Highly-touted young coach, Arthur Papas (32), has for the better part of half his life been involved in the coaching game in one way or another. The Melbourne-native’s football journey has currently led him to the burgeoning football nation of India, as their U23 coach. OS Aussies recently had the chance to ask Arthur a range of questions on his coaching, India, and his future ambitions.
Can you tell us about your football background and how you got into coaching?
My first involvement in coaching goes back to when I was 16 years of age and I participated in my first coaching course. I had enrolled in this course because as a young player growing up I was someone who watched so much football and yet felt like that surely there was much more to learn and discover. Obviously at that stage I still harbored ambitions to be a professional footballer and this course I used as another means to gaining more knowledge to help me as a player as well. From here I kept pursuing my playing ambitions but that taste of acquiring more knowledge about the game had been ignited.
So from here I began studying the top European coaches who had also not played at a top level to see what points of difference they had to reach the level they did. Many I researched had completed formal tertiary studies in fields such as physical education, management etc. amongst many things. Therefore, I made a decision to return to University at the age of 25 to complete a Bachelor of Applied Science in Exercise Science. I kept playing for two more seasons so I could use the money I was still able to earn from playing to help me pay for my degree. It was a struggle through these years to maintain my commitment because whilst many the same age were really setting up their lives I was earning very little money but I had a bigger picture for myself and one that I knew I had the capacity to do very well in.
Due to my education background and the amount of time I would volunteer to gain practical experiences I got a break working in the Victorian Premier League and stayed there for two and a half seasons as an assistant coach, all whilst going through my coaching accreditation and continuing my tertiary study. From here my next role was to be awarded the AIS/FFA Football Coaching Scholarship and I maintain that this is the role that has had the most profound effect on me both as a person and coach.
For almost two years I was exposed daily to so many areas that only the Australian Institute of Sport can offer and from all realms both directly with football and the other areas that provide the additional services unique to the AIS. Also, here I worked directly with Jan Versleijen and Gary Van Egmond and for someone who acts like a sponge when it comes to acquiring knowledge I made the most of every minute during this period including the beginning of my Masters in Sports Coaching. During this time I also had the honour of traveling with Australian Youth Teams both overseas and domestically as either an assistant coach or as a technical analyst. These experiences gave me so much confidence as well as providing many great learning moments.
Following the AIS I returned to Melbourne in November 2011 to take on my first senior head coach position with Oakleigh Cannons FC in the Victorian Premier League. I felt this was necessary because I had to start earning some credibility as a head coach and this was not possible when you are constantly in the shadows or always in an assistant position and you don’t have a reputation as a former player which naturally opens doors for you in Australia.
At the age of 30 I was now the youngest coach in the league and at a club who had not made the finals in over three seasons. It ended up being another great life experience for me and I started to learn more and more about my capacity as a coach. We finished the season in equal first position and the club made it’s first ever grand final. I was awarded the Victorian Premier League Coach of the Year becoming the youngest to ever win the award but more importantly I began to earn some credibility as a head coach and this was so very important.
From here the rollercoaster continued and I began working with the Melbourne Heart as both the NYL assistant as well as First Team Technical Analyst. This was a good period being involved again in professional football but I also felt as time progressed that as a career choice this was not a positive step for me but more from a want to be involved again at a professional level. So when Gary Van Egmond called me to become both First Team Assistant and Head Coach of the NYL for the Newcastle Jets I quite quickly decided that this was the more logical step for me to continue my career and moved to Newcastle.
This brings me to today and having moved to take on a position of Indian National U23 Head Coach and Pailan Arrows Head Coach in the I-League.
How did the job in India come about?
Over time I had kept in touch with former FFA Technical Director Rob Baan and not many know but he is actually the person who recommended me for the FFA/AIS Coaching Scholarship back in 2009. He is now the Indian Football Federation Technical Director and asked if I would be interested in moving to India to take on this position as part of a restructure that was taking place there. After visiting and discussing in more detail the position I decided I wanted this type of challenge both to develop as a human but also as a head coach.
