Coaches Corner: Jack Stern
In this month’s Coaches Corner, we spoke to former Burgess Hill and Lewes goalkeeper, and current FC Cincinnati Head of Goalkeeping, Jack Stern.
“The meetings were in French, all the coaching sessions were in French, every presentation was in French. I arrived in Montréal having not spoken any French. I'd obviously said a few words with my wife, and she was trying to get me to learn when I arrived.” Jack tells us of his move from England that turned out to be the making of him. But it’s an eye-opening conversation into the life of a professional coach.
At 33, Jack has experienced so much already at an age many professional coaches are either starting out or haven’t started at all.
By 21, he was working for West Bromwich Albion on a journey which has taken him around the world. But first, we start with a young boy in Sussex who loved football.
“It's all I wanted to do and all I wanted to watch on TV. I’d play in the garden on my own all the time. I just remember enjoying it back in those days, I just played for fun and I wasn’t thinking much of playing professionally.
“I was a goalkeeper for Broad Oak from the age of 8 to about 14 and I just loved to throw myself around, get muddy, get wet and get hit by the ball. The first couple of years I was playing up front as a striker, but I was the biggest kid, so it was a classic scenario of stick the biggest kid in goal. As soon as I went in goal, I never wanted to play outfield again, because I just enjoyed it so much!
“Even now I still join in at training (at FC Cincinnati) and our current first choice goalkeeper, just looks at me sometimes when I'm diving around and he’s asked me a few times, ‘why do you still do this? You’ve got to look after your body! Are you not worried about getting hurt?’ And it's like, no, I just really enjoy it.”
Originally born in London, Jack grew up in Sussex from the age of 8 in Heathfield. By the age of 14, however, he had attracted interest from Wimbledon FC and made the move to their academy.
“It was a wake-up call and a bit of a shock to see the difference in level. I also found that all of a sudden I was going from playing with my friends, and people that I grew up with, to playing with people that I didn't know at all.
“I was also having to travel up on the train. It’d take me to two-and-a-half-hours, and I wasn’t really socialising with those guys at all, because then it was straight back on the train and home.
“I definitely found that hard because I wasn’t really playing with my friends anymore, but that was also a good thing. It was a learning curve. You then realise how competitive the sport is. I was there for two years from under-14 to under-16 and then I didn't get offered a scholarship.
“I really wanted to sign for Brighton, but they had two really good goalkeepers in my age group, Richard Martin and John Sullivan. I still keep in touch with John a little bit, but they were both good goalkeepers.
When Jack was let go by Wimbledon, he joined Burgess Hill Town until under-17s level when he signed for Lewes. He broke into the first-team that were promoted to the National League Premier Division before making a big decision.
“I went out to do a scholarship in the USA. I intended on being there for four years it was in South Carolina and I had some injury issues.
“Anyone who knows anything about the college system in America will know, it's intense. You play like 12-15 games in about two and a half, three months. Then you have the play-offs and if you get injuries, you can miss pretty much the whole season.
“But aside from the injuries, I found the thing I didn’t enjoy was the pressure of games, I just loved the training. I think at that point, when I was out in America, is when I decided, I don't think a professional playing career is for me.
“However, I wanted to stay in the game, and actually, before coaching, I wanted to be a therapist or a physio.”
Many people who realise their limits in football will continue to play at whatever level they can. Something Jack goes along with: “A lot of people, nearly all of my friends just continued wanting to play even if it was non-league. I think that's one of the things that's really helped me in my career making a clean break.”
Jack, on the other hand, wanted to be involved with football at the highest level possible and if that wasn’t going to be from playing, he was going to find another way.
“I came back to England and went to the University of Worcester to study Sports Therapy. During that time, I realised I just want to be out in the grass, I want to be out in the field. With the therapy side of things, there was so much time spent being inside and being in treatment rooms so after one year, I switched to do sports coaching.
“Once I'd started that, I then I did my FA Level 1 and 2 as well as the goalkeeping qualifications and at university I was about 35 minutes away from West Brom. I had a friend who was working in their community arm and he mentioned to me that the academy was looking for an assistant goalkeeper coach and asked if I’d be interested in doing that.
