I had the pleasure of speaking with Tom Byer, a tenured American youth coach whose work in Japan and China has made him one of the most recognizable names in youth football. Tom’s brilliant philosophies and coaching methods have affected thousands of kids across East Asia and beyond.
In Stephen R. Covey’s book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, he uses a story of a battleship to describe the power of a paradigm shift. It describes a battleship partaking in a training exercise – as night falls, visibility becomes low and the lookout reports to the captain that a light is approaching ahead. The ships are on a direct collision course. The captain orders the crew to signal for the other ship to turn – the other ship tells the battleship to turn.
The captain orders a reply with a signal indicating his own status as a captain. “I’m a seaman second class,” is the reply. “You had better change course 20 degrees.” Becoming impatient, the captain says, “Send, I’m a battleship. Change course 20 degrees.”
The flashing light replies, “I’m a lighthouse.”
The battleship changed course.
A Paradigm Shift of Youth Development
The recent emergence of a new player transfer market in the world of football has changed the game forever. Players are being bought for hundreds of millions of Euros – something many people thought they’d never see in their lifetime. With that, an increasingly intensifying focus has been placed on how these players are being produced. The usual answer is “He came from Barcelona’s La Masia or Ajax’s De Toekomst!” He knows the “Ajax way” or the “Barça way”. What if I told you that the development of the world’s next superstar is not all thanks to the club he or she plays for?
Think deeply for a second about your own ability to play the game of football. Are you good at controlling, dribbling, and passing the ball? Now think about your life as a child. Were you constantly on the streets with your friends playing football? Did you have a ball at your feet as soon as you were able to walk? Or were you elsewhere, reading or playing video games?
Chances are that the technical skills you possess now originate from your early childhood. If you were fortunate enough to be obsessed with the game from the moment you could physically kick a ball, your development began on the right track. If you took it further and practiced every day for hours on end, I can almost guarantee that you are a technically competent footballer.
Tom Byer’s Philosophy
Tom Byer has been a youth coach in Asia for nearly three decades. In that span of time, the former professional player from New York has affected the game in the region possibly more than any other coach. His youth clinics, coaching lessons, and many books have brought his ideas for youth development to millions. What’s so different about Tom’s ideas? “After being a technical coach for more than 25 years,” Mr. Byer told me, “I had a re-think about how we approach the game…I started realizing that there was a big gap in understanding of how development takes place.”
Tom-san (as he’s warmly referred to in Japan) believes that his slogan, “Football Starts at Home,” is the backbone to the development of any technically gifted footballer. “If you look at a lot of Latin countries that produce great players,” Tom explains, “they don’t get the coaching curriculums, manuals, experts, licenses, or finances correct. They get the culture right.” Lionel Messi, Neymar, Luis Suárez, Alexis Sánchez, and James Rodríguez all hail from different countries that fall under this umbrella. Their natural talents weren’t grown because of some spectacular youth facilities in Colombia or Brazil – their technique began developing even before the moment they ran out onto the streets and kicked the ball around with their friends.
Tom Byer’s teachings, which can be found in his book “Football Starts at Home”, stem from the premise that the technical skills developed by a player from the moment he or she can walk (~2-years-old) to around the age of six play a massive role in determining the ability of the player later in life. Sure, other factors like coaching, youth academies, and other cultural aspects play a big role as well, but without that early development, Tom argues there’s little chance that player actually becomes “technically competent”.
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Tom likes to mention how he’s read many biographies of famous footballers. The common theme he picks up from almost every book is that the player (Pelé, George Best, Ronaldo: you name it) had a ball at their feet from a very young age, and that ball rarely left their side. It’s about getting a feel for the ball, forming a foot-eye coordination considerably better than that of a kid who only started playing once they joined their school team.
“I was shockingly surprised at the lack of understanding of many [directors] who didn’t really quite understand how young kids develop.”
– Tom Byer
As I began to grasp what this means for the larger footballing picture, I started noticing many clear-cut examples everywhere. As I scrolled through a feature on Ajax youngster Sebastian Pasquali, a quote from his father read, “Seb was always interested in football. When he walked for the first time, he already played with the ball.” Perhaps an even more intriguing example is that of American sensation Christian Pulisic, whose father was a coach and had him playing with a ball from a very young age as well.
Not only are these fundamental truths of technical development represented in these stories, but also in what is wrong with our youth structure. In the same story about Pasquali, it is mentioned that the Aussie “began at a local team when he was six.” Tom Byer preaches that the core technical skills are developed between the ages of two and six. If Sebastian Pasquali hadn’t fallen in love with the ball before he joined his local team, that entire window of development would have been missed. Also, there is a much greater chance that a player who hasn’t developed his or her technical skills before joining a team will end up dropping out of the sport completely in 1-2 years.
Tom has traveled worldwide, presenting his ideas to technical directors in almost any country imaginable. “I have to be honest,” Tom admits, “I was shockingly surprised at the lack of understanding of many [directors] who didn’t really quite understand how young kids develop.” He explains that by no means are these leaders of confederations and national federations at fault, it’s just what they’ve been accustomed to – a constant flow of quality young talent. The young players don’t appear on these radars until they actually join a team anyway, so the initial player development is really just down to parents and playing at home. Rarely is there a spokesperson like Tom smart enough to connect the dots by looking backwards, at the very first stages of youth development.
