “Når talent forpligter” (Roughly translated to “When talent is committed”) which came out in May.

The following is an excerpt from an interview with Josh Schneider-Weiler on the Football Autobiography Show. The podcast focuses on long-form interviews with football’s most interesting players, managers, backroom staff, and writers. In our interview, Davidsen talks about how he broke into coaching, the importance of cultural intelligence, why he sends his youth players to train abroad, and what he looks for when scouting players.

Just so the audience has a little background on you. Can you tell everyone where you grew up and a little bit about your childhood?

So I grew up outside Copenhagen in Denmark and I was fascinated by football since I could walk. Basically we have some pictures of me back when I was 1 or 2 years old already walking around with a ball. So it has always been a big part of my life, playing in the local club and moving on to some bigger clubs and trying to pursue my own career. But the lack of talent then and then some quite bad injuries made my football career quite short. So I finished when I was 20 years old. And then basically I went straight into coaching because I got recommended by my mentor [Flemming Pedersen] to start coaching. So that’s been kind of my football way.

Why did he recommend you go into coaching and were you thinking about anything else at that time?

I was also starting on university I have a master in communication and journalism so I tended to focus on that part of the career. At that time when I was I could see my career couldn’t really continue, I was in the third tier in Denmark and I could not train hard because I got injured all the time.

So I thought that was it for football. But then my mentor who I always listened to and I always call still when I have some big questions here, he called me and he said you know as a player you’re one of the few who ask questions, you know you’re one of the few who actually think about the game. So you must try to be a coach you must deliver some of your ideas to the young players and then the same day because I listen a lot to him the same day actually I was already an assistant coach for a U-12 team in the Copenhagen club.

So what was the greatest challenge working with you know 12 year olds 13 year olds at the time and how did that set you up to coach older players later on?

So as I said before this club was very famous for the youth academy so there was a lot of good youth coaches in the club and to be straight honest I didn’t know anything. I was purely guessing I always had a gut feeling on what to do with these kids but I never tried to develop a curriculum I never tried to develop players so I had no clue. Basically if it was working or not but I had good people around me from all the teams and who was the head of talent who would like helping me and guiding me, inviting me to coaching seminars inside the club and suddenly, slowly, I started to develop the mindset of a coach and I started to get some knowledge and then when you have knowledge then you can start to be critical in terms of your own knowledge.

So it became like step by step and then I could see my ideas were working, the players were improving the style of play. It was you know we started to look like a good team and the players took the next step and went to some bigger clubs. And so I got some new practical, empirical work because I could see that the things I did was working and then actually I had a job offer at that time a few years later from Qatar. They wanted me to be head of U-14 at ASPIRE Academy in Qatar. So basically I actually quit everything in Denmark and I went to Qatar but for still unknown reason there was a problem with my visa. There were some political issues at that time in Denmark and the Muslim world and I don’t know if that interfered with us, at least that was what I was told. So I actually for six months I was in a big mess of moving back and forth from Qatar and then suddenly I didn’t get my money and I didn’t get my contract so I had to go back. And then I basically knocked the door in the same club in B.93 [Copenhagen] and then they asked me to be to be part of the U-19.

How are you a different coach now than you were when you first got hired at Brondby? How has your approach to developing players changed?

Yeah the thing is that the change is, still I mean you get more knowledge and it’s a long way if you keep being curious. That’s a key element. You must be curious. I see some coaches who they lose the fact of being curious along the way and then they stop developing and then also the players they work with will stop developing. And I’ve always been a curious person and that’s also why I think my mentor originally asked me to be a coach because I was curious. When I was a player, I would knock on his door after training and ask some questions, “why they would do that? “What’s the point of that exercise?” And then “can you help me with some videos for my game?” And we have to remember, that is back in early 2000’s, so that way was not very normal for players.

And obviously I just this week I had a coaching seminar in China for our youth coaches at the club, where I work now Shanghai SIPG. And we actually talked to the coaches in the seminar that my advantage now is that I’ve worked with players who now play on the highest level which means that I have seen, felt, trained players who will now play in La Liga who play in the Premier League, play in the Bundesliga. That’s just an extremely good empirical fact to have because then you know what the demands are. You know OK if I player at that level when he’s 16, 17, 18, 19 then he has a chance to play on the highest level.That’s actually what I try to teach the Chinese coaches now because they never develop a player for the highest level so how can they know what the demands are for football at the highest level?

Is there a particular method though to your training? Do you have like a system of which you go to train players?

