Tom Byer: On coaching licenses vs. culture, and prepping kids for organized soccer

Anson Dorrance has said Japan’s rise as a world power in women’s soccer can be attributed a lot to New Yorker Tom Byer, who has spent 24 years running youth soccer programs in Japan. Byer collaborated with U.S. Soccer after Dorrance recommended him to former Federation President Sunil Gulati. The project took place in the state of Washington, funded by the U.S. Soccer's "Innovate to Grow" program. Byer preaches that parents hold the key to creating skillful soccer players and provides methods for parents to encourage their children to play with the ball at home. He has recently been working in the USA, with the Houston Dynamo and Dash. The second edition of his book, “Soccer Starts at Home,” is set to be released in the coming weeks.

SOCCER AMERICA: Imagine you get in the elevator on the top floor, and a person asks you for advice on helping their child become a good soccer player, what would you tell them before you arrived on the bottom floor?

TOM BYER: I actually give the elevator speech more often than you can imagine! Of course, this will depend on the age of the child but assuming I’m speaking to a parent with a child U-6 who hasn’t started playing yet, it’s as simple as this:

Before your child crosses over the line into organized play, which is usually 6 years old, first grade, if he or she has learned the basic building blocks or core techniques such as stopping/starting, turning, cutting, changing direction and protecting the ball, that child will develop even when paired with an inexperienced coach or parent-coach. Facilitate falling in love with the ball first, the game second!

SA: Would your advice be different for a parent with soccer experience than for one without a soccer background?

TOM BYER: Not at all. In fact, I give the exact same advice to a parent who has played for their national team in a World Cup. Also, some of the best kids I’ve seen who have developed using our “Soccer Starts at Home” philosophy, their parents have never played the game. It’s the same advice to either parent.

Facilitating a love for the ball is the best line I can give to someone. I didn’t invent it. I read it when I was doing research about players for a series I filmed for a broadcaster in Australia. It was Neymar’s father who said it. Here’s the exact quote: “Typically children are not in love with soccer. They are in love with the ball. They play in the living room, in the backyard, on the street, anywhere. It doesn’t matter if it’s a narrow space, if it may break something. The kid wants the ball, and wants to play with a toy that can later become something serious, as happened with my son.”

SA: Going through your tweets, one caught my eye because it's something that's bothered me as well -- this soccer jargon trend of using numbers to identify positions. You mentioned coaches "referring to little kids as #8’s & #9’s." Please elaborate.

TOM BYER: Unfortunately, this has made its way into the vocabulary of many youth coaches these days. Many believe they are coaching Barcelona or Manchester City, I suppose.

The game has become so dominated with coaches so intrigued by systems and tactics that they forget they are coaching small kids that haven’t learned how to do a transfer of the ball from one foot to the other or do a simple 1-2 pass or a simple overlap. Yet they want to play the Barca way. No wonder, we’re not developing great dribblers of the ball anymore.

SA: You also tweeted that "most taxi drivers and waiters from strong football cultures could talk circles around most A licensed coaches ..." Can you clarify that? Have you actually spoken to U.S. Soccer A license coaches who impress you less taxi drivers and waiters?

TOM BYER: I’m intentionally being provocative trying to get people to think differently and make the connection between soccer cultures and the impact they have on society.

I have never said that “most taxi drivers can coach better than A-licensed coaches.” What I said was they could talk circles around most because, and this is what I meant, in these countries people are marinated in soccer. They eat, sleep, breath, talk, drink, watch and daydream about football.

It’s discussed in taxis, by restaurant owners and waiters, while getting your shoe shined, having a drink at a bar by a bartender, and many more places.

Of course, I have respect for coaches as I am one. And I have many A-licensed coaching friends who are great coaches. But when you see the level of discussion that takes place in the big footballing nations, it’s at a different level than the U.S.

Yes, we have people in the U.S. who are very knowledgeable about the game and who are extremely good coaches. But the reality is there are much better educated fans in those countries than we have in our own. That’s just a fact of life.

