Tom Byer, an innovative American soccer coach who helped develop a generation of technically skilled men’s and women’s players in Japan, is finally going to work for U.S. Soccer in the United States. And in the wake of the U.S.’s failure to qualify for the men’s World Cup, Byer’s long-awaited return to America could cause a sea change in the way young soccer players develop their skills around the country.
Byer, who lives with his family in Tokyo, is in Seattle this week after signing a contract with U.S. Soccer to run a pilot program in conjunction with the federation, the Seattle Sounders and the Washington Youth Soccer association. Byer is devising a strategy called Soccer Starts at Home to establish his philosophy of focusing on the parents of soccer-playing kids between the ages of 2 and 6.
The program focuses on preschool children developing the love of keeping the ball close and gaining confidence with ball skills through meetings, clinics and educational sessions with parents.
“If this pilot is successful,” Byer says, “it could serve as a model for the rest of the United States.” His trip this week is his second to Seattle after he made an initial visit in July.
Byer’s pilot program is one of 13 initiatives in 12 states that U.S. Soccer has approved for its Innovate to Grow Fund, which is providing up to $3 million to help members launch new programs to stimulate growth.
A New York native, Byer, 56, finished his playing career in Japan in 1989 and went on to become a legendary figure there in grassroots youth soccer development. Known as Tomsan, he established more than 60 soccer schools in Japan, taught clinics, made regular appearances for 13 years on Japan’s top children’s TV program and had a regular coach’s corner in a popular comic book.
“All of these are what I like to call delivery mechanisms,” Byer told SI.com this week. “They’re delivering the message that if you want to be a good soccer player, it all starts with the technical component.”
Japanese stars like Shinji Kagawa, Aya Miyama and others have credited Byer for helping improve the technical skill level of the Japanese men’s and women’s teams as they have risen to prominence in world soccer over the past 15 years. (The women won the World Cup in 2011.)
“I’m a technical coach,” Byer. “There’s a big difference between a technical coach and a coach of a team. I don’t coach teams. I don’t have training every week and have the same players and go out and compete for results. I started specializing in technical training, which is to try and improve individual players. I spent a couple decades working in the Under-12 age group, which is elementary school age kids in Japan.”
Not long after Byer and his wife, Midori, had the first of their two sons (Kaito and Sho) 11 years ago, Tomsan said he had “an overall rethink” about the development process based on his experiences with their two sons from the time they could walk. He also studied top soccer players from different generations and noticed a common thread: They often attributed their success and technical development to their parents.
“Now I’m committed to going around the world and engaging people about the important role that parents play,” said Byer, who has also been hired by the Chinese ministry of education to scale up a massive development program in that nation’s schools. “I often do big events in China and other places. This is what I’ll do in Seattle as well. It’s about engaging parents and going directly to them. We’ve created a bit of a disruption, which is a good thing.
“I think what’s happened is soccer hasn’t caught up with what science really knows,” Byer continued. “Kids can start acquiring technical skills from a much earlier age. That’s usually not going to happen unless there’s an engagement by parents. It’s not happening with coaches. That’s kind of my whole thing. This isn’t really popular to hear sometimes with coaches, but the reality that I have found is that technical skills are rarely the result of coaching.”
Byer likes to point out that while there are 211 countries in FIFA, only eight have ever won the men’s World Cup, and of those eight only three are serial winners: Brazil, Germany and Italy.
“If you look at what’s happening in those countries, I’ve found there’s really no specialized training going on for children at that young age. The reality is those countries’ cultures are very conducive to developing players. Nobody has really put it under the microscope. What I’ve done is in real time I have made a reality project of documenting what my two boys could do from the time they could start walking and documenting to video. I’m showing: What can you expect a 2-year-old or a 3-year-old to do? What’s the difference between what a 3-year-old can do and a 5-year-old?”
To Byer, it shouldn’t be rocket science that a soccer education would be like a school education: Kids who come from a culture at home that values education will usually be the ones who excel in school.
“It’s the same thing with soccer,” he said. “This is the missing link to what’s happening in the United States. If you go out to many parks throughout the U.S. on any given weekend, you’ll see them filled, usually with parents, and they’re basically kicking the ball back and forth with their 3-, 4-, 5- or 6-year-old. So they’re conditioning them from a young age that it’s a kicking game.
“What I say as a challenge is: Kicking shouldn’t be the first technique you teach a kid,” he continued. “In fact, it’s detrimental to them. If you take a soccer ball and give it to a little Latin kid and try to dispossess the kid by lunging at him to try and take it away, he’ll either pull the ball back or he or she will try to beat you. Now you give that ball to a typical American kid or Canadian kid or Chinese kid and challenge them for the ball, and they’ll either bend over and pick it up or they’ll kick it and chase after it and freeze.”
Byer hopes he’ll be able to scale up his program in the U.S. the way he’s already doing so in China.
“I’m seeing now that in the future, if there’s any shortcut to this sport for a country, I think I’ve found it,” he said. “What does that mean? This is what it means for U.S. soccer: There’s 23.7 million children under the age of 6 in the United States. Nobody is talking to that group. Imagine in China where I work, or in India: They have 100 million kids under the age of 6. I know for a fact that before a child ever crosses over that line into organized play at the age of 6, if he or she has a certain degree of technical competency, that’s the game-changer.
“We call this the world’s sport, and we’re failing millions and millions of kids,” he added. “Because the reality is the majority of kids that play the sport, they’re technically incompetent. Not good enough. They’ve never mastered the skills of a player. Then you’ve got some crazy coach trying to get the kids to play some systemic tactical formation. But they can’t do the math. It’s tantamount to taking a kid and throwing them into geometry or trigonometry or algebra when you’ve never offered the class for adding and subtracting.”
For years, as Byer has become a respected figure in Asian soccer, he has been asked why he hasn’t done any work in his home country, the United States. Now that’s finally going to change in Seattle—at the exact moment U.S. men’s soccer is going through it’s most embarrassing moment.
“The idea is to put a plan in place,” he said. “That’s why I’m going on this trip, to have more meetings with the Sounders and the state association and U.S. Soccer. This is very important to understand: There are three major stakeholders in U.S. soccer: The national body, MLS and the state associations. My overall plan is to position our concept as the glue, the stickiness to actually bring people together rather than to divide people. Not just in the United States, but in many countries these different groups are pulling in different directions. So I’m hoping this can be something everyone can come together on.
“We need more parents engaged. We need kids that are more technically competent before they step over that line into organized play.”