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Transcript: Thoughts from a Life-Long Learner (EP16)


Intro (with music): Welcome to The Culture of Things podcast with Brendan Rogers. This is a podcast where we talk all things, culture, leadership and teamwork across business and sport.


Hello, everybody. I'm Brendan Rogers, the host of The Culture of Things podcast. And this is Episode 16.

Today, I'm speaking with Stuart McLaren. Stuart is the current Scottish National Under 16 Head Coach and Coaching Mentor for Performance Academy Coaching at the Scottish Football Association. 

He is a UEFA Pro Licence & AFC ‘A’ License qualified coach, and was previously the Manager of Scottish Professional Football League club, Stirling Albion FC. Stuart has more than 13 years experience coaching senior professionals and elite youth football teams.

Stuart began his coaching career as Player/Manager for the Brisbane Strikers in Australia's NSL in 2003/2004 where he was also nominated for Coach of the Year.

His other coaching roles include Assistant Coach with North Queensland Fury in the Hyundai A-League, Football Head Coach at Loughborough University and Co-Coach of England Universities. He has also been a football scout for Football Federation Australia Youth National Teams.

The focus of our conversation today is coaching, mentoring, leadership and teamwork in high-performance environments.

Stuart, welcome to The Culture of Things podcast, mate.

Stuart McLaren: Thank you very much, Brendan. It's an absolute pleasure to be here. Great to speak with you.

Brendan Rogers: Mate, thank you so much for agreeing to come on. It's, as we were sort of saying, just off-air, it's been a long time since we've spoken and last time you and I sat down for a chat in Brisbane, the accent wasn't as strong, mate. It was a bit more Australian accent. What's going on?

Stuart McLaren: Well, that's a well-known phrase, isn't it? You're a product of your environment. So, I've spent now in this period of my life, sort of nine solid years back in Scotland, so it’s well and truly embedded itself into how I sound, but no, don't ever forget that underneath that I'm an Australian. Absolutely. I've got the passport to prove it.

Brendan Rogers: Good on you, buddy. And on that point, you are an Aussie, a proud Aussie and actually a proud Central Queensland boy. You know very well our first guest on the podcast, which was Josh Rose. And you're telling me a bit about that, but how about you just tell us a little bit about your journey in football? You've been involved in football a long time, those sort of days in Central Queensland and just take us through to where you are today.

Stuart McLaren: Yeah, very much a tale of two countries, Brendan. Born in Scotland, but grew up in Australia. My family emigrated when I was really young, you know, first settling in Brisbane and spent a few years there before. My Dad's work took us up to Central Queensland. So, I lived in the small town called Biloela and then moved on to Rockhampton where, you know, things started to really evolve for me,in terms of playing football, representing Queensland, the likes alongside yourself, before a scholarship to the Australian Institute of Sport, way back in 1992.

So, that was a terrific two-year period that kind of gave me the launching pad really to go on and begin a career as a professional player that took in Wollongong. And then, my first stint back in Scotland, playing for Stirling Albion before a shortstop in Hong Kong before settling back in Brisbane and probably the bulk of my career and probably the happiest period of my playing time anyway, with the Brisbane Strikers, you know, that then morphed into coaching, as you said for my first real role, was a challenge one, but when you've got that kind of youthful fearless aspect to you, you don't look at all the challenges you're going to face. You just go for it.

And that was a, as a player Coach, age 28, with the National League, with the Strikers. And then, you know, I've worked in a few areas since. As you said, the Assistant Coach of the North Queensland Fury, I’ve also worked as an Assistant Coach within the Queensland Academy of Sport Men's and Women's Programs before.

My life took me back here to Scotland and I've had a couple of roles since I've been back. You mentioned Stirling Albion, a Club I play for, we played in the Scottish Professional Football Leagues in League One initially, but unfortunately, relegated into League Two. But prior to that, I was the Head Coach at Loughborough University, which was a great three-and-a-half-year period, which gave me the opportunity to learn an awful lot. And now currently, as you mentioned, you know, a Head Coach of Scotland Under 16 team and perform a dual role where I’m acting as a mentor for coaches within the professional Academy structure we've got here in Scotland.

Brendan Rogers: You've been around football your whole life. You just love the game. Like, what's that driver for you around football? Why do you love it so much? And why have you really dedicated your life to it?

Stuart McLaren: I think it can be traced back really to the very earliest days. You know, my Dad played a very good level of amateur football here in Scotland, and some of my earliest memories are going to watch him play and, you know, kicking the ball around behind the back of the goal with my cousin and just being fascinated by it all. You know, obviously, I had no understanding of what professional football was, or national teams or World Cups. You know, those guys were your heroes and once we'd immigrated to Australia, I distinctly remember watching the 1982 World Cup and, you know, just being enthralled by it all and obviously started playing the game by this point and really enjoying it. And my Dad made it clear to me that these guys that you were seen on the TV playing in the World Cup got paid to play football.

And I thought, right from that day, that was the career for me. And as you say, I've been involved in the game, fortunately, from a professional point of view, right the way through since I've been 18 years of age. So, that real love, that passion, that connection for the game, you know, was there from a very early age. And it's only ever been fostered and harnessed, you know, in terms of the benefits that I see connected with football, not just in terms of participating as a player or a Coach, but all the other benefits that the game brings to people right across the world.

Brendan Rogers: What are some of those benefits that you see?