“That was my foot in the door, and that's where I really started to take coaching and goalkeeper coaching very seriously.
“I was massively lucky to have such a great mentor at West Brom, called Mark Naylor who is now the head Academy Goalkeeper Coach at Aston Villa. He just had so much passion for it. He lived and breathed goalkeeping and he just took me under his wing, he saw potential in me and taught me how to be a coach.
“After the first six months to a year of working with him, I knew this is the path I'm on, head down and I'm throwing everything at this."
Jack blitzed through his coaching qualifications, adding: “Whilst at West Brom I did my UEFA B in coaching football and goalkeeping, and I’ve now got the Canadian A License. I did them as quick as possible and I'm happy I did that. It’s not like I wanted to get them out of the way, I just wanted to be as prepared as possible.
“I'll be honest, I hated the outfield coaching! I’m a lot more involved with outfield stuff now at FC Cincinnati and I'm heavily involved in the game plan the team and the goalkeepers in terms of how we try to beat an opposition’s press and how we prepare for each game.”
“I do presentations to the team and it's something I'm really comfortable with now. Sometimes I'll take a group of the attackers for some finishing practice. But back then, I was just taking goalkeeping sessions.
“Even when I did my A License in Canada, I felt out of my depth taking some of the 11v11 stuff. But that's how you learn, that's how you get better by being out of your comfort zone.”
After four years at West Brom, Jack decided to try something new. A new coaching role that would take him to very different landscape; the French-speaking, Canadian city, of Montréal.
“That was a really hard decision (leaving West Brom), because I was very happy there. I didn't want to leave at all, but the opportunity of coaching in Montréal was too good to turn down, and also the fact my wife is originally from there. I remember being really upset when I had to tell the Academy director I was leaving.
“At West Brom I was essentially an assistant Academy Goalkeeper Coach, but this was an opportunity to head the whole thing up at Montréal Impact (now Club de Foot Montréal). They didn't really have a proper setup with the goalkeeping.
This was a job that came with obvious challenges. Despite his wife being fluent in French and from Montréal herself, Jack spoke very little.
“The hardest thing at first was the language barrier. It's kind of split, there's a lot of English and the majority of people speak French and English. The academy at Montréal, though, was almost all French coaches either from Montréal or actually from France.
“I'll be honest, it was very hard. We would do like a three-hour meeting, completely in French. I wouldn't have a clue what was going on! I was having people translate for me or explain to me after the meeting.
“My brain was ready to explode the first couple of months out there. But that's also, in the end, one of the things I love most about living in Montréal was learning French. After about a year and a half, I was fluent, and I still speak French now.”
“It was tough, but again, I think that improved me massively as a coach, because you had to come up with new forms of communicating and teaching. It was a big concern for me at first, because it was like, ‘wow, how am I going to affect these kids and develop these kids if I can't even speak to them?”
It’s incredible when talking to Jack, how he took this all in his stride. Many people would step into that kind of environment and find it hard to cope, but Jack just saw it as a further way to develop.
“It was a really good professional experience, because it was working with different people. I'd worked with the people at West Brom for four or five years, they were fantastic, but they were all English.
“It wasn’t that they all thought a similar way, but there's cultural things that make it easier to work with people that are from the same country.
“Then, all of a sudden, going over there, where I was working with mostly French coaches, some Italian coaches, I was exposed to the different cultures and the different way of thinking.
Jack was making a name for himself in the MLS developing many of Montréal’s young talent. He was set to be on the move again, this time travelling south to the soon-to-be MLS club, FC Cincinnati.
“The way it works here, there’s obviously no relegation or promotion, you have the MLS, but then also the United States Soccer League (USL). Teams from the USL can get franchised and put in the MLS and that’s what happened with FC Cincinnati.
“But often the reason that teams in the USL gets the franchise, is not because they've been successful on the field, it's more like they can fill stadiums or it's a big city. It's more business driven about how you get a franchise.
“My first year here (FC Cincinnati) was their last year in the USL. It hadn't been announced yet that they were going into the MLS, but I was pretty certain that was happening and they were the assurances I was given. I'm not sure I necessarily would've come here if it wasn't for a move to the MLS.
