Nick Marshall from Liverpool Football Club talks to us about what it takes to be successful..
Nick Marshall, Head of Football Operations – Liverpool Football Club
We were fortunate enough to interview Nick Marshall to discuss all things from his current role, to what it really takes to develop through the ranks. It is clear that Nick’s focus is not just on an individual’s ability. He is a true ambassador for players’ developing behaviours, competencies and values to help them maximise their talent and potential.
Can you Firstly Give a Brief Overview of Your Career to Date?
Football wise, my journey began with two years at Barnsley FC working with their under 14’s as a part time assistant coach. I spent two years with them between 1993 and 1995.
This was unpaid throughout, and all I was given was a tracksuit the first year and a training top the second but I was extremely grateful for the opportunity. But the most important thing was the experience, which was invaluable for me. I suggest that anyone who wants to get involved in coaching within professional clubs, that hasn’t played at a high level like myself, need to go above and beyond.
Between 1995-97 I moved to Leeds United Football Club, starting with their under 11’s and 12’s as an academy coach. The club also had a satellite centre, which is similar to a development centre at other football clubs but for signed players, which I was fortunate enough to help run for a couple of years. This was great for me, and gave me lots of exposure.
After the Academy Manager at Leeds United left to move to Nottingham forest, I soon followed and was offered a full time role as Centre of Excellence Director managing the club’s under 9’s to 16’s programme. Two years in this role, I then moved up to assistant Academy Manager for the under 17 to 19’s for the academy. I then spent a few years in this role, before becoming the Academy Manager/Director for a period of almost 12 years.
Having spent almost 16 years at Nottingham Forest I then went on to work for the Football Association mentoring academy football coaches. I spent a year with The FA before recently joining Liverpool FC as Head of Football Operations.
My current role at Liverpool is essentially to ensure all the football side of the operation runs as smoothly as possible. This involves offering support to academy staff and players at all levels both on and off the field. I’m fortunate to have had experience of working with all age groups within academy football and seeing players develop through all these periods and into first teams’, which is hopefully helpful to all involved.
How did you First get Involved in Elite Level Sport?
I got into multisport coaching quite early on, whilst I began a degree in Sports Science. I also spent a little bit of time in America coaching out there with a variety of age groups and abilities. But my passion was always coaching football and that involvement largely came from my uncle, who was a UEFA A license coach, so I learned a lot from him and he helped me complete my coaching badges. I followed him around and took in as much from him as possible, whilst coaching as many teams as I could including Sheffield University.
My uncle then was offered a role at Barnsley and that is when I joined up with him as his assistant coach. This was fortunate as I was in the right place at the right time to get the opportunity. But you still have to then be good enough to impress and make more opportunities for yourself from there, which is what I tried to do.
You have worked with some of the country’s top professionals, what is it you look for in a player for them to be successful?
There are four attributes and attitudes generally that clubs and coaches will look for, and I have always used these to identify the progress and success of a player. To be successful, you will generally need to be able to possess three out of the four, and you are going to have to be at least a 9/10 in at least one of them for you to really stand out.
Technical attributes for their position
Tactical awareness (football intelligence)
Psychological, social and mental attributes
If you look at top performers in any sport, you will generally see they have at least three of these, and be really strong in them. If you have all four, then you are laughing!
Can you give us some insight into the level of pressure and challenge an athlete endures as they develop in their career?
The answer to this question is no. I can’t give you an insight in to how players feel as I have not gone through situations and environments as a professional player. Nor do I have an elite playing background. But working with players at all ages within professional sport for so many years, I can give an outside perspective and talk about what I have seen and experienced.
I have to say that the biggest thing for me is the mental strain which will apply for all sports, not just football. You see lots of talented individuals who fall away by the waste side, simply because they are not tough enough mentally and they can’t produce their talent, or make the right decisions under pressure, and when it matters.
From my experience I can use Wes Morgan as a perfect example, who has gone on to play more than 400 league games and captained his club in the Premier League. Wes came from college football at the age of 17. We brought him into Nottingham Forest as a 17 year old and I wouldn’t say he was outstanding technically, or the most talented player I have ever seen. I’m more than happy to admit that my youth team coach at the time, John Pemberton, was the real advocate in giving him his first professional contract. But he has been able to show unbelievable levels of mental strength whenever challenge, adversity or opportunity came his way. Therefore he has achieved his potential, and overcome really difficult situations when others haven’t been able to cope mentally. That’s all you can ever ask of a player, to achieve their potential.
For players to do that, they really do have to be unbelievably strong mentally, and that is what the pressures of professional football teaches you. To be mentally resilient, and be able to deal with real pressure when it matters.
Professional athletes possess key skills and competencies that can be transferred into many walks of life. From your experience, what are the defining behaviours and competencies that successful professional athletes possess?
I’d go back to the mental toughness. Things don’t work out for a lot of players. But as a coach, you can see early on which players will be successful in whatever they do outside of sport, because of their attitude, commitment levels and toughness to overcome setbacks and learn from their mistakes and situations they’ve been in. It’s always about that for me. If you are mentally tough and can perform under pressure, you will always be more successful than people who don’t have this level of mental strength, even if they have more technical ability than you. This can be taken in to any walk of life.
