PART OF WHAT MOTIVATED ME IN FOOTBALL was the drive to improve. Growing up, I was afforded an unconventional footballing education, one that took from the gritty and talent-rich leagues of south San Jose during the dotcom boom to the suburbs of Chicago. My parents never made football easy for me. When I was 13, I was playing in a U18 team.
I spent a year or two getting the shit kicked out of me against older teammates in training and older opponents in matches – and it did wonders for me as a player and person. I learned to play faster, with my head up, one or two touches was the name of the game. Some summer months were spent playing in Holland, Germany, or back in California – where I’d first learned the game.
I was lucky to have parents who made sacrifices and worked overtime to provide me with a chance to experience the global game. I was lucky. Not every kid has parents willing or able to help them the way my parents helped me. But this story isn’t about me, or my belief in Dutch-based technical training methods requiring a young player to devote 10,000 touches a day on a ball to achieve higher degrees of mastery and technique; no, this is about a sense of responsibility.
Every four years, all the salient talking points come to head. Criticisms bottleneck to the point of eruption as every armchair coach, overpaid troll analyst, and even the casual fan, some who’ve never kicked a ball, proffer their opinion and insight. That’s what makes football great. It’s the world’s game and everyone, no matter how radical and ridiculous, has an audience and an accompanying soapbox.
In my research and writings on the topic of player development stemming from an idea that sparked my 10,000 touches article, I’ve scoured the pages of coaching manuals, watched and analysed hours of film, visited some world class training sites, watched hundreds of games at all levels, and interviewed a plethora of players, technical directors, snake oil salesmen posing as coaches, and re-evaluated my stance on why some countries thrive in football and others do not.
I recently spoke to an American colleague who lives in Osaka, Japan. We conversed about America’s chances in Brazil and to my surprise, he told me, “I’m supporting Japan.” He then went on to explain why he’d be supporting Japan and not even watching the US play. “Listen, I’m no ex-patriot, I love my country, but with regards to soccer, the Japanese have closed a gap and do it right with the players who matter – the kids.” I could tell I was in for something astounding. He mentioned the name Tom Byer, or as he’s known in Japan, ‘Tomsan’.
Tom Byer is a journeyman footballer who found his way to Japan in the late 1980s to play and eventually work as a youth coach. In Japan, Byer receives a lot of praise for promoting Japan’s seemingly rapid rise in football in both the men’s and women’s game. Byer found a way to reach hundreds of thousands of not elite players, but children, and teach them the fundamentals of technique and skill acquisition. When he first started networking in Japan, the country’s football was in a state of disarray. By 2011 the Samurai Blue won their fourth Asian Cup and the Nadeshiko Japan won its first Women’s World Cup title – defeating the heavily favoured United States in the Final.
So, what makes Tom Byer’s success noteworthy? I like to think of him living the American Dream – a notion where anyone can be successful through persistence and graft – in Japan. Byer began by running a grassroots football camp and by using his own knowledge of the game in the United States, tapped into a market that had very little success in world football – much like the United States.
Byer travelled to English speaking military bases and schools to teach football, but was quickly running out of options until he fortuitously contacted the father of a boy who attended one of his clinics. The boy’s father happened to be the president of Nestlé and agreed to sponsor Byer to expand his reach with the Japanese grassroots football populous. After gaining some financial backing from Nestlé, Byer was introduced to the Coerver Method, which allowed him to have an established coaching platform and philosophy.
What’s worth noting is not the Coerver Method, but Byer’s understanding that technique, skill acquisition, and ball mastery are foundational skills that all young players must learn if they are to achieve any amount of enjoyment out of the game. I use the word enjoyment and not success because football in America is framed in wins and losses at the youth levels at the expense of development.
In Japan, like Holland, Spain, and now Belgium, the whole dynamic of football at the youth levels isn’t about putting young players on a full-sized pitch and watching them chase the ball like a bunch of crazed terriers commanded by their masters (parents). Rather, Byer utilised Japanese media and cultural outlets to put himself and his teachings in print and on television for every child to have access to and to learn from weekly.
Tom Byer, like many coaches, learned that teaching technique must come before teaching tactics. In America, for example, I’ve often questioned how kids can enjoy a game, with all due respect, that many aren’t technically comfortable playing. By diverting the focus away from competition in the formative years and focusing on close ball control, situational creativity, a balance between moves that beat an opponent instead of moves that “look cool”, a generation of technically astute footballers has a chance to then become tactically proficient. I’m not suggesting every coach print a comic book spread or put themselves in a television time slot right after Saturday morning cartoons, but it might not hurt to have an inexpensive and accessible coaching model for young players to absorb.
By placing importance and accessibility on football development through media and away from the extreme pay-to-play model, Byer and many coaches around the world have a chance to motivate kids to place value in the technical side of the game. One lesson I learned abroad was the vigour and importance players my age placed on practice. To them, it was a valued time – an opportunity to learn something, away from the judgment of their parents, and to perfect their skill. In the United States, training is still seen as a chore; a time slot filler between school and SportsCenter highlights.