People who have not played the game in other countries can discuss soccer in detail.

SA: And the connection between the degree of soccer culture in a society and the quality of players?

TOM BYER: Look at what’s happening on the women’s side. We’ve got countries who have caught up so quickly to our women’s program.

The reason? These women are also marinated in a soccer culture. They watch football and talk about it way more than our young girls do. So what’s the result? They are much more tactically aware because they don’t only play the sport but they are huge followers of the game as well and discuss it way more.

This is a result of culture. Kids who both play and study the game are much better than just being a player. So when I use the metaphor of a taxi driver this could be just about anyone in Italy, Spain, Brazil, Argentina, Croatia, etc.

I have many friends from many different countries who have never played the sport but can talk circles around people who have played. When I say “talk circles” I mean they are so up to date with what’s happening with both their club team they follow and their national team.

They can talk about which players are performing well and which are not. They know the system and tactics they play and can compare different generations of teams they grew up around. This is a different level of culture. So just because the foreign teams sell out our stadiums in the U.S. doesn’t mean we’ve arrived as a true soccer nation. We have made great strides towards maturing as a nation. But we haven’t arrived yet, that’s certain.

I remember having Heather O’Reilly on SiriusXMFC Satellite Radio Show ["The Coaching Academy"] which I’m a regular guest on with host Glenn Crooks. Heather made the comment about her experience playing with the Arsenal Women FC. She was amazed at the culture and how much the women understood so much better because of the constant exposure to the football culture in England.

The reality now is that players who both play and study the game will be the best players. And this definitely shows by the rate of improvement of some of the countries that are really coming on strong from the women’s side from the soccer-cultured countries.

SA: When we spoke at the end of 2017, you were set to start a U.S. Soccer-supported “Soccer Starts at Home” program in Seattle. That never came to fruition. Would you care to explain why?

TOM BYER: Actually, the facts are there was a contract in place for six months between June to December of 2017 and we delivered everything that was asked of. We were tasked with developing a “Soccer Starts at Home” model that would be scalable to other parts of the country.

Our responsibility was to first convince both the Washington State Association and the Seattle Sounders that “Soccer Starts at Home” was a valuable program to partner with. We were to design a program to implement the pilot program in Washington State together, which we did.

Both groups were extremely excited to launch this program. We had 100% total support from both groups and these groups were just as surprised when U.S. Soccer decided not to go any further in implementing the second phase, the execution of the actual pilot program starting in 2018.

All I can think is the timing was not the best since the election for U.S. Soccer President was nearing and our pilot program was the baby of the previous President [Sunil Gulati], who is no longer there.

SA: The timing of the publicizing of the pilot program made it seem like it was a reaction to the U.S. failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, but it had started before that?

TOM BYER: The plan to actually start the pilot was decided way before, in 2016 when nobody thought the U.S. men’s national team would get knocked out of the World Cup.

And when they did get knocked out a well-known American soccer journalist called me in Tokyo to ask my opinion about being knocked out. He also asked me why I was not doing any work with U.S. Soccer and why our “Soccer Starts at Home” had not been embraced by U.S. Soccer yet. So, because U.S. Soccer hadn’t announced months earlier we had already started the project in Seattle, I had to go to U.S. Soccer and ask permission to tell the journalist that I was indeed working with U.S. Soccer and details about the program.

Because the program was revealed in the interview about the U.S. men’s national team getting knocked out, some took this to believe our pilot program was the result of the men’s team failing to quality. Nothing could be further from the truth.

SA: Have you received any interest from U.S. Soccer since?

TOM BYER: I have had a few calls from some top-level people from U.S. Soccer who are supporters and who have told me to be patient. To be honest, we’ve moved on and have no ill feelings toward U.S. Soccer. We hope that they are successful.

It’s all about timing as I’ve been around a long time and have enough experience interacting with as many as a hundred federations around the world. Federations are more of a bureaucracy and highly political. They’re not risk-takers, they govern the game and educate coaches along with other responsibilities. And the reality is although it’s nice to have the backing from a national body, it’s not the end all. U.S. Soccer doesn’t have any families under them.

