Simplifying football coaching for kids: Mark Connaughton, founder of Klaas Kickz, National Startup award winner

“We help children become more confident in football and in life.” That is how simply Mark Connaughton, the founder of Klaas Kickz shared the basic concept of his Startup. “We do this through our colour coded football boots.” added Mark.

In this edition of PAC Talks with VJCV, Mark Connaughton, founder of Klaas Kickz shared his story. The journey of a 4 years old kid kicking football to being the founder of a startup simplifying football coaching for kids, Mark has always been close to this sport. You can also listen to the detailed interview on any of the podcast channels – Apple, Spotify, Audible, Google (PAC Talks with VJCV).

“So how the idea came about was in 2019, I was coaching in America. And I was directing a camp in California. I was coaching the 12 year olds that week, and I was trying to explain a skill, which involved using the top of the inside of your foot, it is called the Cryuff turn. The kid was 12 and was really struggling to identify the different parts of the feet, to use in football. So I, as a coach, I do silent demonstration, followed by a verbal demonstration and then I let the kid do the skill himself. But he just couldn’t grasp the concept. So I was thinking, There’s got to be something here that can make it easier for the child to learn the different parts of the feet. So there was 100 kids in that camp. I brought them over one by one and asked them, can they name the inside, the outside, the sole and the laces, and only nine out of 100 could do so. So I was thinking, I’m onto something here, there’s got to be an easier way. So I was staying on a farm in California that week, I went home and started drawing pictures of football boots, trying to get the different sections correct. There’s two different parts of the inside of the foot that nobody really talks about. One is to pass and then one is to shoot. If you are trying to shoot for accuracy, you would use the blue for anyone who’s not familiar with football. So I started drawing boots colouring in the different sections, putting red on the toes, because you’re not supposed to kick with the toes in football. I came back to Ireland and I got accepted into the new frontiers programme, which helped me develop my business model and my target market. Luckily enough, I got into phase two of new frontiers. So I think 12 got selected out of maybe 70 or 80 applicants. So I was delighted there because we got funding for the project as well and it helped me kick off but so our main objective was to find a colour coded football boot which after drawing many pictures badly, I decided to hire a designer. Her name is Lauren Burke and she’s based in County Roscommon. So she designed eight different pairs of football boots for us. Instead of me choosing my favourite, I decided to show the children at a summer camp we were doing in Westmeath, the different designs and let them choose their favourite. So there was about 100 kids on that camp. My favourite actually came for two out of the eight. The winner was the design we have now with the dots. So we tested it out and that was something that I learned on the new frontiers programme, test and test and test and are they comfortable? Do the kids like them? We continued the venture from there. But it took us eight different manufacturers or suppliers. I got it wrong seven times before I finally got it right. The 8th time, so as they say 8 time lucky. Eventually, in May 2022, we finally launched the Klaas Kickz, football boots. So again, it’s all about trying to make the kids more confident having that positive start to football. I just think if you have a positive start, and you can learn and perceive yourself to be really good at something, you’re more likely to stick at it, be more healthy, have more fun, make more friends. That’s so important as well, the friends part. I’m 30 years old now. I think most of my friends would be into football. So you just make lifelong friends from when you’re younger. I think that’s so important, just having a good experience, I suppose not being negative. But if you had a bad experience with sport at the start, it could turn you off sport altogether and you could end up living in a more sedentary lifestyle and not wanting to play sports. So I just think that the early ages between four and 10, when you’re starting off football, that’s what we’re trying to achieve.” added Mark.

The journey started long back for Mark. The kick off happened for him at the age of 4. It is very interesting to see how things shape up in the long run. Mark spoke about why it is called Klaas Kickz and his association with football for all these years.

“Yeah, I suppose it all started for me when I was about four or five. I used to meet up my dad every Sunday, and we bring our football with us everywhere we went. My dad’s name is Klaas. That’s where the Klaas Kickz comes from. I created a bond with my dad through football. I’m hoping that this can do the same with parent and child all around Ireland and even the world. My dad wasn’t big into football until I was big into football. But he knew the importance of playing, activities and being outside in fresh air. So then after that I moved on and I joined my first football team. I think I was about six or seven. I was living in Dublin at the time and I joined because my best friend at the time joined football as well. So we both had absolutely great time. We were just hooked on to football for the rest of our lives. We used to do the mini leagues every summer and because we started so young, we kind of had an advantage on the other kids. We just kind of picked up football really easy. We used to be coming home with a medal and trophy every summer at the mini leagues. Once you get that first medal or trophy, you just feel amazing inside. ” Mark spoke about his early encounter with this beautiful game.

Mark also emphasised on the fact that it is not about winning or losing, however it’s about being more confident.