If I look at my time as a coach, I was privileged enough to work with Paul Hart at Leeds United and Nottingham Forest. He said to me even before I started my role at Nottingham Forest, you are going to find me tough and at times, really hard to work for, and this was certainly true. He really challenged me and put me under tremendous amounts of pressure, and there were quite a few people throughout my time, both players and coaching staff who weren’t able to deal with the pressure and expectation he put you under. But because I was exposed to real tough times and real adversity, I came out the other end with resilience and mental strength. I also have to say Paul was magnificent at showing his appreciation of you too. I’ve probably learned more from him than anyone else in football.
So sometimes in whatever you do, you need to go through these difficult times and experience the setbacks to be able to bounce back. You look at so many players who get released or don’t have contracts renewed, which is really difficult to take for them. But it is the next bit that counts; it is how you bounce back from that difficult time. You take Wes Morgan again as an example who was released by Notts County as a youngster, but then he used this as motivation to go on to achieve bigger and better things.
Also a kid that you’ll have never of heard of, played in our youth team at Nottingham Forest alongside Michael Dawson. Dawson became an England international but this kid didn’t quite make it. He was a good player, a really good player, but Dawson was just ahead of him. This was really difficult because you only have a certain number of positions and players you can move up in to the first team. So circumstances and timing wasn’t quite right for him. This you can imagine was very difficult for him, but he always had the right approach, and the right attitude. He dealt with the pressures and obstacles that came his way even when things went against him. As Dawson developed in to the first team, he left the football club.
Arguably he could have gone on to have a career with another club, at a different time, but instead he is now a really successful businessman. A lot of his success in business is no doubt down to his mental toughness, ability to cope with challenge and his attitude to be successful, which stemmed from his time in football.
What importance does an athlete’s attitude and values play to their level of success?
Everything. They mean everything. You get some people who are lucky, who are gifted with an unbelievable technical talent, or physical attributes that mean they can get to a certain level without having to perhaps work as hard. But to be really successful, you need to be able to have everything else. You need to have the values in your approach and work ethic to complement this talent, to make the most of your opportunities and maximise your potential.
You look at some of the world’s top players, Ibrahimović and Ronaldo as an example. I don’t know either of them personally so this is very subjective, but technically you can question that Zlatan has more natural talent. But some may say he hasn’t gone on to be the player he could be. Whereas Ronaldo, has a clear level of hunger, desire and an attitude to work and be better every day, which has really maximised his skills to allow him to truly fulfil his potential. They are the top one percentage in their sport, but the same principles apply no matter what level. Don’t get me wrong Ibrahimović is a top top player but there is always a question at the back of my mind, could he be even better, in that top tier of players with Ronaldo and Messi?
Professional football is known for being ruthless, volatile and highly pressurised. What do these environments teach athletes that they’d not have the opportunity to experience outside of professional sport?
Definitely teaches you to grow up quickly, particularly in football. Lots of youngsters under the age of 20 will find themselves training and playing in a first team. I certainly know at that age, I would never have been able to cope with the pressures of professional football, so these players deserve a huge amount of credit, which perhaps they don’t get from people who are looking in from the outside. You see lots of examples in football where players are subject to really tough, cutthroat decisions and often can feel victimised at a young age, which can be down to circumstances at a club or competition for places.
If you are prepared to learn the lessons, it teaches you to be really resilient, to not give up or give in, and handle pressure/criticism. But only if you are prepared to fail and make mistakes. To be in that learning process, you need to stay through the tough times, see the consequences of the mistakes you make and learn from them.
Football, and any elite sport will consistently challenge you and put you through really tough situations where you will make mistakes and have to deal with the consequences. But you always then have opportunities to put it right. It is if you are prepared to stay in that lifecycle, and be tough enough mentally, be resilient enough to wait for the next opportunity to prove you have come out the other end a better performer, and you have learnt lessons from the experience.
In other walks of life perhaps it is a lot easier to walk away from challenging situations and walk away from mistakes. You can’t do that in football or elite sport, and the only person you can often rely on to deal with situations is yourself. So athletes can really take this in to other industries and a lot can be learnt from this type of mentality and approach.
You’ve got to make decisions and be prepared to make mistakes particularly at a young age, where you can’t rely on others around you to get you out of trouble.
Finally, from experience what advice would you give to aspiring athletes, and also those who are at the end of a career for whatever reason?
Learn the lessons very quickly, especially if you are young. You need to very very quickly be honest with yourself and think of turning setbacks into challenges and then into opportunities. You must always think….Now I need to give myself every opportunity to be successful. No matter what the reason you are leaving the sport. It could be through injury, being released or many other things. Be prepared to say you have failed because you maybe didn’t apply yourself properly and don’t make that mistake again (or ever if you can help it). Whatever the reason, you can do two things.
You can either, get your head down, feel the world is against you and sulk about it. Or you do something about it. If you come to the end of a process and you say, actually I have given my best but it wasn’t quite enough, then you have to think….What lessons have a learnt? Do I try again at another club? Do I continue to chase the dream? But be realistic, you will know as much as the next person if your career is ending. But that isn’t a failure, you simply use the experience as invaluable life training and go and apply everything you have learnt elsewhere in an environment that might suit you better. This could be in lower league football, or on a scholarship in America, or in a new industry.
To do all this at a young age is really really tough. You don’t have to make these decisions as a 17,18,19 even 23 year old outside of professional sport. So you need to become mature very quickly, develop the right attitude and surround yourself with the right people who can give you sound advice.