SA: What’s the key to sending the message from organized soccer to parents how important it is to have children get experience with the ball before they sign up for soccer?

TOM BYER: The state associations and the various youth organizations do have families under them, and our program fits in the context of families, not teams.

We’ve got kids dropping out in record numbers these days. Our program addresses this problem of retention rates because we believe it’s not the very best kids who are at risk of quitting. It’s the least experienced kids who never developed properly who don’t have fun playing the game.

Yeah, people will argue it’s the coaches and the pushy parents, and those are also valid points as well. But I’ve seen many kids paired with a great coach who just don’t develop. I’ve also seen kids who are already pretty good because they’ve learned the basics at home who are paired with a really poor, inexperienced coach and those players develop well.

Children should be guaranteed a positive experience from playing sports. I just believe that the role of parents and family has been overlooked by the people who should know better, the national and state associations, youth organizations and the professionals.

Coaches are indeed very important but for me it’s the parents who can make a huge difference at the entry level.

SA: But you have been working in the USA, with the Houston Dynamo. Can you tell us about your project there?

TOM BYER: Brian Ching had read our book, “Soccer Starts at Home” and called me in Tokyo. We had a long discussion about youth development and Brian said if I was in the States again to please stop by Houston whenever I found time.

On my first visit, I presented to mostly Academy Coaches from the Dynamo and Dash and a few influential local coaches. This is usually the first step when visiting a professional team.

In February I returned for my second visit and met with all of the other top executives including the president. The club delivered on everything I asked for, including access to the media in order to start engaging the community. We are now in discussions on creating a long-term strategy and program centered around “Soccer Starts at Home.”

Houston is a key city in the U.S., perhaps the most diverse and, the fourth most populated. We look to establish a solid program with the Dynamo and Dash that could be replicated in other cities throughout the U.S.

Professional clubs are great to work with because they have full-time staff working with media, communications, sales and marketing, youth clubs, etc. They are connected to the community and have their finger on the pulse. It makes sense for them to facilitate “Soccer Starts at Home,” which will ensure the development of players in and around the Houston area. Who better to speak to the community than a professional club that is taken seriously when talking about development?

Our program will lift the quality of kids at the entry level of the sport so that the competitive and elite side of the game flourishes much better.

22 comments about "Tom Byer: On coaching licenses vs. culture, and prepping kids for organized soccer".
  1. Mike Lynch, April 11, 2019 at 9:23 a.m.

    Another great interview and article Mike! Amen, Amen, Amen! Comfort on the ball is key and primary. Tom's work in Japan and China is evidence of what results when the focus is on technical prowess over tactics in young players. I am reminded daily in my college team, "I can't solve tactically what you can't do technically!" Technique limits tactics. Technique empowers tactics. There are many great technical players who don't grow tactically to play at next level, but there are very few great tactical players (ie, make their impact felt in the game) who are not technically very proficient. Technique, technique, technique ... then the tactics become really fun!

  2. frank schoon, April 11, 2019 at 10:18 a.m.

    Good interview, good suggestions but I don't agree with what Tom states about soccer starting at home with the parents. Perhaps right now it begins with the parents because there is no STREET nor PICKUP SOCCER ,a CULTURE so to speak, and therefore, perhaps they can jump start the interest in their kid. I grew up in Holland right after the war and as kids we learned the game in the streets with totally ,I mean totally, NO parental involvement. As a matter of fact as a kid at Ajax we didn't even want our parent at our games. It was only much ,much later in our development parents might show up to watch. After the War,in those days adults had better and more important things to do  then worry about or take interest in their kids kicking a ball around. My parent's involvement was telling me that I better be home when the street lights are turned on or on time for dinner....This is how all the kids in Europe learned in those days. And fortunately there were no licensed coaches or coaches otherwise to interfere with the youth's development which as a result produced some greatest technical players and individualists in the world.
    Licensed coaches or the KNVB coaching academy produced their first 3 licensed coaches in '67 ,by then all the great players of players of Ajax of the '70's had learned their game in the streets.
    What has happened since is that kids that grew up playing with coaches around allowing to learning ,experiment, make mistakes are now being programmed ,told what to do, what you do wrong, placed in a structured team oriented environment which ,as a result has reduced creative play and technical skills. NEXT POST

