It’s our first ever radio show! We’re moving from long form writing to a 1-hour weekly radio program here on 2SER. Each week we’ll do: match analysis and talk about issues within the game such as coaching & development.

In this episode we hear from Ann Odong from The Women’s Game to talk about the W-League. Pre-eminent development expert Tom Byer discusses how to develop technical players and Kate Cohen, Leopold Method’s Football analyst, looks at the first round of the A-League.

Click here to listen on iTunes.

Part 1

(Interview begins at 25 min 52 sec)

Richard Parkin: You’re listening to the Leopold Method Show on 2ser, your home for intelligent, insightful football analysis. Today we’re joined on the show by Tom Byer, who is considered one of the world’s pre-eminent experts in youth technical development. Tom arrived in Japan from the United States 29 years ago to play for Hitachi FC… Kashiwa Reysol in the J-League, and would go on to help shape Japan’s youth development system in the years that followed. After retiring in 1989 Tom Byer went on to set up 60 football schools for Coerver Coaching Asia and gained a celebrity status in Japan after having his daily Tom-San soccer techniques segment on Japan’s most popular morning show for thirteen years. He also incidentally featured in Japan’s number one manga comic book series. He now runs his own academy, the t3 Academy, which can be found in Japan, Indonesia, China and now Australia. He is FIFA Adidas Golden Boot recipient for his contribution to youth football in Asia, and he joins us now live in the studio to discuss youth technical development. Welcome Tom.

Tom Byer: Thank you, it’s good to be back in Sydney.

RP: Look, let’s start with something easy, explain to our audience the concept of ball mastery.

TB: Well, the whole idea is football is a highly technical sport, and unfortunately it takes a ridiculous amount of time to practice to become good. We find that especially at the very young ages, players need to be competent technically. If you kind of look at it like reading and writing for education, those are basically the building blocks, or even the alphabet, or if you look at music its the scales. In football its the technical side. Once a player has basically formed that technical foundation, that’s when you build all the other parts of the rest of the game. So its very crucial that people understand that if you want to be a good football player it all starts with technical development and ball manipulation is really this kind of word – lots of touches on the ball, repetition, unopposed, practice or pressure, especially when we’re talking about the very young ages. A lot of people talk about the 10,000 hour rule, but if you do the calculus and the math it doesn’t add up if a kid’s just playing two or three times a week on his club team, so there has to be a certain amount of commitment for a player to practice just on their own. So these are some of the philosophies that we have.

RP: You were heavily influenced by the methods of Wil Coever and the Coever coaching method which focuses on specific skills acquisition. What originally drew you to this method and how did it change your view of coaching?

TB: Sure. Back in the early 1990s, Paul Mariner, who was a striker of England in the 1982 World Cup, he’s a very close friend of mine, literally almost like brothers. We speak almost on a daily basis. Paul Mariner was the one that got me interested in the technical teachings of Wil Coever, and when I saw the videos at first, I fell in love with the whole philosophy, the whole concept. Seeing these small children that could do things with the ball that most senior players couldn’t do. So what I did was I orchestrated a group inside Japan to actually bring this methodology to Japan, and that was back in 1993-94. That’s how I first got involved in it and then I found someone who took the program to Japan and then basically to the rest of Asia. Although there is a major major difference between the program in Japan and the rest of the world, only because the guy that actually invested into the concept lives in Japan. So you really can’t compare it to anywhere else in the world. Here in the olden days, Football NSW was actually the licensee for Coever back in 1997, so I was actually one of the original guys who came here to train all those coaches. Some of them, even guys like Kelly Cross, who was on Football Australia, was on the first ever course that I did, and lots of other coaches. So there is a little bit of history from myself as well here with the Coever program.

RP: Looking at how young players should start on this pathway towards technical development, you’ve said from ages 2-5. Is that too early, why do you think it’s important for kids to start at that age?

