KENYA BROWN - Tuesday, August 20, 2013
Grassroots soccer coach Tom Byer has etched his name into Japanese soccer as his methods have helped inspire many of its top players at an early age, and make him a highly sought after coach throughout Asia.
Japanese internationals Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda are two of the most well known soccer players in world soccer at the moment to come out of Japan. Plying their trades with Manchester United and CSKA Moscow respectively, the midfield duo has become vital to the success of the Japanese men's national team in Asia, having helped the Samurai Blue claim the 2011 Asian Cup in Qatar and qualification for the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil.
The team has also become competitive on the world stage as they finally made a breakthrough at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa by becoming the first Japanese team to qualify for the second round away from home soil.
If one were to speak with Kagawa, Honda or any of the current crop of Japanese players playing in Europe or in Japan's J. League, they would most likely credit grassroots soccer pioneer Tom Byer for being a great influence on their careers.
Known throughout Japan as Tomsan, the New York native has been the catalyst in Asia's growing grassroots soccer movement. However, before Byer even thought of pursuing a career in youth coaching, he was just seeking an opportunity to become a professional player himself.
After finishing his college career at the University of South Florida, the former Mid-Hudson Player of the Year would become a reserve player with the Tampa Bay Rowdies of the North American Soccer League. However, with America's top division in decline and eventually folding by the mid 1980s, Byer would receive the opportunity to become a professional soccer player in the most unusual of locales. He would find himself boarding a flight to Japan.
"The assistant coach of Hans Ooft, the former head coach of the Japanese national team, came to the United States to get his B License coaching certificate which my college coach, George Vizvary, was the instructor," he told Yanks Abroad. "Coach Vizvary was friends with Hans Ooft, but it was his assistant coach who made the introduction to Hitachi back in 1987."
Before the advent of the J. League in 1993, the Japan Soccer League was the top tier league in the country. Before soccer enthusiasts ever heard of teams like the Urawa Red Diamonds or the Kashima Antlers, teams such as Mitsubishi Motors and Sumitomo Metal Industries graced the fields. During the heyday of the JSL, teams represented a company. The JSL was also an amateur league that played in the shadows of professional baseball in Japan.
Byer would pay his own way to Japan to link up with Hitachi FC (Kashiwa Reysol). While he was able to find a team, the highly sought after coach said times were tough for any foreign player in Japan at that time. "You couldn't play on the first team as a foreigner. You had a dorm and the team paid for your expenses, but I could only play in the satellite league," he said.
As opportunities to play top-level soccer became limited, Byer would end his playing career and seek opportunities in the coaching field in Japan. As he had very few contacts in the country and could not speak Japanese, he would spend hours cold calling various international schools and U.S. military bases to see whether anyone was interested in hosting soccer clinics for youngsters.
"No one takes you seriously," Byer said.
However, Byer would strike it lucky when he had a chance meeting with a student at a Canadian school during one of his clinics. After a phone call he made to the young boy he discovered that he was not just an ordinary child of an expat businessman. He was talking to the son of the president of Nestle.
With that connection being made, Byer would go on to sign an agreement with the Swiss-based multinational company that sponsored him for 50 clinics throughout Japan for 10 years. In return for the sponsorship, he had to distribute samples of Milo, a chocolate malt drink powder, after each camp.
Having obtained sponsorship and surrounding himself with the right people to promote the clinics, Byer would next enhance his coaching methods by incorporating a technique-influenced program known throughout the world as the Coerver Method. The idea to establish the program in Japan was a suggestion from former Toronto FC coach and England international Paul Mariner.
"Paul Mariner introduced me to the idea of trying to bring this kind of method to Japan," Byer said. "So I found an investor here in Japan that would buy into my concept of opening up football schools that would focus primarily on the technical side of the game. So I did that and Paul also came out and worked with me for about 10 years off and on doing summer camps for kids and what not."