People like Tom shouldn’t bear the sole responsibility of spreading the word to parents across the world. Federations need to begin implementing programs to teach parents about how to best prepare their kids for football. Think about it this way: parents begin preparing their kids for school way before even enlisting them into a school. They teach them how to act, how to speak, how to be creative, etc. If an ounce of this effort can be put towards preparing for football, many kids will become much more prepared.
This paradigm shift of an understanding of youth development was, at least for me, a lot to take in. I had been taught over the years that the best youth academies produce the best players, no questions asked. I had never paused to think about why exactly this was happening.
That’s not to say that academies aren’t important to the game – they certainly are. “The academies are good,” Tom points out, “They are finishing schools. They take the best and make them better.” If an average Dutch 12-year-old joins Feyenoord’s award-winning academy instead of that of a third division club, he still has the same level of skills. While – in the long run – that hypothetical player at Feyenoord would likely improve at a greater rate due to the higher level of coaching and importance placed on his career at an esteemed academy, the skills he developed before he even got to the academy are the building blocks. As the 1500’s proverb goes, you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.
The bottom line is that Lionel Messi was insanely talented before he set foot on a Barcelona training pitch. The club certainly developed him into the player he is today, but if the same teenaged Messi decided to join a lower league Spanish academy, he would still possess the great skills he had developed as a child. “Academies are a very important part of the ecosystem to becoming a professional player,” Tom urged, “but they’re not the end-all.”
A Structural Failure…Worldwide
“We say this is the world’s game, but we’re failing so many kids!” Tom recalls the fact that only eight countries have ever won the World Cup, with only a few being “serial repeaters” – Brazil, Germany, and Italy. What does this say about the gap in talent production across the world? “Most developing countries don’t get the first phase of the game right,” says Tom. He is referring again to the “technical component” of our beautiful sport.
How do we change the fact that a “majority of players are technically incompetent”? Tom Byer knows that the likes of Germany, Brazil, and Argentina will continue to produce world-class technical players, but they don’t have many programs in place that would allow for maximum development of skills from a young age.
Toni Kroos didn’t join his first youth team until the age of seven. Making parents aware of how to develop the technical skills of their kids is crucial – he often finds that youth development conferences are attended only by coaches, not parents. That needs to change if countries like the USA, England, or Japan wants to generate more technically competent players.
Tom believes that a lot of it is actually down to the culture of each individual country. He lives in Tokyo, Japan with his family; his kids practice nearly every day of the week for hours each day – something that Tom says American parents would never allow their kids to do. More to the point of pre-club development, kids across the world have been so consumed with video games from a young age that they aren’t spending much time outside with a ball at their feet.
It is obvious that many South American countries have the sport ingrained in their culture. Kid versions of Neymar and Messi not only began dribbling a ball as a very young child, but the sport likely consumed their entire life leading up to their emergence in the first teams of Santos and Barcelona, respectively.
Consider also the instances of two or three brothers all becoming amazing players: Bobby & Jack Charlton, Michael & Brian Laudrup, Frank & Ronald de Boer, Gary & Phil Neville…the list goes on. Even currently, we see Thiago Alcântara (Bayern) and Rafael (Barcelona) playing for two of the world’s best clubs. There is something else at play besides the fact that these brothers come from athletic families – they had to be brought up in a similar fashion. If you ask Tom Byer, he’d probably say that Mazinho (Thiago and Rafael’s father) had his boys playing footy from a young age.
A Practical Application
Even if we institute all of these concepts (accustoming your children to touching a mini-ball from the moment they can walk), there is still one missing factor. How will the kids react? When I was a young kid, I wouldn’t have wanted to work on my skills for hours a day, every day of the year. That’s why it has to become natural.
Tom Byer got his children into the game early, like he recommends, and he “started seeing that the more time they played with the ball when they were 2 to 3 years of age, the better they were becoming and the more engaged they were becoming. The more engaged they were becoming, the more they practiced. The more they practiced, the more fun they had. It all circled back.” Maximum time on the ball, maximum fun. That’s what Tom preaches.
One thing that can certainly spark this interest is the media. It plays such an important role in the lives of young kids during this century and Tom Byer understands that. He has a three-minute “technical corner” on Chinese TV every single day – a program on Channel 1 that could potentially reach millions of viewers at a time. This is a massive step up for youth development in the East Asian region; if youth development starts with technical aspects, we are setting ourselves up for success.
In other countries across the world, I believe this needs to become the standard. The romanticism of hard work, passion, and belief in oneself in order to succeed can be motivating, but it simply won’t churn out world-class players alone. A certain level of technical understanding within football communities is a must, not only in countries like the United States, but countries everywhere.
Connecting Dots and Shifting Paradigms
“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. Because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart even when it leads you off the well-worn path, and that will make all the difference.”
– Steve Jobs
Tom Byer is not a man who partook in years of strenuous research to find the key to developing good football players; he simply observed how youngsters were trained within his community, thought about why we were failing to develop technically competent players and took action. He understood, like Steve Jobs, that in order to look forward and improve on what we know, we must connect the dots by looking backwards. Tom’s teachings have shifted my paradigm of youth development. I hope that his philosophies will inspire you to take action and to improve the beautiful game for everyone.
Special thanks to Tom Byer for giving EiF Soccer the opportunity to create this very important article. Tom is a truly genuine man, and his willingness to take time from his busy schedule to do this is a gift we are truly thankful for.
If you’d like to stay updated with his work, follow Tom Byer on Twitter (@tomsan106). As mentioned before, his book Football Starts at Home is available in many countries across Europe, North America, South America, and Asia.
Featured image provided by todayonline.com.