Stuart McLaren: You know, it's interesting that I've been now in a couple of different roles within the Scottish FA. So initially, I was a Community Development Manager. So, working with our affiliated National Associations. So, working with Scottish Youth Football, working with Scottish Women's Football, Scottish Schools Football Associations, around programs, and how they might be able to develop and grow the game within all the associations. And you get to know other people within the department, so, one of our colleagues in there has worked with the Scottish government and put together a large piece in what the social return and investment is, in terms of, you know, football as a whole, for not just professional clubs, not just grassroots, and it’s seeing the impact that it can have, and there's a lot of stories that we've heard from colleagues right across the country. But one of them that hits home massively is that is how it can impact people's lives. So unfortunately, you know, people do go through tough times and, you know, mental illnesses is obviously getting, being made more aware of now and the benefits that playing in football or being involved in football and other sports can have on people when they go through tough times. It's just one of the amazing things that the game does.

Brendan Rogers:  Mate, it's a great point you mentioned. I think I'm just going in my head now around just even what you and I are doing today. You know, it's been many, many years since we've spoken, but we played football together. I think people that have played together or coached together, there's always that connection. There's always that relationship. And it's almost like you just feel like, you’re mates, you can pick up the phone or send a message at any time. If you've got contact details, say, “Hey mate, I'd love to do a podcast with you. What do you think?” And you just like jump on board yet. “Of course, that'd be fantastic.” That's what football does. Well, that's what sport does, doesn't it?

Stuart McLaren: Absolutely, it does. It forms those connections or bonds, as you say, Brendan, you know, and, you know, you’ll hear it no matter what sport you're in, for us it’s football, or soccer, as it's known in a lot of places around the world, but you know, you're part of the football family, you know. And everybody knows somebody in and you're always willing to help out. And it's one of the great lessons I think that my Dad gave to me anyway, you know, no matter what you may achieve or what level of the game you're involved in, football is always about the people that you meet. And there's, you know, very true. I've got people such as yourself that I play with as teenagers and younger. And I've got guys who the game has brought me into contact with in the last couple of weeks, the last couple of months, who hopefully, I'll be able to call on as mates and friends in the years to come. And you're there as a support network, no matter what things you go through in your life. And I just think it's terrific that the impact that, for us football, but as you say, sport in general can have on people's lives.

Brendan Rogers: Let's go into your roles as the Under 16 Head Coach for Scotland, and also your coaching mentor role. What I want you to do is just give us a bit of that difference between your coaching role versus the mentoring role you have and what you see and the responsibilities you have in those two very different roles.

Stuart McLaren: Yeah, of course. I mean, I think there's great similarities underpinning both of them is that willingness, that passion to want to help people, to want to make people become better at their chosen pastime, their chosen career, as it may be for us working in the professional scope of the game. So, from a coaching perspective, if I focus mostly on the role that I've got just now working mostly with the Under 16 players, I just feel that I'm in such a privileged position because I get the opportunity to work with the very best players who are eligible to play for Scotland at that age group. It happens to be the youngest age group that we work with. So, there’s almost, there can be certain connotations to it, but it's almost an indoctrination period to how we expect national team players to play and how we expect them to behave.

So, I just think it's such a privileged position because, you know, each one of the players that comes through and is involved in any of our events, training camps, tournaments and the like, it's just coming in with wide eyes. They're obviously so keen to impress, so honoured to be involved at that sort of scope. And I'm the guy that fortunately gets the opportunity to work with them and try and help guide them and try and help improve them, and then try and set them off on a journey that we hope takes in, you know, a number of age groups through Scotland representation, but hopefully, for them leads on to a more successful career as a full time professional in the club game. So, from that aspect, you know, it's all about wanting to, and having that passion to try and make people better and the mentoring side of it as well is exactly the same thing.

The mentoring role that I have probably has two parts to it where I work very closely with our Coach Education Unit and tutor on a UEFA licensed courses. So, UEFA A, UEFA B and a UEFA elite youth license. So, working in that kind of formal coach education pathway, if you like, but then also working specifically with our heads of children's sections within our professional club academies, to make sure that they can become the best heads of children's, you know, in the world is what our aim is really to make sure that they can provide the best possible service for the staff and the coaches that work within them that obviously feeds on to the players and gives them the best opportunity to try and develop. So, that's what we try and do, I think in terms of the skills and the key differences, if I look at the coaching aspect of it, Brendan, you'll obviously be well aware of the kind of model that speaks about tell, sell, share, and empower, and the like. And I just think of that as a continuum.

And I think, particularly with the National Team where we don't have as much direct contact with the players, you probably work in quite a lot within that kind of tell-and-sell aspect, you know, because of the age of the players and they're still in that youth development aspect. You know, we try to work very hard at trying to empower them so that they create a deeper understanding about the types of things we're asking them to do and the reasons why, but if I look more than at the mentoring aspect of it, it's essentially just sort of being there as a sounding board. You know, it's not necessarily telling them where the answers might be, but at least, sort of telling them what the answers are, but at least pointing them in directions or where they might find the answers, you know. Because we're talking about coaches who may be on a certain path within a certain journey where they have a certain amount of knowledge already. And obviously working now with adults who are capable of understanding what it is that they want to learn, what their overall goal is. So, I think the mentoring thing has just been, as I say, that sounding board and being very much as acting very much as a guide.

Brendan Rogers: One thing I'll want to just pick up on is that you said really quite early, you talked about how they behave, and this is in relation to the Under 16 side of things. Can you give us a bit more on, around the expectations in behaviour at that level?

Stuart McLaren: Absolutely. Yeah, so we've worked very hard over the last number of years since the performance director, Malcolm Mackay came into post to create a real consistent environment so each of our National Teams are not working in silos. So, it was in the Under 20 ones, we'll be doing something in Under 19’s is a different environment. And so, we're looking for that consistency, that continuation from my age group Under 16’s, through Under 17’s, 19’s and 21’s. So, as I said, early on, there is an almost indoctrination for us in, we've got some high expectations about how they should behave when they represent Scotland. But we also think that that behaviour is something that will serve the young players well, if they're looking to forge a career within professional football, but also the behaviour that would serve them well, as people, wherever their journey in life may take them.