So, what can we learn from this American who revolutionised the JFA’s approach to football development, and who helped produce scores of professional players including Shinji Kagawa? The answer isn’t as farfetched as many looking to cash-in instead of developing talent might suggest.
Byer raised the baseline of youth football in a country where baseball was the most popular sport. Sound familiar? To become an elite player, a child must be resilient, open to learning, willing to fail, strong enough to accept criticism, have accessible and affordable coaching, and have a target to strive for so as to not become complacent thus stalling their own development. By raising the bar for the lowest talent pools and challenging the elite to be even better, Byer, like many of his European and South American counterparts, has tapped into one secret of producing a deeper pool of professional players.
However the takeaway here isn’t all about coaching; it’s about teaching kids to train on their own. In Japan, focusing on individual achievement in the academics is a pillar of cultural importance. Tom Byer put football on a similar level of value to a culture with an industrious work ethic – and he made it fun. An undeniable truth of this type of individual training, or getting 10,000 functional touches a day, is that it’s not fun all the time. It’s demanding both of time and energy and short on external praise. There is no trophy or ribbon. In good footballing countries, the kids don’t care – something American kids can hopefully learn to emulate.
The criticism is valid, however, and it’s important to note that until the United States produces players of the calibre of Hidetoshi Nakata, Shinji Kagawa, Shunsuke Nakamura, or Keisuke Honda, Japan’s football development is doing something that the U.S. Soccer Federation is not. The U.S. Soccer Development Academy, aside from the pay-to-play, amalgamation-based criticisms, stems from the age requirement being U13 for a team to even participate. This puts American-based players at least eight or nine years behind players in other countries in terms of focused, technique-specific training and reinforcing the value of individual supplemental training.
Youth soccer is the most popular participation sport in the United States, but the product seen on the pitch in Major League Soccer and for the U.S. Men’s National Team is technically deficient. Paraphrasing Byer’s own words, if the U.S. Soccer Federation and its dominant league would view grassroots soccer not as an obligation, but as an opportunity, the game would grow as it has in Japan. The American youth soccer landscape is a minefield that many parents and players must carefully navigate to ensure they receive quality training and opportunities. American sporting culture still praises what the rest of the world sees as standard with regards to accomplishments and tasks on the field.
For example, hard work, fitness, retaining possession, and displaying composure on the ball should be expectations and demands – not something to be lauded and pithily celebrated by a team of pundits who seldom “call a spade a spade”. You can hear it in the crowds at National Team or MLS matches, Clint Dempsey does a move that “looks cool” but leads nowhere and the crowd erupts. Jozy Altidore “posts-up” and manages to hold the ball and somehow that receives a raucous applause and commentator praise ad nauseam. Entertainment cannot come at the expense of quality. America needs to raise the bar.
Closing the talent gap with the world’s best is a challenge that requires better attention and accessibility for children to learn the game. For example, the Royal Belgium Football Association, under then Technical Director Michel Sablon looked at the state of Belgian football and prompted a revamp of how Belgian players were coached, developed, and marketed by looking at countries like Holland, not as neighbours, but as targets. The current crop of Belgium’s golden generation is merely the start of a bigger movement.
Under the restructure of its football philosophy, the coaches worked closely with urban planning committees to build “football cages” to promote football as an activity whilst producing players willing to spend hours playing on their own. Additionally, the Koninklijke Belgische Voetbalbond, (KBVB) built a National Football Centre in Tubize for the Rode Duivels to train while continuing to reach the affluent, middle class, first generation immigrant, and lower income talent pools. Football became part of the country’s culture and it tapped into what worked in other countries like Holland, which uses its limited space to stress small-sided games.
Sablon’s vision drove out the “win-at-all-costs” mentality that American coaches and players are guilty of banking on, for a more aesthetic and technically adept style of football that produces better players and a higher level of play capable of winning more matches.
If a player cannot control or manipulate the football at will, then how can he or she be asked to perform at the highest level? Based on feedback from academy coaches questioning my 10,000 touches article and its purpose in player development, many have concluded that all it produces are performing robots, which goes back to the cultural mindset and lack of value American players place on training. What is viewed as “extreme” in America is the minimum requirement in the best footballing nations – the entry fee, if you will. I highlight that this method was instrumental in the development of not one or two great footballers, but generations of great players.
The U.S. Soccer Federation may or may not live up to the demand as evidenced by the laughable and seldom-mentioned Project 2010 (USSF’s plan to win the World Cup by that year), so the onus lies on the coaches and players to educate themselves, be open to trying what works elsewhere and to think of progress as the need to create football players, not kids who play football. Football is as much a cerebral game as it is a physical game, so instead of placing kids on teams based on size instead of ability, place them in environments where they can thrive and develop.
Competence trumps complacency on the football pitch and players who have fun, are willing to challenge themselves, and have a system that works for them, not the other way around, are usually the ones who continue playing for the love of the game and have the talent to boot (pardon the pun).
By Jon Townsend. Follow @jon_townsend3