I’m a man of structure. So I’m extremely structured and also my private life, I don’t like to do anything of coincidence. I don’t like to not be prepared. I’m a little bit almost over-prepared sometimes, which also annoys people around me in my private life. But but I don’t think there’s any secrets, or stuff like that. But I always say to my players that the training must be like, all of us are aiming for playing for Real Madrid or Barcelona. That’s the mentality we must think when we are in the training and also that’s the quality we have to put in. Technically, tactically, physically, mentally and then we have to to create an environment that would be as high level as possible, maybe even higher than the players are able to play sometimes to see where they can go.
Many of us will not go to FC Barcelona but we have to put the bar as high as possible. I’m not happy for example here in Shanghai if my current youth players, if we just develop five six players to our first team. That’s not enough. We want the bar higher. I must have players playing in Europe. I want players to go to the Premier League. I want players to go to La Liga.
I’m a guy who works purely off passion. I don’t care what I earn and I don’t care basically where in the world I stay. I can give a club a lot of hours that obviously over time this is a nice thing for the players that I’m always there if they need me.

So you’re up at Brondby and then you get a call from Ebbe Sands and what does he tell you? Describe the conversation you have and what you were thinking?

I met him in a coaching course three years earlier and I ended up in the same group as Ebbe. And then three years later he called me and he said “you know I still remember you from this coaching course and then I read and liked what you did there, would like your ideas. And actually I’m opening a football Academy in China and I want you to run it for me.” So the conversation was quite short.

And I say “you know give me 24 hours more or less to think about it” but inside I already knew I wanted to go because I didn’t make a big career myself as a player and I always told myself I want to go when I get the chance as a coach. And I think you mentioned earlier not being a big name. I also have to be realistic. I’m aware that Barcelona or Manchester City are not going to call me, not yet at least. So therefore China was a possibility it was a developing football country and this was an interesting idea to open the first football academy in Shanghai- a city with 24 million people. So this was a chance and then to be honest I was also lucky when I came to China. That thing has developed as they had because of the president and the big plan of changing the football here so timing was good too.

If you don’t adapt and don’t adjust your own ideas, the way you communicate, the way you give feedback then you have zero chance of succeeding. I’ve seen many players and coaches come there and try to force their way. I’m sorry to say they only lasted six months.

So what has been your key to staying in China as long as you have been? It’s been about five years. So what has been your secret, where many people I guess fail?

I still believe in what I call “cultural intelligence.” That when you work in a different culture you must develop a culture of intelligence. You cannot force them your way. You cannot force through your ideas. You must be strategic and choose your fights and choose your communication and choose your feedback.

My contract with Shanghai SIPG it doesn’t say that I’m here to change a 2,000 year old culture. The contract says I’m here to help to develop a better football club.

And I still believe that I’ve seen a lot of coaches come here and think that they can work exactly as they do in Spain or exactly as they do in Holland but it doesn’t work here and there’s nothing to do with that the Chinese are not professional. It’s just the fact that there’s a very different culture. I sometimes say when I do presentations for clubs or for companies that you know in my contract with Shanghai SIPG it doesn’t say that I’m here to change a 2,000 year old culture. That quote is not in my contract. The contract says, I’m here to help to develop a better football club and I think people coming from the western world, they tend to misunderstand that they come in and say “oh that’s wrong and that’s wrong and that’s wrong,” but that’s the culture and you can’t change a 2000 year old culture.

You can advise them and you can slowly adapt the new generations’ minds and what you think is the right way. You can only survive here if you kind of follow the rules. That’s my opinion.

And can you give me like an example of a time where you said you kind of had to a moment where you wanted to possibly change one of their ideas but you had to hold your tongue and kind of embrace their 2000 year history as you said.

Yeah we can take a simple example from my old club my former club where we work with I was the assistant coach with Sven [Goran Eriksson] called Guangzhou R&F where we had discussions and obviously we wanted to make a professional environment. So we try to find small percentages in all areas and one area of was obviously the food part and then we did some measurements on the players and we could see that in general they had a little bit too high fat percent. Nothing big, but a little bit and therefore we hired an expert to find out what we could do to try to change this. And he came back after observing the players for a while and said you know the big problem is that they eat too much rice white rice.

Agent for change – coach Mads Davidsen

So we need to take that away. And from a 100 percent perfect world that might be true. But you know for people who live in China, they also know that food in China is kind of religion for them. It’s a very important part of their world. When you travel in China you find out that each city, each province has different food and that they’re very proud of it. It’s a big part of their culture.

