Following another disastrous World Cup qualifying campaign where they finished below Iraq and Jordan, the Chinese football association decided it was time to see what their neighbor Japan—a country that has made giant strides over the past three decades—was doing right. Yet rather than seeking out a national or J-League coach, they’ve turned to an American named Tom Byer, who wasn’t exactly a high-profile player and has never coached for a professional team.
By Matthew Hernon
An odd choice? Definitely not. The only youth coach to have won the Adidas Golden Boot award, he’s a pioneer of the game at grassroots level. Hundreds of thousands of kids have attended his clinics and academies including Man Utd’s Shinji Kagawa and World Cup winner Aya Miyama. In fact most current Japanese internationals have in some way been influenced by Byer, whether that be through one of his DVDs, weekday morning TV program, magazine columns, comic book corner or directly via one of his training clinics and camps. Such is his popularity here, that when he was coaching alongside legendary midfielder Zinedine Zidane, it was ‘Tom-san’ the kids sang most loudly for. So what is it that makes this coach from New York so special?
“Not to downgrade my status but there are better youth coaches out there,” he tells Weekender. “The thing is nobody knows who they are. We became famous because we used a media platform to deliver technical content that made football accessible to everyone. When I started coaching everything was focused on the elite. Gradually we started changing that thinking and you can see the results.
It’s sometimes claimed that a team like Brazil is successful because of some special DNA their players have. That’s crap. It’s because they work on their technique incessantly. Many have done their 10,000 hours by the time they’re 13.
“The women’s team are the current world champions, the men were a penalty shootout away from the World Cup quarter finals and have won three of the last four Asian Cups. This is a side that couldn’t score one goal during the 1988 tournament. So how have they turned it round? It has nothing to do with the top players, who I believe are no better now than the best players from 30 years ago. The difference is the talent pool is now much wider. The more children playing, working on their skills, the more chance you have of future success. It’s as simple as that, yet most federations around the world still don’t get it.”
“Everyone thinks to develop a nation you just need to send top coaches. (Jose Antonio) Camacho is given an eight million dollars a year contract to turn around China’s fortunes. He’s managed Spain and Real Madrid; surely he can help them catch Japan and Korea? Wrong, it doesn’t work like that. They lose 5–1 to Thailand and he’s gone. The only way you’re going to see a real shift is if you start bringing more youngsters into the game and lessen the gap between the best and worst players.
“I also think that kids should be coached when they are younger. The general consensus is that the golden age to attain technical skills is from 9–13. Before that is the ‘discovery phase’ when no coaching should take place and children are supposed to just fall in love with the sport. This is an incorrect assumption, a large number actually stop playing because they haven’t been taught and subsequently can’t do anything with the ball. Go to any park in the world and you’ll see fathers endlessly kicking the ball back and forth with their children, conditioning them to boot it indiscriminately. They should be learning how to keep and manipulate the ball. This is something any parent can do and I believe it can be taught to kids as young as two and three.”
Bursting with passion, Byer’s a difficult man to stop when gets on the topic of football. He first fell in love with the sport in the mid-seventies when he would visit his friend’s house and fiddle with the antenna on the roof, desperately trying to get a picture good enough to see the likes of Pele and George Best starring in America’s top flight.
Unfortunately his own career in the States never took off. Shortly after he began training with the Tampa Bay Rowdies the league went bust and Byer decided to try his hand abroad, firstly with English non-league side Leighton FC and then in Japan playing for Hitachi FC (now Kashiwa Reysol). Japanese football attracted little attention back then; however, Byer realized its growth potential and decided to remain in the country after retiring in order to coach kids. One of his early students happened to be the son of the President of Nestle, and he ran clinics that were sponsored by the company for 10 years with hundreds of children turning up to each one.
Coinciding with the advent of the J-League, he then introduced the Coerver coaching program to Japan. It’s a method based on the teachings of Wiel Coerver that places an emphasis on individual technique. It proved a massive success both on and off the training pitch. Parents, children and the media all loved it. Football began challenging baseball as the most popular sport for kids in Japan, with Byer leading the revolution.
“It just exploded,” he says. “I presented a skill’s corner on the number one children’s TV program (Oha Suta) for thirteen years. We appeared monthly in the manga comic CoroCoro which has a circulation of 1.2 million; I wrote regular articles for magazines and newspapers. We were also involved in the launch of the computer game Inazuma Eleven. On top of all that Tom-san’s Football Technics was the number one selling football DVD in the country.
“Our methods were simple, but incredibly effective; one ball, one player. It can be exported to any country in the world and is undoubtedly the biggest shortcut to developing a footballing nation. It’s about prioritizing technique so that kids are empowered to practice on their own. It’s sometimes claimed that a team like Brazil is successful because of some special DNA their players have. That’s crap. It’s because they work on their technique incessantly. Many have done their 10,000 hours (the supposed number of hours of practice required to achieve mastery in a field) by the time they’re 13. A country like Japan doesn’t have the same footballing culture; they don’t play on the streets here, so the media becomes a key component in terms of encouraging kids to practice.”
With things working so well in Japan, the American coach decided to branch out to other countries in Asia. T3, a company he launched in 2007, has opened academies in nations like Australia and Indonesia with India coming soon. An even bigger challenge presents itself in China, where Byer was recently named as the Technical Advisor for their School Football Program as well as the Youth Development Ambassador for Chinese Super League team Beijing Guoan FC after renowned journalist Ma Dexing wrote an article describing him as the “Godfather of Japanese football.” The question now is can he replicate what he’s done here across the water and become the Don Corleone of the Chinese game?
“It’s going to take time,” he says. “You don’t see the results of grassroots football for 15–20 years. That said, things are really starting to happen in China. The FA and the government, including their football-mad President Xi Jinping, are serious about making progress. The sport is now being taught as a compulsory discipline in 6,200 schools across 126 cities. That’s 2.2 million kids taking part in three hours of mandatory training a week.
“One of main jobs we have is educating parents, who see sport as a distraction to education, about the benefits of playing football. In order to do that we are placing an even greater emphasis on multimedia platforms: TV, 3D applications, microblogging etc, where we can communicate with millions regarding the policies of our programs.”
Byer already has 300,000 followers on the Chinese site Weibo, while Dexing (3 million followers) and former Everton player Li Tie (2 million followers) regularly repost what he writes. He’s received a lot of support from officials and fans around the country who are all desperate to see their national side catch Japan and Korea, though before that happens they need to start producing quality teams at youth level. If Byer can help them do that, he may just go down as the greatest grassroots football coach of all time.
Photos courtesy of T3