So, it's trying to make sure that we, you know, trying to develop them, obviously, as football players and improve the tactical awareness and not so much the technical ability or the physical abilities, I said, because we don't get too much contact time with them in a National Team environment, but making sure that they've got an awareness that they're also having, you know, that golden thing that people speak an awful lot about these days about being accountable. So, as coaches, we make it clear that we'll do as much as we can to set an environment for them, but ultimately, it's their career, it’s their opportunity and they have to be accountable for each one of the decisions that they want to make. You know, whether it's doing something that enhances their opportunities as football players, or whether it's their side tracked by some of the distractions that young people have, they have to be accountable for each one of the decisions that they make. So that's a key thing for us.

Brendan Rogers: Mate, I love that word, accountability. It's a great thing. It's a really hard thing. It's the area that individuals and teams struggle with globally. So, how do you set up those environments and what sort of conversations are you having as a Coach to create that strong need for accountability?

Stuart McLaren: We use that word ‘accountability’. We've got a series of A’s that we use that players might need to look at as being attributes to help them go and succeed as a professional football player. So, they obviously need to have a certain level of ability, which is acknowledged for us when they're selected for the National Team event. They need to have a certain amount of athleticism. And obviously, in the modern game, that's key.

You look at the high levels of football, every players and athlete, and all the best teams have great athletic capabilities. That accountability is huge as well. And as you say, it's being accountable for what takes place in the training environment, what takes place in the match day environment, but also what takes place in the lifestyle environment.

So, the players that I have the opportunity to work with they’re right on that cusp of youth development, where they start to get offered their first professional contracts. So, for us, again, it's just making sure that they have an awareness as well of what it actually takes to go and succeed as a professional footballer. But that accountability thing is shared with them every time that they come in and have contact with us. So, each time we have a training camp, each time they're selected for a squad to participate in a tournament, we'll have discussions with them on a formal basis, you know, via team meetings where the same consistent messages are shared with them. We'll have more informal meetings where it might be done in what we'd call ‘units’. So, we'll get the defenders together and speak about aspects. We'll get the midfielders together, but we'll also have individual meetings, but again, it's trying to make sure that we create a comfortable and a safe environment for them.

So, we don't feel that myself and my Assistant Coach care kind of ganging up on individual players. So, we make sure that those individual players, and it sounds a bit silly to a point, calling them individual meetings where we actually pair the players up. So they feel that they've got a bit of a buddy there and we'll speak about their accountability and what that means to them. And what are some of the specifics that they are taken on board in terms of what their journey might be in the decisions that they're going to make to try and continue to improve and take them from the position that they might be in now to where they might want to be in six months time, a year's time and so on and so on.

Brendan Rogers: Let's transition into the mentoring side, but what I'd like to just do to link that is how does your coaching role help you in your mentoring role? ‘Cause you're dealing with very different age groups as well I'd imagine.

Stuart McLaren: Yeah. Unfortunately, although I’m the Head Coach for the Under 16 age group, whilst it might not work in an official capacity, I do get access then to the older age groups, you know, so I can go and be a fly on the wall and observe how our Under 17 Coaches work within their players and see how that differs. Then when our Under 21 Coach is preparing what are essentially, you know, young first team players for playing in a National Team event. So, I get that opportunity to see all that and to work within that, as I said, one of my previous roles within the Scottish FA before I actually took on the Under 16’s National Team was as a Coach Education and Development Manager. So, the opportunity to go to a UEFA Coaching Convention, which is a terrific event, and it was at that point, some of the colleagues there from Germany actually spoke about the real need for Coach Educators to still be active, to still have that realistic learning environment for themselves so that they could then transfer that kind of practical, if you like, back into the theory.

So, you know, you get away from this element specifically within football, of coach educators being guys, who may have coached once upon a time, but now they focus wholly and solely on that Coach Education aspect. And they're drifting further and further away from the reality. So, from our perspective, I see that having the dual role really what's great for me because some of the things that we speak about on the Coach Education courses, and quite often, things come back from the participants on those courses that are of a different perspective that I maybe haven't considered and having the practical application then of going back and perhaps trying something a little bit different with my Under 16 Group, and figuring out for myself, whether that works or not, it has been a great benefit. You know, it means that when I'm going in and working either on the Coach Education courses and/or working with heads of children's within that Performance Academy Coach Mentoring aspect, then at least, there's some reality or realistic application behind it. It's not just all theory.

Brendan Rogers: Geez, you sound like you've got a fantastic role. It sounds so great, but let's flip it on its head. What are the challenges in roles like this for you?

Stuart McLaren: Challenges and roles for this? If I look at the mentoring aspect for us, we've got such a diverse range of professional clubs within Scotland, not only in terms of resources, but obviously, even in the geographical location and what that might mean to their individual programs. So, if I take, obviously, in Glasgow here, you've got Celtic and Rangers who are abundant with resources, they've obviously got quite a large talent pool to pick from because they will, you know, all of the West of Scotland, but even reach across, even within children's programs to the East. So, they'll perhaps entice players from Edinburgh and the like, so they've got such a large catchment area and large resources. And so, their circumstances around their program, and some of the things that they do are obviously markedly different to a Ross County Academy, for example, who are based in a small town called Dingwall, which is just outside of Inverness.