“I wanted to stay in Montréal, but the head coach got fired and then when the new head coach come in, he wanted to bring in his own staff. I could've stayed, in the Academy, but I wanted to push myself and broaden my horizons. I felt like another challenge, and the idea to come to Cincinnati and work with a brand-new MLS team in a year's time was exciting.
“It was a difficult decision because it meant leaving Montréal, where we'd been for five years. That was home at that point. My wife didn't actually move to Cincinnati with me for the first year, she stayed in Montreal and we just saw each other like once a month. We absolutely love it here now though, everything about the club and the place is amazing.”
It gets to a point when speaking to Jack that you realise he is actually 33-years-old. There’s an interruption in the conversation just to actually ask how he’s achieved what he has by this age.
“I've loved it. It's been amazing. But it's been a lot of hard work, a lot of sacrifice and focus. I just wanted to be as successful as possible and reach the highest levels. That's one of the reasons why I stopped as a player because I wasn’t going to reach the highest level, but coaching I had the chance to do that.
“I've just thrown everything into it, and like I said, lots of sacrifice, lots of hard work, a lot of family events missed, I missed my best friend's wedding. But it's always what I wanted to do from when I started coaching, this was the job that I dreamed to do.”
But back to his start at FC Cincinnati: “We had an amazing year, I think we went unbeaten for 24 or 25 games, we won the regular season championship, but we got knocked out eventually in the play-offs. We were playing in the USL in front 30,000 fans every week at home. Then when we'd go on the road, we’d play sometimes in front of 200 fans.
“That was kind of crazy as well, it was an interesting experience, but a great year. Then obviously we made the move to the MLS and that's been successful in some respects. The facilities are great, and we still fill stadiums, but the results haven’t been the best, and that’s what we’re working hard to achieve now.”
Jack has responsibility for much more than just the goalkeeping side of things at FC Cincinnati, he is also in charge of presenting aspects of the opposition’s game plan to the team. It’s an honest insight he gives us to the life of a professional coach.
“I think the big thing for me, going from an academy coach to a first-team coach it’s completely different. As an academy coach, it's all about teaching. You can really have an influence on the younger guys, the academy kids. The most rewarding part is seeing them progress and have success with the first-team.
“When you work in with professional goalkeepers, especially older ones, I mentioned our first-team goalkeeper, Przemysław Tytoń, he’s 34, older than me! He used to play in La Liga and is a Polish international so I'm not teaching him how to be a goalkeeper. I'm giving him little things, I'm giving him advice, I'm trying to maybe mould his game, maybe the positions that he takes up a little bit.
“There's a lot of work that doesn't get seen behind the scenes. It’s the hours of video on the computer that we present to players either individually or as a group it's watching so much film of the opposition to make sure that you don't miss anything.
“A big example for me actually is I present a video to the whole team two days before the game on the opposition goalkeeper. It's sort of like weaknesses that they might have or tendencies that they might have like he rushes out a lot so he might be vulnerable to chip finishes.
“Is it that he leaves too much space at his near posts? Little things like that. I present all that to the team before a game but especially our attackers and our wingers just reminding them this is what their goalkeeper’s going to do.
“It can obviously be deflating when things don't come off, but sometimes when we score goals and you know that's what we'd seen was going to happen that’s also really pleasing.”
For what Jack has achieved at a young age makes you only imagine the potential he has from here. A career thus far that’s spanned over ten years with three different professional clubs in three different countries. The insight he gives us into his journey should provide inspiration to anyone that they can achieve the same.
Lastly he offered further advice to aspiring coaches in Sussex: “I would say just expose yourself to as many situations as you can. To start out with, you're not going to get paid. I wasn't paid at West Brom for the first six months, and then I was getting like £250 a month and that wasn't even covering my travel.
“So, you’ve got to be prepared that it's a grind. Coaching is not as glamorous as it maybe looks, it's not the same as playing. It's a lot of work. It's a lot of perseverance. It's a lot of sacrifice, but if it's something that you love to do, and you have the passion for it, I think that's massive.
“I don't think you can be a good coach if you don't have passion for coaching in the game. You need it in the hard times. Just work hard and if you get opportunities to go and watch different coaches work, do it!”
For more information on coaching in Sussex please contact:
T: 01903 766855