Mark joined Shelbourne FC, when he was 16. He spoke about the influence of his mother as well. “My mom was actually a big part in this as well because she always used to bring me up to Dublin when we were living in Westmeath. She bring me up three times a week. I always say that the parents are so important, if the parent wants the kids to do well. They’ve shown that support and bringing them up to the football is so important. I played with Shelbourne FC for a while and was trying to break into the first team. A few years later, I joined Longford Town FC U19s. I made one first team appearance for Longford Town. I got a chance to represent Ireland for the college’s squad in 2015 and 2016. We played against France, Scotland and Wales and then just having that professional setup was absolutely amazing. I was the captain of my college team at Sligo as well, where I studied business and sport. That kind of gave me a hunger for business as well. But again, anytime I’d meet someone in the town that always kind of talked to me about football, and that made me feel confident. So again, I’m just trying to kind of give back to the kids, how I felt through football. Hopefully, they can have that, that experience as well. But again, it’s not about being a footballer or going on and live in that football life, the confidence that you can take from sports, and then bring it into whatever you want to be in when you want to be a doctor or whatever you want to be in your life. Use the confidence that you learn from sport. I’ve been coaching for the last 10-12 years in America, I was in California, the East Coast of America, and New York, just great experience as well. I always tell people to travel because it opens your mind to so many things. You learn so many things about different cultures. Even football is different over there as well, they call it soccer. Pinnies is a word for bibs. Cleats is the word for football boots. So originally Klaas Kickz was gonna be called ‘My first cleat’. That’s, that’s how it’s come since then, basically just live in the football life.”

Klaas Kickz use colour coded football boots to help kids understand the which part of the foot should be used for each move or skill.

“So one of the big problems that we’re trying to tackle is misunderstanding of instruction. So as a coach, we’d say use the inside, use the outside, use the sole, use the laces. Imagine if your kids don’t know football, and you’ve never heard of inside, outside, it can be quite confusing. But one of the things that kids learn from a very young age is colours, even in play schools, red, blue, green.”

“So now we have different panels on the boots. So for example, we pass with the inside, which is green, we shoot with blue, which is the top of the inside, which is also very hard to explain to a young child can use the top of the inside. You have to go down and touch the different parts of your foot that you want them to use. But now they just have to look down and it makes it so much simpler. And then one thing that people may not know if they’re not into football, is that you’re not supposed to kick with the toe, because it’s a bad habit. And it can cause injury if you kick with the toe too hard. So that’s now red. So we have kind of like traffic light system. red means stop. Green means go. And then there’s other colours in different areas. ” added Mark.

Klaas Kickz is also doing primary school programmes. Mark mentioned that they do six week programmes in primary skills for classes between junior infants and second class. Then we also do third to sixth without the boots as well. I’m a very high energy coach, I like to make as fun as possible, celebrating everyone’s little wins. Mark is hoping to spread their brand around Ireland and the world. Talking about the cost of the programme, he explained “the cost is kind of dependent on how many kids there are. So sometimes we have a small school with 40 kids and then we had a quote yesterday for 196 kids. At the moment, we are trying to spread the message.”

The word has started spreading for Mark and Klaas Kickz. Mark was delighted to talk about the next big thing for them. “We also have some very exciting news to share with a League of Ireland team soon. I won’t tell you exactly right now until it’s confirmed. But we hope to see the League of Ireland teams and the club’s using them for their underage academies as well.”

The boots are designed in County Roscommon and manufactured in Asia. They are currently sold at 39.99 Euros at the shops and online as well.

They are looking at conducting programmes in at least 50 schools this year and also selling around 5000 boots in 2023. The target looks to be an achievable one. Also keeping in mind that League of Ireland will be kicking off this season on a new high and the FIFA Women’s World Cup, with the Ireland team participating in it, is scheduled to start mid year. Already there is a lot of interest for the World Cup game as the inaugural game between Australia and Ireland is now moved to one of the biggest stadiums in Australia.

Mark won award at the recent National Startup Awards as well. He spoke about the support received from the Startup ecosystem in Ireland which has played a crucial role in the growth of Klaas Kickz.

“So for the National startup awards, we got shortlisted in the regional startup Awards, which was the rest of Leinster I think Dublin’s in a separate category and then the rest of Leinster. So we’ve seen our name there in the top eight of that category. I was absolutely delighted to be in the top eight there and the regional and then I got an email the next day. It said, Congratulations, you’ve been selected in the national startup awards. So I was over the moon I remember I was in the car, delivering boots at the time. I like to celebrate all my wins. So did a little first pump, as you will when you score a goal. So then we went up and obviously that’s where I met yourself as well as the startup awards. I was feeling quite nervous sitting there, but I wasn’t expecting anything. Just absolutely, absolutely over the moon just to get that recognition in especially in the first year and meeting all different business owners at it. It was absolutely fantastic. I suppose back to the sports from the layout, Local Enterprise Office, Enterprise Ireland just really supported us the whole way New Frontiers with our funding. You get 15,000 there and six instalments and I just trying to think of what or how I would have made this a reality without the support of the local enterprise. We also received a prime and grants that, again helped us further get our website and the branding done. That’s something that we really took like three or four months with a guy called Fanon. He’s absolutely amazed and understands football understands the kids, and he was able to send out a message that’s getting through to to the kids, which is, which is fantastic. I’m in a group as well called the BNI, which we we work together as a team 40 of us try and help each other out. The support that I’m getting there is absolutely amazing. We have an investor also on board now. We have the brains behind the operation, and I do the coaching. Yeah, just great that I’m not on my own anymore and as like teamwork makes the dream work, I heard a kid say yesterday. So again, we’re slowly building our team. And it’s exciting times ahead for Klaas Kickz.”

It is great to see how a simple concept is developed into a startup. The next couple of years will be crucial for Klaas Kickz and will be interesting to see how things go for Mark and team. I hope Klaas Kickz gets spread across the other teams in League of Ireland and in academies of Premier League, La Liga, Bundesliga. Football actually has got a lot of potential and t’s just a matter of being at the right place at the right time.

“teamwork makes the dream work

You can read more about Klaas Kickz here:-

Klass Kickz

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