Mark Pearn has represented Great Britain in hockey at the 2000 and 2004 Olympic Games, playing 246 games for England and Great Britain, scoring 74 goals, and is a European Championship winner at club level with Reading HC. Player Development Project spoke to Mark about his player development journey, transition to coaching and his philosophy when it comes to helping young players maximise their potential.
After a long and decorated career as a player that included ten years as the player-coach of East Grinstead and a spell at Real Club De Polo in Barcelona, Mark is now the Head Coach of Surbiton in the Men’s National Hockey League Premier Division. Mark also works full time at Eagle House School in Berkshire teaching mathematics and coaching hockey.
PDP: Can you give us a bit of information about your family background?
I came from a very sporting family. My Dad played rugby at scrum-half for Bristol during a great era in the 1970s where they would often play against many of the top Welsh teams. My Mum played netball regularly and both my parents were PE teachers. If there was a ball in the garden we were always playing games. I played almost every sport as a child but when I discovered hockey I just remember really enjoying it and finding it easy, it almost came naturally. I loved the technical side of the game but didn’t really specialise until I was older.
PDP: What are your first sporting memories?
My Mum’s parents were from Derby and I remember being taken to watch Derby County in a game where they won 1–0. As well as this I vividly remember eating chips out of a cone after watching my Dad play local rugby and just being in and around a live sport environment. Big TV sporting events during those years included the 1984 Olympics and the 1986 World Cup, where Maradona had his famous hand-ball. You forget that there was very little sport on TV back then compared to now so I would value any opportunity to watch it live when it was on.
PDP: What are your thoughts on specialisation?
I didn’t specialise myself until about the age of 14 when I started to dedicate more of my time to hockey and even then I was still playing other sports like cricket during the summer. Speaking from my own experience, I think there is a massive advantage in not specialising too young and being exposed to a variety of challenges and skills. So much of what I see now, with the time I spend with younger players, are kids being dragged off to do one sport all the time. There is a danger from parents who think their kids will be left behind if they aren’t doing one sport all the time, because perhaps they think this is the only way their child will become a professional athlete. But this is such an unrealistic expectation and sport can have so many positive benefits for young people.
I almost dropped out from hockey a number of times, but being able to have a variety of activities to enjoy thankfully I stuck with it. I was also fortunate that the lottery funding was introduced in 1997 which allowed us to take a more professional approach as a full-time athletes. I personally don’t believe kids will be left behind from anything by playing a wide range of sports and they are also more likely to continue being involved later in life.
PDP: Can you tell us about your playing journey?
I was someone who even though I started when I was 9 (and I know players who didn’t start until 13 or much later and still played at the Olympics) I was ahead of the curve in terms of being picked for junior England age-group teams. I made the England U15 hockey team at 13 because I was technically very good and hockey is not as physical as other sports. Being relatively small physically I had to excel technically to survive against bigger players. I know football is changing, but traditionally perhaps the bigger, faster kids have always been picked. I was lucky that this wasn’t the case for me.
Due to being picked early I think I was exposed to some great coaches. My school headmaster John Law, who was my coach from aged 9-18, was a brilliant junior coach who was involved with the England junior sides, so that was an incredibly fortunate coincidence for me too. I moved through the age groups and went to University. I remember my second day at University in 1995, I got a phone call asking me to play for England in the Champions Trophy and I of course said yes and was on my way the next day. It was a bit of a perfect storm and would never happen like that now. I didn’t know many of the other players in the squad particularly well and I had barely played at the top domestic level when I got that call, so it was both intimidating and exciting at the same time. However, I was a confident 18-year old and very determined, so when I got the call up I felt in a strong position to take it.
PDP: What lessons did you learn about development versus performance as an elite player, and are they different in your opinion?
There’s a lot of criticism of academies but I think the main thing is that coaches don’t coach the childhood out of kids. There is a place for good coaching and structure but I think players should find their own way and be autonomous in their development. Kids have to be allowed to go and play without the paralysing fear of failure, learn from their own mistakes and most of all just enjoy being kids.
PDP: Do you advocate an approach around technical repetition or decision-making and game based training?