And of course, they compete with Inverness Caledonian Thistle already for their players. So, they've got two clubs in a very small catchment area in very much a regional environment and their resources aren't anywhere near the level of Celtic and Rangers. So, my mentoring obviously has to differ. My approach has to differ. And then even within that, you know, I'll be going and speaking with guys who are Heads of children's programs, who are older than me, who have been involved in the game for longer than I have, who have been involved specifically in that aspect, in working with children, in working with coaches of children for the longer than I have. So, I have to adapt obviously my approach to those. And on the flip side of it, I'll be working with very young coaches who've obviously got great ambition and great hunger and great enthusiasm, but they just maybe need that channeled in certain ways and directed.

So, the role itself presents a lot of challenges for us in terms of the challenges that we have with the Under 16 squad. In both, it's not dissimilar, you know, we obviously, as a National Association, our Men's ‘A’ Squad haven't qualified for a major tournament for a number of years, approaching 22 years now since France, 1998. Our Women's ‘A’ Squad’ have qualified for European Championships and World Cup in succession, which is terrific. But within our Men's side of it, you know, we're having to work extremely hard to make sure that, you know, right from that foundation level Under 16’s, we are doing as much as we possibly can to prepare our players for what it means to play International Football so that hopefully, when those that progress to the Men's ‘A’ Squad, they get a better chance obviously, of succeeding.

So, there's lots of challenges around that in terms of how we identify talent, how, and when we can get our players together, often enough to prepare them for International Football, how, and when we participate in tournaments, bearing in mind that every one of the players that we call upon do have their own club commitments, you know, for 10/11 months of the year. So, there's lots of challenges around that as well, Brendan.

Brendan Rogers: I have to ask you a question and I was hoping it would come up. You mentioned Celtic, you mentioned Rangers. This question could get you in a bit of trouble depending on how you answer it. But why is my team Celtic so much better at the moment than your team, Rangers?

Stuart McLaren: (Laughing) That is a whole separate podcast we can go into, but, you know, needless to say, throughout history, both of them have had their periods of success and their low periods as well. It just so happens that, you know, Rangers are still suffering a long hangover from some of the financial irregularities that they were rightly punished for, but they're on their way back mate, they're on their way back. So, I'm sure Celtic are enjoying the period of success that they're having just now, but I'm sure that whether it's this season or the following season, or not too long after that, that Rangers will climb themselves back up and gain their place at the top of the pile.

Brendan Rogers: Mate, that was a very, very good answer. You have not upset any side of the ledger as far as Celtic or Ranger’s fans. Well done. Mate, let's move on to leadership in football. What has football taught you in the various roles as a Player/Manager? What has football taught you about leadership?

Stuart McLaren: Do you know? It's interesting because if I go back from the playing days where what I was deemed from, from some coaches to have some kind of leadership qualities, what they may have been, I didn't really understand or know, you know, but I was appointed Captain in a few teams and things that I played to where I am now. And I like to think I’m still in this kind of lifelong journey of learning, but, you know, you're almost embarrassed at times about what you believe leadership was in those days. You know, I thought it was essentially the guy who could perhaps shout the loudest and you know, really bully people, I guess, into performing to a level or in a way that they thought was acceptable. And that, I suppose, was probably born out of perhaps some of my influences.

And you looked upon managers from the 70’s and 80’s, and they had that kind of element of almost ruling by fear. Whereas now, obviously, we're in a much different generation and I think it's pretty widely accepted amongst sports, but certainly football in general that kind of ruling by fear or trying to motivate people by fear is long gone. You know, it's very much more about trying to motivate people through love and not necessarily in the way that you would love your wife or your girlfriend, but having a caring element, you know, there's that cliche of, “People don't care how much you know, until they know how much you care”. So, I think that the biggest thing that I can draw out of my time within football in terms of leadership is actually how important relationships are, you know, and that's amongst, you know, relationships amongst your staff, relationships directly to your players, but also the relationships between those as well.

And I was really encouraged, obviously. I know this podcast probably won't end without you mentioning, you know, your other love, which is Liverpool. And you read things about Jurgon Klopp and his approach and how much he values the importance of relationships. And you see it in the connection that you has with the players and, you know, the old adage about they want to play for him. They don't, they want to play, you know, kind of because of him and because of the camaraderie that they have amongst the teammates and everything else like that, that he's helped to foster, but you see the relationship that he has with the fans. And even the relationship that he has with the media because of his authenticity and his passion, everything else like that. So, it's very much that, Brendan, you know, the importance of having strong relationships and how you can go about creating them.

Brendan Rogers: How do you, again, in your environment with players or coaches and the coaching teams you're working within, ‘cause it's not just you as a Head Coach, you know, there's a team of people around you, what do you do to make sure you're really building those solid relationships?

Stuart McLaren: There's a couple of key things for me, Brendan. And again, you know, the first one is pretty widely known. You know, you have to communicate any sort of relationship has to have that as a foundation, probably something particularly through my UEFA Pro Licence course. One of our assignments on there was kind of centred around that aspect. That became pretty clear to me that, you know, how you communicate with people and the mediums that they may use and how different signals can obviously be interpreted. And I've read a book recently, a gentleman over here comes from a teaching background, but played a bit of professional football and is involved in coaching at different levels, a guy called Steve Salice. And he speaks about people seeing things, not through the same lens, everybody looks through their own lens and a different lens. So, the biggest thing for me, you know, aside from communicating is having an understanding of people.

You know, I probably think back to even, you know, some of my earlier days in coaching and having a belief almost that kind of my way was the only way to either play the game or coach the game, or, you know, why aren't people behaving in the same way that I was. And, but no, I'm hopefully learning a lot more, I'm starting to understand or recognise the importance of understanding things and seeing things from other people's perspective. You know, that there has to be a reason why somebody made that decision. There's a reason why they behaved in that way at that moment in time. So, sort of taking things in context. So, those are a couple of key things for me that I try to make sure that we work with our Under 16 players, you know, it's having an understanding of where they’re at, not only in their football journey, but where they're at within their life, you know, understanding that some other influences can be positive and negative as well. You know, be their parents, be their peers at school, be their other coaches from their club, et cetera, et cetera, and making sure that how we communicate with each one of those individual players, it comes from that basic understanding.