  3. Bob Ashpole replied, April 11, 2019 at 6:13 p.m.

    Frank he is talking about soccer starting at home at 2 years old. As soon as my kids could sit up, I starting playing with a ball with them.

    While he talks about development on a national scale, he acts on the other end of the scale--starting with parents and their toddlers. 

    Before he came along, USSF was pushing doctrine in the E course that coaches should teach players the US 433 system stating at age 6 by assigning every player in every exercise to a position by number. I was aghast.

  4. frank schoon replied, April 11, 2019 at 6:20 p.m.

    Bob, Aghast isn't the word for it, it's worse than that. It only shows what idiots we have running US soccer.  There was no system when playing pick up ball. 

  5. frank schoon replied, April 11, 2019 at 6:29 p.m.

    Bob, I just got the book from Amazon " Sir Bobby Charlton', "my Manchester United Years.'
    Interesting to read his perspectives. To me there has no greater midfielder, he coud do everything..Cruyff put him on his all time world team

  6. frank schoon, April 11, 2019 at 11 a.m.

    As Cruyff stated that licensed coaches have ruined youth development. At Ajax the kids were trained by former players who knew the ropes of the game and who can demonstrate the various skills appropriate to level of play. You don't need any licensed coach,  for a licensed coach is there for team aspects and organization. Youth need INDIVIDUAL development which runs counter to what a coach does. A coach is known for his work with a team not with an individual. Anyone with a license, no matter how or good he/she is technically are allowed to train and coach players. Cruyff preferred only  good players to work with kids for they have also a better feel for the needs of a youth. It is like in reffing, a former pro player that goes into reffing can read the nuances of the game much better than someone who hasn't played much.
    Licensed coaches today, are not taught how to teach the love for the game or demonstrate various skills as related to the level of play. Today's coaches wouldn't know who Garrincha, Dzajic,etc was and what they were capable of doing with a ball. Instead what they do now is to teach or try to demonstrate Wiel Coerver moves. As I watch this little video, Tom's kids are programmed to do Coerver moves. Again it is PROGRAMMING.
    Coerver moves have been around since '83 and I have YET to see or hear of one player in pro soccer state doing the Coerver exercises made him the player he is. Coerver finally admitted before he passed away that his exercises were just that ,exercises.  What they all miss today in teaching technical skills is that in my generation born in the 40's and those of the 50's and 60's produced great technical players and that was NOT done by PROGRAMMED skill exercises which has no relation to the moment in a game. You learn the skills as is needed at the moment at hand. The particular skill needed at the moment is related , to the opponent and his position, his counter ability,  the position of your teammate, and the space you need to either acquire to perform the move and the continuity of play after move after...these are just some of the aspects which also continually change. Kids from those older generations when learning a skills also learn the other aspects at the same time, unlike todays kids who don't learn the total package instead are PROGRAMMED and disconnected to the game....

  7. humble 1, April 11, 2019 at 2:24 p.m.

    Good read.  I like Byers ideas.  Pay-to-Play clubs try to sell themselves as 'developers' of players - when in reality - soccer is no different from basketball, baseball, football or hockey.  No right-minded parent would take their kid to a basketball team if they couldn't dribble or shoot the ball or to baseball team if they couldn't catch and throw a ball or to a football team if they could not pass and catch, or a hockey team if they couldn't skate, but they will take their kid to a soccer team when they cannot dribble or pass a soccer ball.  All Tom is saying is that soccer should be treated by parents the same as our hand ball sports - teach your kid to dribble, juggle, pass and receive the ball before you take the to play on a soccer team.  It's not that hard and it will make their soccer exeperience much more fulfilling.  You would thinks this simple message would resonate - but - as Byer correctly points out - most Americans are green - we never played soccer - it's played with the feet - not the hands.  He trys to show how to teach basic skills at home.  No harm no foul, all good.  Thanks again!    