As a player a lot of what we did when I was young was with a hockey stick and a ball at training – isolated skills without a bigger picture. Now, as a coach, I just can’t relate to that. When you take that approach I don’t see the enjoyment for kids. Asking a child to do a skill 10 times in isolation is something I feel turns young players off. Growing up we did do that work, but I always enjoyed small-sided games the most. Freedom to me meant the chance to express yourself. A lot of the work I do with children and senior players is scenario driven and game based, and I find myself on that end of the spectrum. Even if it’s a focus on first touch or passing, I still think it can be done in a game.
We had an outstanding Australian coach, Barry Dancer, who was in charge for the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. I distinctly remember one of his first sessions, which included a form of attack versus defence drill. When the defenders won it, they were asked to do something with it (attack) and the attackers were asked to go and win it back. At that stage those type of practices were almost alien to us – but it was simply replicating match scenarios. It was directional, it was real and there was an immediate consequence to our actions.
For me, coaching young players is about giving them the confidence to make their own decisions, learn about what happens next and improving their thought processes for the next time. Whether it is hockey or football, ideas like counter-pressing and reacting to turnovers are key facets of both sports.
PDP: What do you believe are the fundamentals for a good coach?
Personally I think the key things are honesty, fairness and a positive approach. On top of that you have to want to learn and be open to new ideas. If you have those attributes you will inspire players. I cannot see how being negative with young players can be positive in any way at all. Getting to the point, being concise and keeping the message simple is important. As a player I remember struggling to take on more than a couple of key points during a game. If you have 7 or 8-year-old kids and you can get them to get one thing right that you’re working on then, to me, that’s successful. With senior teams I am always asking the players for their thoughts, what are they feeling and seeing in the game. There is great feedback and learning potential there and I always try to incorporate this into developing our training and match strategy.
PDP: How much do you believe your own coaching style reflects the way you were coached as a player?
I think it’s difficult not be inspired or influenced by coaches you’ve been exposed to. I believe I am a mix of the coaches I’ve played under or worked alongside or observed. It’s important to take the key attributes as to what you see works and add that to your own approach. One of my key mentors was my school headmaster I mentioned earlier as he really influenced me to try new things; to not worry about consequences and not just focus on winning games, especially with junior players.
We should always be learning. I have sessions written in books from practices I did 10 years ago, and to be honest I would like to burn them! But as long as we’re constantly learning I feel we’re on the right path. I keep them as a reference as to how far I have come personally.
PDP: In your time as a player and a coach what innovations have you seen in coaching?
Hockey is pretty forward thinking in terms of the way the sport is played. The rules have changed massively, as it has to fight for its place in the sporting market place. In a coaching sense, technology is something that is becoming more and more prevalent in the game. The use of video analysis has been fantastic and it’s a powerful tool to see yourself coach and watch your players play. Most sports would be pretty similar in that now, but hockey has really taken to it well.
Coaches have also had to adapt as a result of those new rules. There are have been some major changes over the past twenty years. Offside was taken out of the game a long time ago, freeing up the whole pitch and we have rolling substitutions so strategy there is important. Innovations in penalty corner attack and defense, as well as being able to pass to yourself from a restart means that as a coach you always have to be adaptable.
As a player I started as a left-winger or inside forward and that was it. The game has become far more fluid now, similar to Total Football under Cruyff where you play many positions, and therefore rotation is prominent. As a coach you cannot be stuck in your ways.
PDP: What are the most common errors you see in coaching that you feel need to be addressed?
I can’t stand seeing sessions at junior level where players are not fully involved the whole time. Working with young players means engaging them. I don’t want to see sessions with long lines and players standing still so therefore I love using small sided games like 3v3s and 4v2s. If someone watched me coach they would think “they are just playing games” but for me they are learning the game and I am coaching within that. I will give them lots of different scenarios and expose them to many different positions. I don’t think an 11-year-old should specialise in a position.
I am quite measured and placid personally, so I also think it’s important not to lose sight of what’s important and stay calm, not get too emotional and remain positive. There’s a difference between demanding a performance from a 26-year-old man and an 8-year-old child who just wants to have fun.
I see coaches who constantly scream or shout instructions and almost try and play the game for their young players. I just don’t understand it, it scares them, they stop enjoying it and then they begin feeling pressure and stop making good decisions. You have to give them the framework within which to play and the confidence to make their own decisions.