John Trana: Coaching American Football Overseas

The reason I have chosen to coach football is because it takes people with different backgrounds and beliefs then puts then into a physically and mentally demanding situation with the only way to be successful is to work together. 

In the United States that might mean working with an athlete from a farm and the Inner City. Overseas, your players can be from different countries which may have been at war, which can add an entire new level of challenges.

I have coached overseas in Croatia and Russia as well as in the United States. I have coached teams with players from Croatia, Serbia, France, Russia, and the United States. That makes simple things like calling plays or making adjustments challenging. I have worked with very experienced teams and ones that are just starting out. 

Challenges of coaching internationally
Depending on the country you chose to coach in COMMUNICATION maybe the biggest challenge you will face. It will have an effect on and off the field. Before you arrive make sure that at a minimum you have learned a few basic phrases. Start with how to greet people, polite phrases, then be able to ask basic questions. As an example I always find it helpful to be able to ask where the bathroom is and how to order another beverage. This will help you adjust to the culture faster. It also shows your team that you care and are making an effort to fit in.

Also you should take the time to learn how to read basic items. It will be very helpful if you can recognize street signs or be able to read the menu’s at restaurants. I always carry a card with my address written on it. It makes it easier if I need help finding my way home or to hand to the taxi driver. 

When you are coaching on the field it is going to be important that you can DEMONSTRATE fundamentals as well as explain them. Take your time and physically show them what you want. The first time you introduce a new skill take the time to show all the small details of it. I use the more experienced players to help with demonstrations. It’s important that the first time each player goes thru the drill that you correct them. However, do not over coach or spend too much time talking. I will have a player who has good form take other players to the side to work with them if they are having problems. Make sure you reinforce the new skill during the remainder of practice.

Find a good interpreter
It is important to find a good interpreter. They can assist you in all aspects of your stay. You need to be able to trust your interpreter that they are not adding or changing the meaning of your words. 

When using an interpreter it is important that you talk in short, concise sentences. You need to develop a rhythm with your interpreter. The longer you speak without a pause means the interpreter must remember more which puts a lot of pressure on them. This is especially true when you are speaking to the media. The more you use the same interpreter the easier it will become for both of you. 

Also do NOT use slang as it can be misinterpreted very quickly. I did not realize how much slang I use in my everyday language until I started coaching overseas. Even people who understand English have a hard time when you use slang.

I have used google translator for posting information online and for text messages. However on more then one occasion it has lead to misunderstandings. I have learned that it is better to have a professional translate information rather then risk any issues.

Culture shock
You should research the country before you arrive. If you have not traveled outside of the United States you need to understand that space is a luxury. Apartments are smaller in general. You may also run into bathrooms that do not have the types toilets that you are use to. Many places you need to pay to use the toilets as well. Research how the best way to get around the city. In Moscow many locals used non licensed taxi’s, which essentially is flagging down regular people and offering to pay for a ride.

Learn the proper way to greet people when you meet them. I accidently insulted a group in Russia by simply shaking their hand and saying “Hi, How are you?” then moving on to the next person without waiting long enough for them to respond. You do not want to accidently insult people and set the wrong first impression. 

Pay special attention to the types of food available in the region and the price. Food can get be very expensive and hard to order without the help of an interpreter. Learn how to recognize types of food on the menus. I have had trouble ordering at some places even with English menus because the staff was unable to read or speak English. So be ready to be surprised sometimes at what shows up at the table.

United States Embassy
It is a very good idea to register at the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program. It is a simple way to let the US Embassy know where you are staying and how to get a hold of you incase of an emergency. Also find the location of the nearest Embassy along with the phone number. Many Embassy’s have special events for US holidays which a great place to meet English speaking people. 

Challenges of coaching internationally
  • Scheduling Practice 
  • Practice Fields
  • Players
  • Attendance at Practice 
  • Game Planning 
  • Games 
  • Lack of equipment 
  • Lack of Knowledge about football by general public 

Practices will usually start after 7pm and run late into the night. Most players will have full time jobs so practice earlier is not an option. The number of times you practice a week will vary depending on the team you are coaching. In Russia the practice fields were very expensive and heavy traffic made it hard for players to make practice so we only practiced 2 times a week. That limits the amount of offensive and defensive strategy you can install. 

I have held practices on all sorts of fields. Most commonly you will be on a soccer field, however I have had practices on athletic hard courts no bigger then a double tennis court. It’s important to know what the surface and size of the fields are going to be so you can organize practice according to the limitations of the field. That may mean not being able to tackle to the ground because of the surface. 

Players will come with all types of experience and abilities. Safety needs to be your number 1 concern. The players will be big, strong and athletic, Combine that with lack of experience and you can easily get players injured. When running drills make sure the more experienced players do not over power the younger players. Players have less fear of injury overseas and some will try to practice without proper equipment. That greatly increases the risk for injury. There is a tremendous lack of depth of most teams and you do not want to scare off players by putting them in bad situations. You need new players to be successful and to stay with the team for a long time.

Attendance at practice is the main issue that I have found with players. The players have busy lives and lack of competition during games makes many of them feel that they don’t need to be at every practice. This is hard to overcome. It is hard to continue to install playbooks if you are missing your offensive line. They must be motivated to be at practice.

Game Planning can be challenging due to lack of film on opposing teams. Many leagues do not have rules for exchanging film. Many teams do load films to youtube. The quality of game film can be very poor as well. Plus players can change from game to game. You need to be ready to make adjustments quickly. 

Game days can be a little hectic. Most games are played on a soccer field witch are only 90 yards long. So the field is marked at the 40 then five yards will be the 50 yard line. Many fields do not have hash marks or numbers painted on. The clock is usually kept on the field which can be a challenge for managing the play clock. The Officials do a good job in most cases but you need to find out what rules they are going to follow. In Russia we used NCAA rules, but the interpretation of the rules can be different in other countries. 

Football equipment is hard to acquire overseas. Small things like shoulder pad clips and helmet snaps can become a major problem. There are generally no stores to buy equipment near by. That makes outfitting new players difficult in most regions. 

The lack of knowledge by the general public about the rules of football is the last hurdle for American Football to overcome to make it extremely popular. Many people do not understand football and my have never seen it before. Educating fans and having well played competitive games will add to the excitement and increase the fan base. 

Coaching American Football overseas is an incredible experience. You have an opportunity to become part of the local culture in the cities you live. Take full advantage of exploring your new surroundings. I have found that players enjoy showing you the best parts of their countries. I take pride in representing not only American football but all Americans when I travel. I take every opportunity possible to promote American Football. It is an incredible sport that combines mental and physical toughness and teaches many life lessons. I am proud to call myself a football coach.

John Trana