  8. Paul Berry, April 11, 2019 at 5:13 p.m.

    Let's start with teaching kids games they can play outside of the organized 7 vs 7 or 11 vs 11, games you can play with as few as 2 players or s many as you like. I honed my skillls in England playing games like 3 and in, or attack and defense, with sweaters or bags for goalposts or with full size goals. If we didn't have a soccer ball, we'd use a tennis ball or an aluminum can.

    I see so many soccer fields around the Kingston NY area totally devoid of children, who aren't used to playing pick up games. 

  9. frank schoon replied, April 11, 2019 at 6:15 p.m.

    Paul, what a waste, seeing those empty fields not being used. It is so important to establish a pickup culture ,here....

  10. Ken Garner, April 11, 2019 at 5:51 p.m.

    I wish kids did fall in love with the game in their own, Frank, like I fell in love with basketball. But their are too many distractions vying for children’s time; if parents didn’t load their kids’ schedules the kids wouldn’t be out playing ball, they’d be playing video games or watching YouTube or watching Netflix .

    My favorite takeaway from Tom’s philosophy is the importance of getting children comfortable with the ball as early as possible, in the crib if possible, and encourage them to play with the ball, honing their technical skills, from the time they begin to walk.

    U don’t have a position on coaching — I coachvavU6 team and I know I don’t have the skill to teach them technique — but if kids grew up side-by-side with a soccer ball, the way they do with baseballs and bars, basketballs and hoops, sticks and pucks or footballs, they’d enjoy the game much more when they started team play.

  11. frank schoon replied, April 11, 2019 at 6:13 p.m.

    Exactly Ken, kids learn from each other and by just doing. Ken ,it would help to even bring a 7 or 8 year old playing with your kids... 

  12. uffe gustafsson, April 11, 2019 at 7:04 p.m.

    Some of you sound like all dinosaurs, I learned to play with backpacks as goals. Really that make you a better player. If it wasn’t for organized soccer my daughter never would been able to play. We live in Oakland but there are not enough kids in our neighborhood to even put a 2 vs 2 game together. Only time to play street soccer was at recess at her school. We have no park that kids can go to after school. But what made this all possible was parents made a school team and all of us had to drive to an open field/park and let em play.
    the “coach” was a parent but mostly it was pickup game boys and girls at times played together.
    that is now what you all refer as street soccer and I personally don’t think it’s really that different.
    that said I always kicked the ball around with just me and my daughter since we the team only meet once a week. And I think that was what the article is about.
    what better father daughter relationship is when the two of us kicking the ball for an hour or more.
    she is now done with club soccer but we still when we get together go out and kick the ball.
    i hope I instilled the love of soccer so when the time comes her kids will do what we doing and continue play soccer.

  13. Bob Ashpole replied, April 12, 2019 at 10:24 a.m.

    I grew up when there was no organized youth soccer, so I guess I am a dinosaur.

  14. Richard Derella, April 11, 2019 at 7:49 p.m.


    You need to come back to USA to see up close what is really happening at the fields as opposed to what is said over the internet!

    Come and visit your Ulster buddies Rick & Dave, at Oakwood SC to see how the culture has progressed at our DA club. It is genuine, very organic, made from the ground up and dripping with soccer everywhere in and around all levels at the club.

    I promise you will enjoy, and Soccer does Start at Home!

  15. Tom Byer replied, April 11, 2019 at 9:05 p.m.

    Haha! I’m back a lot and watch a lot of Soccer! We all know where to go to find the best kids

  16. Tom Byer replied, April 11, 2019 at 9:05 p.m.

    Haha! I’m back a lot and watch a lot of Soccer! We all know where to go to find the best kids

  17. James Madison, April 11, 2019 at 8:10 p.m.

    Another super interview, Mike.  And, guys, U10 coaches who tell me they struggle to teach kids their positions, drive me NUTS.  Hey coach, I say,  your job is to nurture their love of the ball.  When their love of the ball is strong enough, they will solve the positional challenges.