The establishment of Byer's soccer camps was not the end of his growing influence. As Japan prepared to co-host the 2002 World Cup he would take his talents to the airwaves to inspire children's interest in the sport.
"In 1998 I got casted on Japan's number one television show for children (Ohasuta) presenting ‘Tomsan's Soccer Techniques.' It would go on to air every weekday morning for 13 years. Basically, I brought my ideas along with the technical training content to literally thousands, if not millions of kids and households through television," he explained.
Byer's soccer training programs began to spread like wildfire throughout Japan and he would later work with companies such as Coca Cola, McDonald's, Disney, Canon and sportswear maker Adidas to create special soccer programs for them.
His media exposure would increase further when he was asked to present two pages on soccer skills in Japan's number one manga comic book (Tomsan's Let's Try Soccer) every month. On top of that, he would produce soccer training videos to give the sport more exposure to children.
"I produced a set of VHS videos back in the 90s that would become the number one selling VHS video instructional tapes and then it would evolve into DVDs," Byer said, adding that his DVDs are the number one top sellers in Japan.
And as technology has continued to evolve, Byer has used it to his advantage by releasing a set of smartphone apps to give youngsters even more exposure to soccer techniques.
There is no doubt that Byer has become one of the most popular and recognizable youth soccer coaches in Japan. His training programs have made such an impact for soccer in Japan that other Asian countries have sought his services. One of those countries is China where the country's soccer association appointed him as the head technical advisor for their school soccer program in hopes of getting more children to take interest in the sport as recent failures by the national teams and a nasty corruption scandal has seen a dip in participation.
While Byer is immensely popular, what still bemuses most people that meet him is that he is an American teaching youngsters a sport that they still believe is foreign to the United States.
"Still to this day, even though I'm well known and I'm established here in Japan, I still get people who assume I'm from somewhere else, maybe Europe or South America," he said. "But when they hear that I'm from America it's the usual, ‘Oh, wow! They play soccer in America? That's unusual, an American out here in Japan, or in Asia or even in Europe,'" he explained. "So that's still kind of a stereotype I think that people have around the world."
When talking with Byer about his training methods for youth players one thing that he emphasizes a great deal is that youngsters should be learning the sport from the "bottom-up" instead of the opposite way. He strongly encourages youngsters to practice on their own as many stars such as Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and others have done instead of being heavily coached.
"If you do a study of the great players, you'll find out that they've spent an extraordinary amount of time practicing on their own," Byer explained. "It's not like they had a coach that was going out and practicing in organized coaching when they were five, six, seven years of age every single day of the week. That's what I'm finding in Japan from presenting the TV show, presenting the comic book, presenting the events, making products that are useful for kids whether its DVD content, Internet content and basically empowering them to practice on their own, to me that's the game changer."
"You look at Kagawa, Honda Keisuke, Miyama Aya (Japanese women's national team player), they put an absorbitant amount of time into practicing. So that's why I'm pushing the technical side of the game because there's lots that you can do," he added.
Another aspect that Byer emphasizes is for youngsters just learning the game is ball manipulation - learning how to control the ball with the soles of their feet and how to pull it back. He also stresses what he calls a "my ball mentality," instead of just kicking the ball away.
"If you go around the world and look in the parks you're going to find adults in the park with their kids and their just kicking the ball back and forth to each other. To me, that's the biggest mistake," he said.
Byer said to teach a child to kick the ball away was a "detriment" in their development because "the biggest kid gets the most time on the ball."
As for the United States, where the United States Soccer Federation has been working to improve its youth setup, Byer said the development of youths there was "like an ocean" compared with what has been developed in Japan. One area he points at is the MLS academies, in which players are being brought in when they are teenagers whereas many Japanese youngsters have been working on their technical skills from a very young age.
The main idea that Byer stresses to whomever he talks with about youth development is the idea of "empowering children to practice on their own."
"If they're good players, they'll make the players they play with better," Byer said.