TB: This is a whole new philosophy that I actually came upon that has really, to be honest with you, nothing to do with even the Coever side. What happened was is I got married quite late in life when I was 42, and we had our first child when I was 46. And I wanted to see what I could actually do with my own kids, because most coaches are coaching other people’s kids. And it was a bit of a fluke of what happened, but I was doing a big event for one of my sponsors and because of my media presence in Japan, I was signing autographs  for these very tiny little balls, and my first son Kaito had just started walking and a lightbulb went off in my head: small ball, small foot. I ordered 16 of these little balls to my house from my sponsors, and I put three or four balls in every room in the house. From day one, what I did was, when my boy would go up to address the ball, I would discourage him from kicking it and I would encourage him to do what we call ‘ball manipulation’. And from that experiment so to speak, is where I developed for these last several years, this whole concept and really figured out there’s a bit of a black hole in football development, and what happens is that 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 year old age group is completely ignored by the professionals and by the federations. And the reason that these footballing cultures, which I think there are a handful of, the ones that win World Cups – Latin countries specifically – that development for a 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 year old becomes a very natural setting. Because it’s a footballing country, every little kid from the time that they can walk has got a ball at their foot. At the non-footballing cultures that doesn’t exist, but I believe – and I’ll show you later, because I’ve taken this presentation to many places including the English Federation – that I’ve figured out and I’ve seen you can actually develop this in very very small children. Now you fast forward, I’ve got two boys – 5 and 8 – and both of them are completely two-footed. I do believe now, and I’ve shown this to many experts, that this has been overlooked.

RP: Well that taps into something else which is the enjoyment factor. So we talk about, if we’re going to get kids as early as 2 into a game, that’s a long training history, and how important do you think this idea of enjoyment and fun in a kind of less structural, formalised environment is? Will this keep children in the game for longer?

TB: Absolutely. It brings them into the game, because there’s very few sports that you can take a 2, 3, 4, 5 year old and start nurturing them, first of all. Second of all, you hit the nail on the head – it’s the fun factor and kids, it’s just a fact, play sports because they like to have fun. So what I found from this research so to speak with my own kids was that if you can get a child from a very very young age who can master this art of ball manipulation and they feel comfortable on the ball, that is the motivator and the fun factor for the kid to practice on his own. If you look at what they call the 10,000 hour rule, which to me is really just a code word for ‘intense practice’, if you do the calculus, you can see that that time, if you play on a club team two or three times a week, the mathematics doesn’t add up to the 10,000 hours. So it’s a very provocative statement but the former captain of Manchester United Roy Keane, he put it perfectly, this is what he said: “Skill was, and never will be, the result of coaching. It’s a love affair between child and ball.” So it’s provocative, but thats really what the crux of it is. Can you get the player? I say you can if you get them young enough at 2, 3, 4, 5 age.

RP: Many people in Australia – I grew up in a small country town where we didn’t get exposed to a lot of great coaching so warm up was run to the tree, come back, and then session was play a game and then maybe we would finish with some shooting drills. Now my whole life has been technically horrific. If you’re looking at the gap between the very worst players at the grassroots level and the elite players, how do you breach that?

TB: Yeah, and that’s what the real big question is, and I think that’s why you’ve seen countries like Japan make a big paradigm shift and jump. When I first went to Japan, the best players that were playing on the national team back then were just as good as the players today, [but] there were fewer of them. So once you can bridge that gap, what happens is that everybody talks about and focuses to much on the elite players, but if you think about it, the best way to make an elite player better is by making the worse player better. That player is the one who pushes those elite players. To make it a little bit more simpler, just imagine that you’ve got twenty 8 year old players and two of them are dynamite and the other eighteen aren’t technically competent. Those two competent players, they don’t have any competition they’re not pressed when they come to practice, they know that even if they miss practice the coach is going to play them every weekend, so in Japan we’ve been able to bridge that gap because we focused on trying to make the overall standard level of technical players very good. You know, if you look at even regular education, the difference between education and sport is if your son is doing badly in a subject, what do you do? You hire a tutor, mum and dad help with the homework, stays after school. Only in sport do we deem the kid not good enough, we discard them, and the only kid that gets the extra training is the elite player. So if you figure that out and you realise that you have to be focusing on the worst players, because they’re the ones that push the best players, and it’s kind of upside down.