Brendan Rogers: From that Under 16 perspective, you are so integral in your role to the player development and Under 16, that's a really influential age, isn't it? So, that sort of responsibility you have had, how do you look at that?

Stuart McLaren: Just cherish it as I say, you know, I really think I'm unfortunate, you know, the coaches out there, working in lots of different spheres. So those working, perhaps in grassroots football, perhaps in what might be deemed lower levels who really have aspirations to go and work in elite environments, who would be really envious of the position that I’m in. So, I recognise that and ultimately, as well, I think there's cultures working in environments with a greater pressure in terms of results, you know, and I've experienced that a little bit myself, you know, although it was only in a, you know, it wasn't in the Premier League. It was in League One and League Two, you know, the supporters and the board members and every stakeholder associated with a senior professional club wants you to win. So, there's a pressure that comes from when you don't win two games in a row, or when you don't win for three games in a row. There's an additional pressure with that.

Whereas, you know, in an Under 16 National Team environment, it's not about winning the game, sure, you know, you're always striving for that, but that's not always the deciding factor in terms of you being measured for your success. You know, you can win games, but not learn very much and you can lose games and still learn an awful lot. So, you know, it's the case for me where yet there is a great responsibility, but I cherish that. And I would like to think that I sort of respond well to that. And ultimately, like I said earlier on in the podcast comes from an underpinning passion of wanting to help people, of wanting to improve people, wanting to make them better at what they do. And I would love nothing better than every one of the players that I’ve selected within my squad to go on and progress to the Under 17 to 19, 21’s and the first team and have glorious careers within football.

But we also have the responsibility to make it clear that that path is not automatic. And again, we'll come back to that accountability. Just because I selected the Under 16’s just now, it doesn't set them off and it becomes an automatic journey for them. There's things that they have to take on board and be accountable for every step along the way.

Brendan Rogers: I want to just go back to the pressure of being a Football Manager in a professional environment. You've had those experiences, you've had the pressure and unfortunately, or fortunately, depending which way you look at it, the pressure on a Manager of a football team is great. You know, it's performance-driven. How do you handle that as a leader and being that person ultimately who has the accountability, at least in the fans and the Board's eyes?

Stuart McLaren: Everybody would handle it, if you like, in their own unique way, and it's understanding, I guess, having the opportunity to go through the range of experiences when you do handle it well, and you think, “Okay, I'll make sure I take a note of that.” And the times when you haven't handled it so well, and you'll learn from your errors, I guess, you know, it's that old adage, you know, “Nobody ever learned anything without making a mistake”. Unfortunately, certainly, in the upper echelons of professional football, very few Head Coaches or Managers, particularly the younger ones and the inexperienced ones get that opportunity to make too many mistakes and learn from because there is unrealistic expectations, I think, a lot of the time, from supporters which filters through to the Board, and of course, the media love nothing better, particularly here than to jump on something and make a story out of it if a team doesn't win for a couple of games in a row. So, there's a huge pressure.

I think, you know, more and more now, we're starting to understand because of high profile Managers in the past have spoken about a position and some of those times being actually really quite lonely, you know, you feel quite isolated and understand and know that even the leader of your organisation needs support, you know, who are the people that provide that support and how does he get access to it. But also those guys, themselves realising that they don't have to try and fight these battles and figure out all the solutions on their own. There is a real good support network alongside them. And whether that, you know, help them, in terms of their analysis of their technical and tactical aspects of the game, or whether that's somebody that they can lean on for a bit of emotional support or someone that can, they can lean on for a bit of support in terms of their mental health or even at times their physical health, there has to be ways that you learn to cope with things.

And I think trying to make sure that you keep everything in context, Brendan is always the biggest thing. You know, ultimately even if you're, Jurgen Klopp, managing Liverpool, trying to get back to where they believe they should be after 30 years of not winning the Premier League or First Division. And he spoke about obviously when the coronavirus struck, that there's nothing more important than people's health, you know, and said quite often, but the recent period that we've all experienced, certainly shines a light on that and makes that pretty clear, but what that statement's all about. So, you know, you have to keep things in context and whilst football is important to so many people, if you're talking about that level of the game, ultimately, nothing is more important than people's health and people's lives. So, you know, we are going to hopefully still have tomorrow to see and tomorrow to work. So, it's keeping those things in context and realise that it is a game that we're working in.

Brendan Rogers: Mate, I want to go back. I'm not sure how good your memory is, but 2003/2004, and you’re Player/Manager of Brisbane Strikers. I look at that as it's almost like the CEO of an organisation, also being the technical expert. Can you talk a bit about that? The challenges you face being a player and expectation of high performance on yourself, but also by other players, but also being the manager of an environment like that.

Stuart McLaren: It was almost the thing that youthfulness brings you, it's that fearlessness, you know, when the opportunity is offered to you, you don't think twice about what could go wrong. You just think, “Oh, this will be a fantastic experience. Let me go for it.” And you jump in with two feet. If somebody offered me that again, or somebody asked me about, you know, “is it a good thing to go and do that?” I would advise them against it, but at the same time, the way I kind of looked at that period from both perspective was really, if I was a player within that group, how would I expect to be treated and obviously, still being a player and understanding how I would want to have been treated by my Coach in previous years, that was quite an easy connection to make. So, in terms of trying to manage the group and manage individuals, that was the fairly simplistic approach that I took. “How would I want to be treated?” So, I tried to treat the players in that way.

