By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Oct 27, 2017) US Soccer Players – He’s a household name in Japan, and increasingly so across East Asia as he’s spread his particular gospel of youth development to China and points further afield. Yet in his native land, Tom Byer is the soccer equivalent of a rare import record, or perhaps a bootleg mixtape. He’s recognized and revered by a relatively small hard-core demographic. That may be about to change, and US soccer stands to benefit greatly.
A New York native, Byer has spent the past three decades or so in Japan, where he founded a network of youth soccer schools after the close of his own brief playing career. Through a combination of hard work, clever messaging, and serendipitous timing, his philosophies became a smash hit across the nation. His face and name are in comic books and on kids shows.
Byer’s fundamental message: Great players are made not on the practice field, but in the home, and not by coaches but parents – and at far earlier ages than conventional wisdom would suggest.
“Technique is the foundation,” said Byer in a 2015 appearance on the 3four3 podcast. “You have to have the technical component. Because you can be the best coach in the world and there’s very little you can teach a kid if they have no technical competency. “A majority of kids that play the game – I’m talking about the 7, 8, 9, 10-year-old age – are technically incompetent. They’re just not good enough technically. So they’re missing an entire part of the development phase. It’s tantamount to putting your kid directly into an algebra, geometry or trigonometry class and nobody’s taught the kid how to add, subtract, multiply or divide.”
Nowadays, Kids don’t master the basics of most sports. You see it in the numbers of kids dropping out at early ages. Lots of reasons why.
— Tom Byer汤姆.拜尔•トムバイヤー (@tomsan106) October 24, 2017
The US Soccer Federation announced this week that Byer will lead a pilot program called “Soccer Starts at Home” in conjunction with Washington Youth Soccer and the Seattle Sounders. It, along with 13 other grassroots projects around the country, is being supported by a grant under the federation’s new “Innovate to Grow Fund,” a way to direct some of the Fed’s enormous budget surplus towards the growth of the game.
If successful, “Soccer Starts at Home” – also the name of a book written about Byer’s methodology in Japan – could mark an influential new front in the long-running struggle to tap into the United States’ enormous population of young soccer players. By now the numbers are all too familiar to most readers. More than 3 million American kids register to participate in organized youth soccer leagues annually, with even more taking part in informal play. Yet those large-scale participation levels simply do not manifest themselves at the other end of the development pipeline in terms of the volume and quality of professional and international-caliber prospects.
For Byer, the key answer to this conundrum lies not in bigger and better youth competitions or changes at the pro level. It starts, almost literally, in the cradle.
Byer says the breakthrough in his own understanding came when he became a parent himself. While autographing a mini-sized soccer ball, it occurred to him that it would make a much better toy, and learning tool, for his first son, who at that time was just beginning to walk. So he ordered a case of the mini balls and put one or two in every room of his house, encouraging his child not to kick them, but “manipulate” them – to learn true mastery of the ball.
“I could see just how quickly they became two-footed. I could see how quickly they fell in love with the game, because they found that they had some ability at a very, very young age. And then it all started to come together for me,” he said of his two sons. “I started figuring out that we’re teaching the game incorrect from day 1.”
American soccer tends to respond to setbacks like this year’s World Cup qualifying disaster with “space race”-type solutions. Blueprints! Master plans! National youth curriculum! Project 2010!
In contrast, the greatness of Brazil, Spain, Italy, and the like is nurtured in youth environments that are strikingly unstructured. The soccer cultures of the global elite feature a widespread devotion to the sport at the familial level, where parents, no coaching gurus, build the foundation.
“Those cultures are so ingrained in football or soccer that the parents, the fathers, are indeed the game-changer for the kids,” said Byer. “And if you look at any of the great players, whether it’s Ronaldo, Messi, Pele, Cruyff, the list just goes on, and you’ll find that 99.9 percent of these great players attribute their technical ability to who? It’s their fathers. It’s not the coaches.
“Basically we [coaches] inherit the good players,” he said. “These kids, the reason that they’re so good, it’s not so much of what you’re doing in that school as much as it is what they’re doing away from the organized training sessions.”
Nobody in Japan doubts the influence of Byer’s work as a factor in that nation’s dramatic rise in the world landscape. That rise includes the Women’s National Team winning the 2011 World Cup and the Men qualifying for seven straight World Cups and winning four Asian Cups. A testament to the work he’s done is that China brought him in to help develop their youth soccer setup.
Whether by simple chance or the US’ failure to recognize the value of a native son, Byer’s influence is most felt in Asia. Though work of his sort takes years, even decades to manifest itself, it’s highly promising to see him finally come home to lend a hand.
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