RP: How important do you think, then, is the aspect of competition? So you’re saying it’s about that peer network, that peer relationship. If you’re isolated as an elite player growing up you don’t get that benefit. Once you’ve got kids that are enjoying the game how important is the competition from their peers to drive them?

TB: Yeah it is. I’m saying, you’ve got to really draw the line and the distinction between these 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 year olds and then above. What I’m proposing is that for these 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 [kids] there should be very little pressure if any at all, other than playing fun games, if they’re learning the techniques isolated. But of course, yeah, I mean you know once you start developing older players… the thing is this, other parts of the game other than the technique: vision, tactically being smart, these are only by-products of having good technical ability. You can’t have one without the other. So to answer your question, yeah it’s very important, and that’s why we set up so many schools in Japan because they became like little mini training centres. If you’re playing on a team – and football is a hit-or-miss depending on where you live – you have a good coach, or a bad coach, or a not as good coach, and more often than not you don’t have a good coach. So we’re able to bridge that gap by basically bringing lots of players together where they would not normally be exposed to playing with better players, but they do in our schools.

RP: So a better peer environment is also important. What about parents? How do we encourage parents to place importance on this technical development for young children?

TB: It’s funny, when I go around the federations and talk to people I say – and even in Australia to be honest with you – it’s not as much a major coaching problem, it’s a culture problem. The culture is the parents. So three things that I leanred from this experiment with my kids were this. One: If you can get a small boy to habitually play with a small ball inside the house, that’s one. Two: If you can get mum to accept the fact that he’s going to play with the ball in the house, and three, get dad to stop encouraging him to kick the ball all the time. Those three are the only, now if you can get that and grasp that concept, you’re halfway there.

RP: It’s a pretty good starting place. Well you’re listening to the Leopold Method Show on 2ser, we’re speaking to youth development expert Tom Byer, we’ll be back with a bit more just after this.

Part 2

RP: Welcome back you’re listening to the Leopold Method Show in 2ser, your home for intelligent, insightful football analysis. We’re talking to our guest Tom Byer on how to improve the technique of youth footballers. Now Tom, why should every training session have a technical component in it?

TB: I believe because, again, to become good technically, there needs to be lots of repetition. If you look at for example the game played at the highest level, and you watch a professional match or a national team match, you’ll find that in football there’s on average over 200 1v1 sequences in a game. So if you understand that it’s a very technical game and very 1v1 driven, then obviously it makes sense that you’ve got to have better technical players, you have to have players that can take players on. Nowadays, the game has become so fast that it’s not even 1v1 anymore, we’re talking about 1v2, 1v3, you’re talking about, you know, the game has become very quick. So it’s very important to [have] the knowledge that the players with the best technique, they have more space, they have more time and thats where you can really get that understanding of the game. Players that have good technical skills understand combination play better, and it just kind of all comes together.

RP: So we’ll get into some of those wider tactical systems later but  how do you teach 1v1 skills?

TB: Well, I think it’s, you know for example in my schools, when we have a training session, there’s always the 1v1 component and if you break it down to what 1v1 is, there’s what I categorise as three different situations in a 1v1. One is where the defender is in front of you, one is when the defender is on side of you, and one where the defender is behind you. Often strikers and attacking players play most of the game with their back to goal. So if you understand this, that component of variations of 1v1, then you know how to train kids better. In our schools and in our training sessions, we’re always having those 1v1’s where we’re having it from behind, from the side, with players in front of you. And then if you break it down and put it under the microscope even more, you find that to become a good 1v1 player it’s kind of three components. One is the first touch, second is speed of the action and then third is actually the technique. So if you understand this as a coach, it obviosuly makes it much more simple to teach.