On the other side, I didn't want to become one of these guys that remove themselves from the playing group and almost brought a bit of an ego to themselves and thought, “Well, I don't need to do as much preparation as you because, you know, I'm the Coach”. And I'll just pick myself and the team and everything else like that. And I was of an age, you know, only 28, where I was still somewhere close to maybe being in my prime, but certainly, a long way, hopefully, from retiring. So, it wasn't like I was 34/35 and ready to kind of ease off and just play a certain number of games within a year. I wanted to play every game. So, I made sure that I trained in every training session and wanted to be a leader by example, if that's the right expression to use in that way.

And so, those were the kind of two, I guess, defining aspects of the approach that I took to that, but I certainly wouldn't want to do it again because in the simplest way, I was really only kind of given myself half toward being a player and only half toward being a coach, you know, so much more now that I've learned that goes into being a Coach and being a leader. I neglected just purely and simply because half my mind was on what I needed to do as a player. And obviously, looking back as well, there was some things that maybe got me through in parts of my physical condition and a little bit of experience got me through, but having the right kind of mindset to go and perform at my optimum as a player was taken away because 50% of me was trying to coach. I was trying to focus on the coaching aspect. So, it was difficult. I'm glad I went through it.

I'm glad I had the opportunity, you know, always be thankful for the Brisbane Strikers for giving me that opportunity. And what it did do was, you know, we had some relative success in that period. So, it, for me, highlighted the importance of the things that we spoke about earlier on, you know, relationships, because that was challenging for me because we had players in there that were ages with me, players that were older than me, and had players that I played alongside for a number of years. So, whilst I wanted to make sure that they were treated in a way that I would want to be treated as a player in a coach relationship, there was also some challenges for me to make sure that I tried to gain some kind of respect as a leader and somebody that had to make decisions on their sort of futures and certainly on their present when it became to naming the team every week.

Brendan Rogers: You were nominated for Coach of the Year and which is, again, in that sort of dual role, an absolutely fantastic achievement.

Stuart McLaren: I think what we had within that group was a real sense of purpose and a real unity in that purpose. And what I mean by that was, and it probably helped in a sense of me getting that recognition, as you said by, “nominated as a Coach of the Year”. I think, when the media, particularly in sort of Sydney and Melbourne, which was quite focused and in the National League at that time. So, the Brisbane Strikers’ playing squad, and we hadn't retained too many of that kind of recognised NSL players from the previous couple of years. And then they went and appointed a 28-year-old, you know, as a Player/Coach. I think a lot of the media and other elements within the game wrote us off, which played right into our hands in a sense, because we developed a bit of a siege mentality.

We also brought in a couple of players who were stepping into that National League environment for the first time. So, they had a real point to prove that a real hunger and desire, and we carried that kind of purpose throughout the season that, you know, nobody really rated us, but, you know what, we know how good we can be if we sort of stick together and we stick to our plan, which we did throughout that season and, you know, managed to make the playoffs. And I think that's what kind of led to that little accolade, but I put that down to, as I say, you know, having that kind of unity and that purpose and having that real sense of purpose, that extra motivation. And probably, I didn't realise again, at that time, how important that was for the group to kind of have that aspirational quality and how much of a part that played in us having that relative success. It's only now when you start to understand some of the meaning behind that, that you start to look for that within your own teams in your own groups.

Brendan Rogers: You've just spoken to teamwork. Unbelievably well, around that common purpose, and it's the galvanising effect, I guess, even that, maybe the media had for your team. Are there any other aspects that you've experienced around teamwork, either in a coaching level and/or a player level that has really created a great team?

Stuart McLaren: Yeah. I think there's a couple of other things now that as I say, I've really learned along the way. And I'm sure, well, I really hope that I can look back on what I'm doing now in 10 years time and think, “Oh, what was I thinking?” Because, you know, I've evolved even more. But some of the things I really focus on now within our coaching or support staff team is making sure that each one of the members of that group feels valued. You know, what does, as a player, and probably, fell into the trap a little bit in the earlier days as a Coach where the Coach does everything and takes everything and really leads everything. And he wants to be the kind of focal point, but, you know, your other staff are there because they bring a certain expertise and your other staff, obviously within, you know, your group, your organisation want to feel valued and they want to make sure that they make a contribution.

So, I'm very conscious of them understanding that they do feel valued, but also making sure that me as coach who ultimately has to make decisions is making those decisions based upon all the information and the knowledge that's being put forward by the other support staff. And because there is so many aspects, and you touched upon it before even just doing the team sheet, but now that there is so many more aspects we're aware of, and we're trying to cover in terms of preparing a team and preparing individuals, be that from a sports Science, sports Medicine background to your analysis and everything else like that, you know, the Coach can't do all of those. So, it's great to have every one of those staff members bringing their expertise to the table to make sure that we have the combined effort to make sure that the players and the team are better.

So, making sure that you empower people and you bring them together, but within that, you know, you become sort of more of a Manager rather than a Coach in a sense of making sure that everybody is clear of what their expectations are within their role. Clear of how it all contributes and fits into the bigger picture and that way of working that we have. And obviously, that's when you start going back into that communication, and how do you communicate with your staff as a group? How do you communicate with them individually to make sure that they've got that clarity, got that understanding? And they've got that feeling that each one of their roles contributes to making the team more successful.

Brendan Rogers: I want to go into culture, and contrasting culture. You've played in a number of different countries around the world, but let's stick with Australia and Scotland. Tell us a bit about your own experiences and the differences you see, maybe good, bad, and ugly in the football culture in Scotland versus Australia.

