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.