RP: Looking at the National Football Curriculum we have in Australia, it’s based very much on a Holistic approach to training, looking at games, games based training. What’s your thoughts on games based training and developing the training techniques of young players?

TB: Again, it depends on what age group we’re talking about. The Australian football association [FFA], their national curriculum is not really that much different to a lot of other curriculums throughout the world, but again it comes back to the beginning of the conversation, and what happens is that very young age group – 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 – in the eyes of all Federations (I would blanket all of them), they don’t exist, they don’t come in because they’re not on the radar screen yet because they’re not playing. Here in Australia, which I’ve read, again, very very typical of most other federations they have what they call the ‘Discovery Phase’ where they believe that between 6 and 9 – they characterise players at that age as having a lack of motor skills, lack of concentration, being clumsy, lack of focus, that they believe that basically kind of cede and give up on that age group and believe that it should be much more geared towards fun games related to football. That’s where I believe, and I’m not trying to be critical, but just trying to expose a little bit more, this philosophy where you can’t ignore that age group. Not only 6-9 is a very important developmental stage for technique, but it’s even below that for the 2, 3, 4, 5 age group. What I’m actually proposing is really going against the grain of almost everybody, because between that 6-9 age they don’t believe in technique and skill aquisition. What I’m saying is that it’s lower. Now of course, you know, Federations, you know this is such an open ended question, because there’s so much curriculum and there’s so many different age groups that you would have to isolate, but it’s a big question to comment on these National Curriculums because it’s such a body of work and it’s basically best practices that dictate what they put into place.

RP: It’s a debate we seemingly keep coming back to: Is it a Holistic approach or is it about isolated techniques especially in those age groups of 6-9 that you mentioned? What you’re talking about, does this conflict with a Holistic approach or can the two approaches work simultaneously?

TB: I think they could work simultaneously. This is the question you have to ask: why the poorest countries in the world and the least educated countries in the world, that don’t have any National Curriculum, produce the best players? Australia is very similar to the United States as well where they for some reason have taken a complete academic and a scientific approach sport and football – which I think is important when you get to the very very high levels. Because at the highest level you’re assuming that every player is technically competent, but what I’m saying here is – and this is a blanket statement as well – that 80 to 90% of most kids that play football are technically incompetent. And that’s the reality of it. I’m not sure if I’m answering your question good enough but these are just some of my ideas and thoughts. I don’t really like to be critical of Federations because there’s so much effort and resources going into trying to change the game in a country like Australia. At least people are putting out these National Curriculums because it’s giving best practices to inexperienced coaches. There has to obviously be some kind of standards that you have to live up to when your a coach and doing coaching badges and things, but like I said, you just gotta scratch your head and figure out why the countries that don’t have these scientific academic approaches develop the best players.

RP: You’re listening to the Leopold Method Show. If you’ve just joined us on 2ser we’re speaking to Tom Byer about childhood development in football. Now, do you feel there is an over-emphasis on teaching children tactics and systems? What age should this come in?

TB: I believe that… put it this way: the players make the systems, the systems don’t make the players. Unless again, you have players that are technically competent it’s very difficult to try to play a certain system or a tactic or a formation. Those systems, formations and tactics are dependent upon the individual players that you put into those systems. If you understand that, and again, getting back to that so called 10,000 hour rule, I believe that 12 and below should be purely focused on the technical teaching should take precedence over all other parts of the game. It has to be the standard, the foundation upon which you build all the rest of the game on. When you get into what you call the junior youth level in Japan, whether it be 13, 14, 15… has anybody ever seen a player where you say, ‘man that kid is tactially aware but his technique is horrible’?

RP: That was me.

TB: Yeah [laughs].

RP: Thank you for joining us on the Leopold Method Show.


*Recorded 12th October 2014