Stuart McLaren: I think what you've got in Scotland is a really rich history of the game, and it becomes so ingrained in the way of life for people that rightly or wrongly, and we spoke about the power of good that football can do and can bring to people, it becomes almost part of their identity. So, you know, you grow up a Ranger supporter or a Celtic supporter, or an Aberdeen supporter, or a Hibs supporter or a Hearts supporter. And that's who you are. It defines who you are. And it shapes every kind of almost waking moment and every aspect of your life, you know, you'll maybe meet your future partner because she's also a Hibs supporter. If that's your team and you can't get married on certain Saturdays in the year, because that's when the team plays. And some of your experiences that you have are following your team and all the ups and downs in the highs and lows that they have that, and so, you know, it can be a positive thing.

I think, where in Scotland, we kind of blur the lines is it starts to really take over and that there's other elements that are attached to the game, unfortunately, from a historical point of view, that's still linger on, and we've not really been able to rid them. And I'm talking about sectarianism here. So, you know, for the people that may be not as aware, Celtic generally are associated with the kind of people who have been brought up as in the Catholic faith and those who support Rangers, generally speaking, supposedly are being brought up in the Protestant faith.

So, there's this sectarianism that exists. And, you know, aside from, you know, supporting your teams, which already develops that tribalism, you know, you've then got this, this kind of really horrible, sectarianism feeling that there's just always hanging around amongst that. And it is awful. It is born out of a lot of history, which probably a lot of people support neither club don't have a great amount of knowledge and understanding of, and for me, it just shouldn't be associated with sport at all.

You know, sport is something that brings the power of good. And everybody appreciates that you'll have your own teams to support, but supporting them should be exactly that. And it starts with the game and it finishes with the game. And that's also, so unfortunately, Brendan, we've got a bad side to it, but as I said earlier on, there are so many positives. And I think that, as I said, that history and that it's ingrained in the culture. I think it's a wonderful thing because  it certainly gives people the vehicle to be able to be involved in sport and all the positives that can bring in terms of being part of a group and belonging somewhere, which obviously all human beings love to do.

I think, within Australia, it seems to me, to be a really good balance with it, you know, where there's obviously a huge passion for football. And I think, you know, the multicultural aspect of Australia is a huge advantage with that. You know, the people that come from all different parts of the world, and as we know, football's the global game, but also think that the, you know, to a large extent, the people whilst that it might kind of give a strong connection for them, they know essentially where to draw the line. So, it doesn't necessarily shape their identity to a large extent. And there isn't that any other kind of history or baggage that’s associated as we might do here in Scotland.

So, you know, there's that aspect to it, if I focus on the history side of it as well, I think there's elements that hinder some progress here in Scotland. And I'm talking about this mentality of it's the way we've always done it. So, we need to keep doing that. You know, I don't think there's enough, open-mindedness in Scotland to actually look at what's happening in the present and try and make some decisions that might alter things because of how it would look in the future. You know, the game and society is obviously evolved an awful lot in the last decades where I think Australian and whether that's again a young nation, you know, I think they are a lot more open-minded in terms of being able to do something different. If it's not quite working well, there's got to be reasons for it, let's investigate what they are and let's change things in time and improve them and make them better.

And I think the A-League is evidence of that and understand from a distance that's perhaps plateaued in recent times. But the good thing about that is they're not sort of sitting still and just trying to rehash the same ideas. It seems like under the kind of stewardship of James Johnson, that they'll really go and try and take the game forward. Again, there's an understanding they need to reshape some things around the A-League to evolve it and to make it more attractive. And that's one of the things that I love about Australia and Australian football that they're going to be prepared to do that. And hopefully, the benefits will come in over the next few years.

Brendan Rogers: Just to put some context around everything you've just said, and particularly around Scottish culture, and I guess that sectarianism and look, I don't want to focus on the bad at all, because there's so much more good than bad, but can you just give us a bit of context around the importance to supporters of what they call the old firm game, you know, Celtic vs. Rangers, what does that mean for your team to win that game in the season or those two games in the season?

Stuart McLaren: It shapes your identity and it's who you are. So, you're feeling, your mood can be shaped by the performance, but probably more importantly the result of your team. And similarly, I guess, to any of the big clubs around the world, you know, losing a game is unacceptable. Particularly if it's against your greatest rival, or against a team from the bottom end of the league, you know, those types of things they can't afford to lose games. And the challenge that these teams have got obviously is that every team that goes and plays against them it’s their Cup final. So, just taking a couple of random teams, Hamilton might play against Celtic and take them right down to the wire and perhaps, you know, get a draw, or maybe even beat them on a given occasion and the following week, go and play against Motherwell or go and play against Hibs or go and play against Aberdeen and be beaten soundly four nil.

And you think, “Well, hang on a minute, it's not the same team.” But you know, that's their Cup final when they go and play against Celtic, you know, whereas they go out the following weekend, play against these other sides. They're not, they don't have that same motivation, but for the supporters, I said, it really does shape your mood. It shapes your, you know, how you feel. It can affect people, obviously in a workplace, because, you know, when you go into any kind of workplace environment within Glasgow, the West of Scotland, you'll quite often have a mixture, you know, so you'll have a group there who will be high if their teams won the derby game on the weekend and a group that's very low and there'll be some banter, I guess. And I'm sure that there's lots of occasions where that overspills into something that's taken too far and sadly, you know, violence is as come out to all too often.

So, that's very much the downside. And unfortunately, and, you know, whilst as I say, you get that the world over regarding that tribalism aspect of you and my team, and, you know, we're against the other team, but there's that underpinning. As I said, the element of sectarianism that kind of fuels the hatred. And unfortunately, it's something that they haven't really been able to shed no matter what sort of campaigns we try. And I don't think it's a fight we should ever try and give up on, but you know, we haven't had too much success up to this point in time, sadly.