In life you need people who believe in you and want to invest in you so my feelings were that this person possessed these traits that I think are absolutely necessary if you are going to progress in your career. Also, I had been an assistant off and on for over 4 years and a great swimming coach named Bill Sweetenham once told me that if you have ambitions to be a head coach then don’t spend too many years being an assistant coach or else you will always be classified as such.
What brief were you given by the Indian FA?
There was a combination of areas that the position would be assessed on and they included introducing a playing style more conducive with current world standards, as well as further the development of these players to increase the possibilities of them becoming senior national team players. They go hand in hand really because by developing their football style and understanding it’s logical that this then increases their chances of becoming more proficient footballers for the country.
So far we have managed both to a certain level based on the overall performance of the team and in turn the call-up of 7 players from this group to the senior national team camp that is in preparation for the Nehru Cup.
What do you see are your biggest challenges as a coach in India?
I guess the biggest challenge when accepting a job that involves such a change is adapting your style of life and also evolving your coaching style to suit the particular culture of India. There is no hiding that this is as much a life challenge as it is football and it’s the one way I see possible to continue developing my person. I’m at a particular stage in my life where I have the flexibility for such a position and it’s in my make-up to constantly challenge myself and keep developing.
As a coach it’s a challenge as there are many areas that require me to adapt my coaching style to suit the characteristics of the players and staff I interact with. In addition, the football style that I teach needs to also be built around the qualities of Indian footballers and not based for example on how I worked specifically in the A-League. This ability to understand, and then design a playing method around these variables inevitably makes you a better coach.
What are your longer term goals in football?
Up until gaining the position at the Australia Institute of Sport I had the five-year plan and constantly referred to my goals both short and long term. What I have found now though is that the minute you step into the more competitive environments the element of risk becomes a lot higher and in turn the planning can also be fickle based on this. So now all I focus on is improving my own personal characteristics both as a coach and then as a person and only worrying about the areas I can control. I have very clear ideas of what levels I can reach and to achieve these I have to keep maintaining success in all the roles I take on and up until now I feel I have been able to achieve this.
In the past 3 years I have gone from working with the Australian Institute of Sport & Australian National Youth teams to then being the youngest coach to win the Victorian Premier League Coach of the Year and then into the A-League. Now I have been told I am the youngest coach in the world to be in charge of a National U23 Team but all this means very little if I feel I’m not improving or developing in the right environments. What I enjoy the most about this profession is the day-to-day interaction both on and off the field with motivated athletes and as long as my heart maintains this same level of passion I will continue to push myself to achieve as much as possible.
What advice would you give any aspiring coaches in Australia?
From my experiences there are a couple characteristics which an aspiring coach with a similar background to mine must have; the first one is to either possess or be able to develop what I call ‘thick skin’, I have kept a journal of all my experiences over the years and on the first page of this book is the title ‘the need for thick skin’, I quickly learnt that the football world that I have experienced is very fickle which I found difficult at first to understand having come from a different background to many at the top level and unless you can be strong enough to understand and cope with the nature of the game then you will not survive very long or you could become very disenchanted as a young coach with eyes wide open and passion brimming.
Next is the thirst for knowledge and the capacity to think laterally about ways of acquiring this knowledge. Knowledge can be acquired many ways and for example the player who played in Europe has an experience I will never fully understand but in saying that I have experiences which at the same time they have never been exposed to coming from a tertiary background or by consistently volunteering my time to work under different coaches as a ‘coach’. There are so many ways to acquire knowledge which can contribute to the make-up of an elite coach and the astute person sources as many of these as possible and maintains an open mind in the process.
Lastly, nothing can be achieved without a high work ethic, coaching at the top level requires the personality that leaves no stone unturned and to maintain high standards and a meticulous attention to detail. There have been few weeks over the last 7-8 years where I have put in less than 70 hours in a week and this is because it is simply what is required to reach this point in my career. So many ingredients make up an elite coach and these are just some of the methods that have served me well up until now…
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