  18. Tom Byer, April 11, 2019 at 8:46 p.m.

    Frank, injustnpresented to a group of 20 from Holland last week here in Tokyo with both Ajax and Feyenoord Academy people in attendance. They welcome “Football Starts at Home” for Holland as the quantity and quality of young Kids is going down. I am talking about infighting thebinterest from a young Child from a young age, 2-6. Of course everyone knows they need to be playing constantly. However, romantising about Kids playing out in the Street at young ages in the US or most other countries for that matter is just a past memory. Most parents can’t let their child out of the line of sight in a Super Market or Delartment Store. There is absolutely no downside in Parents engaging with a Ball from a young age. The best of the best all started at Home between ages 2-5 and attribute their love for the game from their Parents. This includes, Messi, Ronaldo, Neymar, Iniesta, Suarez, Pogba, Modric, Kroos, Lewandowski. In the States alone, 3 of the top Players all started inside the Home and Parents let, Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan, Christian Pulisic, and the list goes on. If I hadn’t worked with my 2 Boys before they crossed over the line into organized play they would have never developed into the Players they are today at 10 & 13 already. It just wouldn’t have happened. The Entry Level for the Game is crucial and the Parents are Key! 

  19. Tom Byer replied, April 11, 2019 at 9:06 p.m.

    Just realized all the auto spell mistakes in my comments! 

  20. frank schoon replied, April 12, 2019 at 9:53 a.m.

    Tom, I understand what you're saying about kids 2-6 having their parents involved. But I do think the level of parental involvement is indirectly related to the soccer culture of a country. In other words Countries like Holland ,Argentina, etc. for example need less parental involvement because of the marinated soccer culture. 
    True, about worrying about for your young child which is more of problem here than  in Europe.  Kids in Holland can pick up a bike and go play pickup soccer or just play in their neighborhood, an aspect you don't see here.
    As far as romanticizing my street soccer days which ,granted, are not like they are today, but my point is that once you have a soccer culture you really don't need parents of which I'm prove off.
    I saw your video of your kids and you've done a good job of it. And obviously it has helped your kids and i'm sure they were way ahead in their kinetic, technical movements with the ball comparatively at a young age. But that early dominance will not be maintained as the kids become older  even though the kids they are playing against didn't have the training your kids . The reason is as the kids get older more aspects of soccer become involved in playing the game. Like Cruyff states, that today kids are able to do more things with a ball than he can, but there so much more to soccer. This is why a player like Pulisic that you mentioned is sitting most of his games on the bench today....
    I do think what is not talked about in the development of the youth and likewise never mentioned ,not even by Coerver,which is the most important aspect of a youth's development is playing with Mixed ages like I did at street/pickup soccer. As a kid I was faced with older, faster, better players on one end of the spectrum and like the opposite as well. Your kids 10yr. old has benefitted playing  against the 13 yr. old.

  21. Bob Ashpole replied, April 12, 2019 at 10:36 a.m.

    Tom, I really appreciate what you are doing for the sport. It is discouraging when fans refer to US coaches and programs as inferior simply because they are from the US. Sometimes fans get so wrapped up in the pro game, that they lose sight of the real joy of soccer--playing of course. Best wishes for your continued success. 

  22. Kent James, April 12, 2019 at 12:31 a.m.

    Excellent interview, excellent program.  Love for the ball develops into love for the game.  Soccer culture is the missing ingredient needed for US Soccer success (though we're progressing).  In order to become proficient, kids must play outside of scheduled practice. Pick-up/street soccer also allows players to be challenged at their level of proficiency, outside of a high-pressured wins are important environment, so it is vital for both skill development and the development of a soccer culture.  

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