Brendan Rogers: Mate, if you had a final piece of advice that you would want to give people, I'd like you to keep around that coaching side of things, what advice would you give to somebody who wants to move into a coaching role?

Stuart McLaren: I like the Rule of Three, Brendan. So, three things I would like to try and share with the people there who are interested in coaching, who are in coaching and want to try and succeed. The first thing is be sure who you're doing it for, you know, I’ve seen an awful lot of Coaches and hopefully, that they'll evolve in time, but I see them and I look at it and I think it's all about you. You know, when you're coaching, I read something recently around leadership and it was about, you should be really trying to create an ecosystem, not an ego system. So, it isn't about you, you know. Be sure about who you're doing it for, you know, and for me, in terms of coaching, if you're coaching players, well obviously, it has to be about the players, and fortunately, I do get to do a bit of coach education and mentoring. And for me, it's about those coaches. You know, it's not necessarily about me.

The second one would really be, make sure that you're committed to being a lifelong learner. I think that's one of the biggest things, you know, I was probably in a fault in some ways we've touched on a little bit earlier where I experienced some relative success early on in my coaching career, which perhaps indicated that I had some kind of aptitude for it, but there was also probably some negative elements to that where I felt a certain part of me maybe felt a bit too overconfident in my beliefs and what I was capable of doing so fortunate enough, I’ve hit lots of speed bumps along the way. And I've realised that, yeah, I need to learn an awful lot more and know an awful lot more. And I've developed that real hunger and passion for, and that thirst for knowledge. So, make sure that if you're going to be a Coach, you become a lifelong learner.

And the final one, I think I just sort of mentioned that there, is you absolutely have to be prepared for setbacks and challenges because that's an absolute given that's going to happen along the way, and they'll come in all sorts of shapes and forms and sizes. So, be prepared for those.

Brendan Rogers: Mate, how can listeners get in touch with you if they just wanted to touch base, say, “Stuart, you’ve shared so much great information today.” How do they do it?

Stuart McLaren: Probably, the easiest way. I do have a bit of a presence on social media so they can get me on Twitter or LinkedIn. So, Twitter handle is @mclarenstu and I think I'm reasonably easy enough to find on LinkedIn as well. So, that's probably the two easiest ways to get in touch and it would be great to hear from people, whether they've got questions or comments or feedback, it’d be terrific.

Brendan Rogers: I just want to say it's been an absolute pleasure having you. I mean, again, we haven't spoken like this for many, many years, and you've certainly, you know, just your thinking, what you've shared today, your advice at the end, the whole process around your mindset with coaching and the mentoring. I have to say, I think the Scottish FA are very, very lucky to have someone like you with your mindset and very, very lucky those Coaches that you're mentoring and particularly those Under 16 players coming into an elite environment to have someone like you with that mindset. So, mate, thank you very much for sharing these bits of gold today. I really appreciate it. Thanks for being a guest on The Culture of Things podcast. Great to talk to you, buddy.

Stuart McLaren: Absolute pleasure, Brendan. Great to connect once again. And I'm sure that we'll be in touch a lot more often from now onwards.

(Music plays)

Brendan Rogers: It's always great catching up with old football mates. Stuart and I first met when we were 12 years old. And since then, we have had the opportunity on several occasions to play football against each other and also in the same team as each other. It really is these sporting moments that bond people together forever. Stuart has devoted his life to football. In his current role with the Scottish FA, he's playing a big part in helping to develop young players in Scotland and also helping coaches develop through his mentoring role. As I said in the close of the interview, the Scottish FA is very lucky to have someone like Stuart who is as dedicated and passionate about football and the development of players and Coaches.

Like any great leader, Stuart has a passion for developing himself through lifelong learning and more importantly, developing others.

These were my three key takeaways from my conversation with Stuart.

My first key takeaway. Be clear on your motive. As Stuart said, you need to be sure who you are doing it for. And he has made his motive clear several times. He has a passion for making people better. This motive ensures that as a Coach, it is about the players. And as a Coach Mentor, it is about the Coaches. This motive for making people better drives everything he does and keeps him focused on creating an ecosystem, not an ego system.

My second key takeaway. Team members must feel valued. We know that ruling or motivating by fear doesn't work. Leaders must have a caring element. As Stuart reiterated, people don't care how much you know until they know how much you care. When people feel valued, the strong relationships form, the level of expertise is better understood and utilised, and the communication between the staff, the players, and between each other, all helped to provide a solid foundation for performance.

My third key takeaway. Great teams have a sense of purpose and unity behind that purpose. This is a prerequisite for a group of people becoming a real team. When Stuart was the Player/Manager for the Brisbane Strikers in the NSL in Australia, the media wrote them off. He said this contributed to their unity and siege mentality for the group. This unity and purpose to succeed gave them the collective drive throughout the season. And they punched above their weight to make the final series. As he said, he didn't understand the power of the purpose and unity at the time. And this is unfortunately the reality of a lot of leaders.

So, in summary, my three key takeaways were: be clear on your motive, team members must feel valued, great teams have a sense of purpose and unity behind that purpose.

If you have any questions or feedback about this episode, please feel free to send me a message at brendan@brendanrogers.com.au

Thank you for listening. Stay safe. Until next time.


Outtro (music): Thank you for listening to The Culture of Things podcast with Brendan Rogers. Please visit brendanrogers.com.au to access the show notes. If you love The Culture of Things podcast, please subscribe, rate and give a review on Apple podcasts and remember a healthy culture is your competitive advantage.