So food becomes kind of a religion for them so just as primitive example if we went in that day, back in Guangzhou, and basically removed all the rice from our canteen then I can almost guarantee you that we would have been sacked four months later because we would have 33 players hating us. But of course what we did was more strategic, that we slowly spoke to the players that we basically cut down the amount of rice. We might have tried to change the rise to brown rice which has better fibers. So the point is just that you cannot come in here and just change everything from day one. And I think that sometimes that’s the mistake being made. That doesn’t mean you can’t change it. Of course you have to try to make everything as professional as possible but it takes time.

From when you were getting the job at Guangzhou. I read that there were some problems with the contract and the process of that and you said it was kind of a hard time for you. Can you describe those difficult days when you were in that contract process and why it was so difficult?

You cannot even say there was any problems. It was just culture clash again that you know, and when you start to do a deal with the Chinese club, sometimes in the culture they won’t tell you exactly that they can take a little while. They’d rather tell you that it’s going to be done soon and done soon and done soon and maybe it was made there. I actually thought this one would be done soon. But that period was tough because I didn’t know.

Suddenly I was doubting if the contract would ever come. I was waiting a few months in Shanghai and you know I felt the pressure because I didn’t have any money. I spent all my money traveling around China to visit clubs to gain a new network and I didn’t get a high salary in Denmark at all. But I couldn’t afford almost to go home for Christmas to see my family, so it was tough times.
So it was not easy because then you lose focus and suddenly I couldn’t focus on my work, I had trouble sleeping. And then of course you start to feel a little bit insecure, because also as I mentioned earlier I’m a man of structure so suddenly the structure was kind of taking away from me. But I kept going and then luckily in the end we managed to seal the deal. I mean everything worked out in the end.

So eventually you made it. You came with Sven to Shanghai SIPG FC and now you’re the technical director, where you do a lot of scouting technical director. So what do you look for in players? Are there any key indicators or characteristics?

Yeah for our youth, we mostly look for game intelligence or football intelligence, so we have some criteria where we judge the players from one to five in some different colors. So all the time when you start to develop a sheet then after some years you will have a diverse [mix] between the players and then it will be easy to see who’s actually the right place for us. But we believe in that in the future, football intelligence will be more important- the ability to react fast and think fast where you can say traditionally in China they have been looking more in physics. I can see that in some of our youth teams, that they’ve been purely picked up on physics which is a classic thing in football that you see the performances, instead of seeing the potential. A big player or a fast player, he can look good in an under-14 game or under-13 game because he’s basically just developed faster, matured faster than other kids.

But the question is if he is the better player in five, six years and therefore we go in, we try to now pick more game intelligent players because we think we think they will last longer.

But how do you how do you identify that game intelligence? It must be difficult to measure that.

Yeah of course. But you can definitely put down some criteria, about, for example that the position number 10 and their ability to find the new space, their ability to penetrate passes between the opponents. You can actually do a mission related to our style of play. So it is possible, but of course not as easy as measuring a guy who is who is 190 and can play the ball 200 meters or a guy who can run 60 meters very fast. But that’s where football needs to change, if you ask me.

There’s an interesting idea that I saw that you have at your football club that I wanted to ask you about which is I’m going to read a quote. “We also have plans to develop a character building program where we want to send players abroad for six months or one year to develop their characters.” What gave you the inspiration for this idea and what do you expect to get out of this program?

I think the inspiration came because of my five years in China when I’ve seen so many players now, I’ve known so many players, I’ve worked with so many players that I can see a pattern in a little bit introvert personality, a little bit of closed personality. It might be because of the system and I’m not talking about the football system. The society system here, how they are developed in school, how they are spoken to by the authorities. So therefore we were thinking that sometimes the Chinese group lack leaders because they were all a little bit too introverted and so therefore we were discussing how to open their mind and I’ve just seen some of the players we have signed who have been abroad. We have some Chinese youth players who played for example, two years in Portugal, or three years in Spain and then they came back and they had a very different mindset.

They had a more open mindset. They are more ready to take responsibility because they’ve been seeing other things in not only in football but in life. So this idea, I introduced to management and they really liked it. And actually right now we have our U-17 team in Brazil for six months, on not only a character building program but is also of course about football that they can play in really good games that they can get a different kind of skills training in Brazil. So it’s only the start that you can say but it’s something we want to develop even more.

I would really like to promote people to go abroad is something I speak about in Denmark also. That we must have more coaches go abroad not only to think that we’re going to end up in Real Madrid or Barcelona, but that doesn’t matter. See the world to get more perspective on your coaching but in general to get more perspective on your life. And I also have I have a website where I like to write. Obviously also because of my education I like to write things and sometimes I just write them for myself and then I just publish it to get more thoughts in mind my own mind. You can visit my website to find a few maybe inspirational things.

Check out an audio version of the interview below:

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